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Survey Finds One-third of U.S. Jews Do Not Identify As Such Religiously

April 11, 1991
See Original Daily Bulletin From This Date

Only two-thirds of Americans who say their ethnic background is Jewish identify themselves religiously as Jews, according to a national survey on religious identification published this week.

Fully 6 percent of those who say their ethnic origin is Jewish say they are now Protestant. Another 5 percent call themselves Catholic, and 1 percent identify themselves as Christian without specifying a denomination.

The remaining 22 percent of those identifying themselves as ethnic. Jews say they now either have no religion or link themselves to another, non-Christian faith.

“We underestimate the number of Jews who simply opt to go to church,” said Jack Wertheimer, associate professor of history at the Jewish Theological Seminary, when asked to comment on the findings.

“This is a phenomenon which has been under-reported,” he said. “We’ve paid more attention to cults, but a far larger population of Jews is joining mainstream churches, whether Protestant, Evangelical or Catholic.”

The 12 percent of ethnic Jews in the poll who said they are now Christian religiously is “startling,” said Wertheimer. “It’s not evident that people in the past would admit to that.”

He suggested the large figure may in part be explained by the rising rate of intermarriage, since “some Jews identify with the religion of their non-Jewish spouses.”

The survey, commissioned by the Graduate School of the City University of New York, polled 113,000 households in the continental United States over a 13-month period ending last April.

It found that Jews comprise 1.8 percent of the U.S. adult population. Extrapolating this to the total population, including children, there would now be 4.3 million Jews in the United States, said Barry Kosmin, director of the study.

That is substantially fewer than the 5.5 million American Jews estimated by the Council of Jewish Federations in its 1990 National Jewish Population Survey, which Kosmin also conducted.


The difference is that the CJF figure included Jews identifying themselves as secular, whereas the CUNY research included only those who identify themselves as Jews religiously.

“Many Jews identify themselves as Jews culturally, or historically, or nationally,” said Kosmin. Since this survey included only those who describe themselves as Jews religiously, “this is a narrower population.”

Kosmin is a senior researcher at the CUNY Graduate Center. He directed the study in cooperation with Seymour Lachman, the university’s dean for community development.

Kosmin also serves as director of research for CJF and as director of the North American Jewish Data Bank, which is a joint project of CJF and CUNY. The CUNY survey, however, was conducted by Kosmin independently of CJF or the North American Jewish Data Bank.

The data for the survey were collected by ICR Survey Research Group of Media, Pa.

The overwhelming majority of Americans, 87 percent, identify themselves as Christian, the survey found. Sixty percent of Americans identify themselves as Protestant and another 26 percent say they are Roman Catholic. The rest say they are Christian, but do not specify a denomination.

Moslems account for 0.5 percent of the U.S. population. Forty percent of the country’s 1.4 million Moslems are black, though less than 2 percent of the total black population is Moslem.

According to the survey, Jews are the most urban and the most educated religious group in the country.

Nearly all Jews, 96 percent, live in metropolitan areas. The next most urban religious group, Catholics, counts 85 percent of its population in metropolitan areas.


Baptists, the most rural of the religious groups, are, with Jews, the most Democratic in their political affiliation.

Forty-three percent of Jews identify themselves as Democrats, and 22 percent as Republicans. The remaining third say they are independents and others.

The same percentage of Baptists, 43 percent, are Democrats, and 27 percent are Republicans.

“There would probably be more Democrats if we had counted secular Jews,” said Kosmin.

The most educated groups, in terms of the proportion of college graduates, are Jews, Hindus and Episcopalians, in that order.

About 56 percent of Jews are married, and 26 percent are single. Nine percent are divorced, 1 percent separated and 8 percent widowed.

The number of divorced Jews is not that different from the number among Catholics, 8 percent, or the number in mainstream Protestant denominations, which ranges from 8 to 9 percent depending on the group.

The average number of people in a Jewish household is 2.7, far fewer than the average number in Mormon homes, 3.8, but much closer to the national median of about 2.9 people in each American home, according to Kosmin.

The study found 2.2 percent of whites and 0.3 percent of blacks say they are Jews.

The states with the largest Jewish populations, according to the survey, are New York, which is 6.9 percent Jewish; New Jersey, 4.3 percent; Florida, 3.6 percent; Massachusetts, 3.5 percent; and Maryland, 2.8 percent.

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