The rate of religious observance among American Jews has dropped precipitously over the past two decades, to the point where more than one out of every three Jews is thoroughly secularized, according to a new survey.
The 2008 American Jewish Identification Survey (AJIS), part of a broader survey of U.S. religious identification, also showed that the number of Americans who identify themselves as Jews - regardless of their religious practice - decreased slightly from 5.5 million in 1990 to 5.2 million to 5.4 million today.
The composition of that group also has changed dramatically since 1990, the survey showed. Where just 20 percent of Jewish adults - about 1.12 million people - described themselves as nonreligious or cultural Jews 19 years ago, that total has risen to about 35 percent or 1.88 million people.
The survey, released by Trinity College in Hartford, Conn., was a follow-up from two earlier AJIS surveys in 1990 and 2001. The 2001 survey showed the declining religiosity among Jews that continued in the 2008 study.
“I attribute the shift to a combination of disaffection from Judaism and intermarriage,” said Barry Kosmin, who co-directed the 2008 AJIS survey. “Since 1990, half of all marrying American Jews have married non-Jews, with the result that there are two new mixed households for every homogeneous Jewish one.”
His survey of 1,000 self-identified Jews raises profound questions about the future viability of one of the world’s oldest religions. It was part of a larger American Religious Identification Survey (ARIS) of 54,000 Americans conducted from February to November 2008.
The survey will raise alarm bells among American Jews, but it shouldn’t, said Orthodox Rabbi Brad Hirschfield of the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership.
“This gives our leaders the opportunity to respond to where Jewish people are,” he said. “They should resist the urge to bemoan where they are not.”
The study, he added, “doesn’t say the Jewish people or Judaism is dying. What it is saying is the way religiously identified Jews are practicing their Judaism is not working for a lot of people. It’s an opportunity - the kind of opportunity that paved the way for the Protestant Reformation.”
But Ariela Keysar, a survey co-researcher, said the findings showed a “huge” disconnect between Jews and other sectors of American society.
For example, only 6 percent of all Americans identify themselves as secular - that is, they disbelieve in God and do not follow any religion. But one-third of all Jews fit into that secular category, she said.
As a result, the number of people adhering to any sort of Judaism as a religion is actually just 3.3 million to 3.4 million, the survey found. Eighteen years ago, it was 23 percent higher, at 4.3 million.
Ms. Keysar also blamed the lack of belief on Jewish intermarriage, which has risen dramatically in recent decades. Before the 1970s, it was at 13 percent, according to the National Jewish Population Study (NJPS) of 2000-01. The rate doubled to 28 percent by 1980 and has continued rising from there.
“These are the children of the intermarried,” she said of about 1.8 million nonobservant Jews, “who were raised with no religion and as adults see themselves as having no religion. It’s a ripple effect.”
Speaking on the phone from Jerusalem, where she and Mr. Kosmin are presenting their findings to the 15th World Congress of Jewish Studies, she added, “The concept that most appeals to people is not going to synagogue or doing religious rituals, but the culture and ethnic attachments to Judaism.”
At most, one-quarter of young Jewish adults exclusively date other Jews, according to the NJPS. Only two-thirds of all intermarried couples have children who consider themselves Jewish, and the younger the parent, the less likely it is that the child will be a Jew.
According to ARIS, 3.6 million people in 2001 said they had a Jewish mother, which is the traditional basis for Jewish identity. However, about 500,000 of these adults who had a Jewish mother followed another religion, overwhelmingly some form of Christianity.
Occasionally non-Jews will convert to Judaism through intermarriage, but the numbers are negligible, Ms. Keysar said.
“We tried looking at that in 2001 - we called them ‘Jews by choice’ - but their numbers were under 10 percent” of the couples surveyed, she said.
Greg Liberman, president and chief operating officer of JDate, a national online Jewish matchmaking service, said about 5 percent of the service’s 650,000 members are non-Jews. About 1.2 percent of the members are non-Jews who say they are willing to convert if they meet a Jewish partner; 1.5 percent non-Jews who say they would not; and 1.9 percent who say they “don’t know.”
“If both parents have a Jewish background, they are more likely to raise their kids as Jews,” he said. “Every single family I’ve talked to who has met on our site is raising their kids Jewish.”
The 12-year-old dating service exists to strengthen the Jewish community and ensure that Jewish traditions endure through the forming of Jewish families, according to its mission statement. It matched 21,000 people in 2008, he said.
“Rabbis reach out to us all the time and buy subscriptions on behalf of their single congregants,” he added. “They say half the marriages they do are for people who met on JDate.”
Some voices in the Jewish community blame the state of American synagogues for the drop in Jewish practice.
“Some of the best energy we get in the Jewish world are non-Jews who encourage their Jewish partners to explore their Jewishness,” said Rabbi Michael Lerner, founder of the magazine Tikkun and the spiritual head of Beyt Tikkun, a San Francisco synagogue with 30 percent intermarried couples. “I welcome non-Jews into the Jewish community as a whole. I think they bring a spiritual seriousness their partner does not have.
“What undercuts peoples’ commitment to Judaism is the spiritual emptiness that has characterized much of the organized Jewish community,” Mr. Lerner said. “The vacuity, the spiritual deadliness people experience growing up in many of America’s synagogues leads them to a lack of interest in Judaism and to explore other spiritual traditions.
“People tell me, ‘Yeah, I grew up in that system and the only values I learned were safety for the Jewish people, blind loyalty to the state of Israel and making it in America,’ ” the rabbi added. “The people who get most honored in the Jewish world are the Bernie Madoffs.”