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One, Two, or Three Jewish Identities among Jewish Americans?

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The recently published Pew report, Jewish Americans in 2020, points to a somewhat disturbing reality within US Jewry: two polar opposite forms of being Jewish and of Jewish identity are growing on the margins of the Jewish community. These forms are especially growing in the younger age cohorts, and they are becoming increasingly significant. Both differ from what had been the mainstream form of American Jewish identity in the decades of the 20th century. The two opposing forms are: 1) Orthodox Jewish identity, and 2) “Jews of no religion.”

American Jews who identify as Orthodox constitute 10% of the American Jewish population. However, they make up 17% of the youngest age cohorts. Jews of no religion are 27% of the total Jewish population (20% in 2013) and 40% of the youngest cohorts (33% in 2013). So, these trends seem to foretell the future. Among the Orthodox, about two thirds are Haredi, so when we speak of the “Orthodox” we largely mean the Haredim.

One can make policy determinations concerning these two groups, for example, which is more likely to contribute to Jewish continuity. But that is not what concerns me. What concerns me is that the very polarity between the responses of these two groups suggests that the very terms of Jewish identity, its essence and meaning, may be changing in radical ways.

If we look at practically any Jewish issue, we see that the two groups differ in extreme ways. Regarding intermarriage for example: among the Orthodox the intermarriage rate is 2%; among Jews of no religion it is 79%. Or take the connection to Israel. Two-thirds of Orthodox Jews say that they have a lot in common with Jews in Israel. Only 4% of Jews of no religion feel the same way. Another example is the issue of Jewish continuity. Ninety-one percent of the Orthodox say that it is very important for their grandchildren to be Jewish. Among Jews of no religion, only 4% think it’s very important.

So far, the difference between the two groups seems to be “quantitative.” The Orthodox seem to care a lot more about Jewishness. That is fair enough, but the two groups also differ in regard to what constitutes Jewishness. Moreover, both groups seem to differ from the Jewish mainstream. Not surprisingly, the Orthodox place great emphasis upon observing Jewish law; 83% say that it is essential to being Jewish. However, they are completely alone in asserting this emphasis. Only 15% of all Jews think observing Jewish law is essential, and among Jews of no religion only 5% think it essential. At the same time, the Orthodox place less emphasis upon mainstream components of Jewish identity such as remembering the Holocaust (76% of all Jews say it is essential; among the Orthodox only 51%.) The Jews of no religion are much closer to the Jewish mainstream. Where they differ is in their devaluation of traditional and communal elements. In contrast to the general Jewish population, very few Jews of no religion think that being part of a Jewish community or continuing family traditions is essential to being Jewish (12 and 24% respectively).

Observers have long regarded mainstream American Jewish identity as a form of “Jewish Civil Religion.” While most American Jews may not be personally religious, they exhibit a “sacred” highly normative commitment to Jewish solidarity and the sense of belonging to the Jewish people as well as promoting Jewish political, economic, and social flourishing. In other words, it is something that one ought to do. The new Pew report reflects this: 85% of American Jews feel at least some sense of belonging to the Jewish People and 80% feel a sense of responsibility to help Jews in need around the world. However, this mainstream pattern may be fraying at the edges. The Jews of no religion do not seem to carry the “sacred” commitment, or sense of obligation, to Jewish continuity and solidarity. The Orthodox-Haredim might be moving in the direction of Haredi sectarianism – that the “real Jews” are those who observe Haredi Halacha. As these trends are growing among the younger age groups, in the future we may have to speak not of one but of three American Jewish communities.