The lead takeaway from the Pew Research Center’s “Portrait of Jewish Americans” is the significant proportion of young Jews—between one-quarter and one-third of Jews born after 1965—who identify as having no religion.
But this is not the same as not having any commitments that we might instinctively classify as “religious beliefs.”
Almost 20% of Jews who do not identify as religious claim to “believe in God or universal spirit” with absolute certainty, and when one adds in the proportion of interviewees who believe with less certainty, we have the fascinating statistic that almost half of “Jews of no religion” are nonetheless believers. On the other side of the coin, 20% of Reform Jews do not believe in God.
What this suggests is that there is a disconnect between the way many Jews understand their Jewish identity and the institutional options available for expressing that identity. Believers who have no religion find synagogue life alienating. Far less invested in the state of Israel than religious Jews, neither can they find themselves reflected in those secular Jewish institutions that are focused on the state of Israel as the prime site in which they might invest their sense of Jewishness. (And who knows how the Reform Jews without belief understand their religious lives, if at all?)
Given the increase of the “nones” among young Jewish Americans, this disconnect can only increase in the decades to come. Jewish leaders who continually wring their hands about the future of this allegedly ever-dying people might do well to stop focusing on the problem of straying American Jews and start focusing on their own failures to address contemporary Jews’ sense of themselves. Addressing these failures requires at least the following: expanding the types of worship occurring at synagogues, giving greater support to Jewish arts and service organizations, and loosening (but not breaking) the link between Jewishness and the state of Israel. It may even entail hiring secular leaders to join the staffs of synagogues.
The history of Jews in America is a story of decentralization, in which Jews refuse to heed authorities telling them how they must perform their Judaism and/or Jewishness. If Jewish leaders fight that story, the time when Jewish “nones” cease to care about their Jewish identity will arrive even sooner than they fear.
*Read more from “Pew and the Jews: ‘So What?'”, an RD special feature on the Pew survey.