The findings of a major new survey of religious practices in the U.S. by the Pew Research Center show that Jews are consistent with the trends of other Americans. Those trends indicate a significant move away from religious affiliation, particularly among the young, as found in a 2013 Pew study of American Jews.
The good news in the new study, released this week, is that the Jewish population has increased, however slightly, from 1.7 percent of Americans in 2007 to 1.9 percent in 2014. And the retention rate in Judaism is among the highest of all faiths, with 75 percent of American Jews identifying with the religion of their childhood.
But based on the survey of 35,000 people from across the country, there are serious challenges as well, particularly in terms of Jewish community relations with other faiths and continued support for Israel among Americans in general. Much of that support has been based on a religious affinity for Israel among Christians; the Pew study found a significant drop-off of Americans who identify as Christian, from 78.4 percent in 2007 to 70.6 percent last year. Also, the percentage of Americans who say they have no religious identity has increased during that time from 16.1 percent to nearly 23 percent.
“The news that American Christianity is on the decline is very disturbing in its implications for Jews,” Steven Bayme, an AJC expert on contemporary Jewish life, told The Jewish Week. (See story, page 1). He noted with irony that while Jews “have feared a heavily Christian society,” it is secularization, especially in Europe, that “has been closely intertwined with anti-Israel sentiment.”
Sociologists and religious leaders will be sifting through the new information for quite awhile. But it is clear that the Jewish community should be intensifying its outreach to the growing minority populations, including Hispanics and Muslims.
Martin Raffel, a longtime Jewish community relations professional, told The Jewish Week that “our relationship with the Muslim community has always been challenging, especially in terms of Middle East issues. But that community has to be engaged, and it should be engaged. … As the saying goes, ‘To have a friend, you have to be a friend.’”
There is also work to be done within our own community. As the percentage of secular Jews grows, support for Israel and involvement in Jewish life can no longer be taken for granted. The narrow, hawkish government in Jerusalem today underscores the challenge of making Israel’s case at a time when U.S. and Israeli interests appear to be moving further apart and criticism of the Netanyahu government is heard openly from the White House.
What is required is conveying a deeper understanding of Mideast history, Zionist achievements and the persistent refusal of Israel’s enemies to recognize its right to exist. This needs to be done thoughtfully and creatively to Jews and other Americans who mistakenly view liberal values as inconsistent with Israel’s goals.