Wait. What is this?
Good news about Jews? From the Pews?
Yes, it is. After last year’s jeremiad about how we are dribbling away American Jews, sweating them out from every last one of our communal pores, presented to us in a study done by the Pew Foundation, we now are presented with a different set of numbers.
Now, we are told that in fact the number of Jews has risen slightly. We are now approximately 1.9 percent of all Americans, and the largest group among the 5.9 percent belonging to the “non-Christian faiths.” In 2007, the last time the study was done, we were at 1.7 percent. It’s a small change – but baby stepsâ€¦
This Pew Study quite reasonably focuses on Christians, who now make up about 70.6 percent of the population. The big news for them is that their decline has been precipitous, although their numbers still are high. In 2007, they made up about 79 percent of all Americans. That drop seems to be more or less the same in all demographic groups across the country. Although younger people seem a bit more likely to have given up identifying themselves as belonging to a particular faith tradition, they are not alone. Many of their elders have made the same move.
Most of the erstwhile Christians seem to have left their faith for nothing in particular. This echoes the findings of last year’s Pew study, the one focused on Jews, which noted that Jews did not as much join other faith groups as lose faith in belonging to any group.
So the interesting if surprising news for us is that either there are more self-identified Jews than there had been, or at least we represent a bigger percentage of the Americans still identifying themselves as anything. (We note that the study, which does not study Jews in depth, does not go into the question of what identifying as a Jew means, whether it has to with religious belief, cultural affinity, or a deep and generalized sense of belonging. The term, as is probably correct and certainly necessary, is self-defined. Of course, that means that it is not possible to compare Jews to Christians directly, because our self-definition is so much more complicated that theirs is. But we do what we can with what we have, and this is the data we have.)
Most of the nuggets of information in the study’s heaped mountains of data are not particularly new, although certainly they are flattering. Jews tend to be highly educated (although not all are). Jews tend to be more financially secure (although not all are). Yes. We know. Not news.
But how about the fact that increasingly Jews are not white?
Some readers will say that this is not news. There always have been Jews of color, and the fact that they are unacknowledged means that life is even harder for them as Jews and as people of color than it would have been otherwise. Those readers are entirely right.
Other readers will protest that Jews still are overwhelmingly white. They too are correct. The study shows that about 90 percent of us are – but in 2007, that number was 95 percent. The change is not insignificant.
The other perhaps surprising statistic is that more and more people who identify as Jews now were not born that way.
According to the study, 17 percent of Jews grew up in another faith. That statistic makes intuitive sense to those of us who know many of those new Jews, and know as well that Jews by choice tend to be the most dedicated, the most devout, the most whole-hearted. They have chosen what most of us simply are given. They have had to work for it. They really mean it.
Other statistics talk about our intermarriage rate (high), our birthplaces (mainly here, to parents also born here), and other pieces of demographic information. To read more, go to page 34; to read the study itself, google America’s Changing Religious Landscape 2015.
In the meantime, now that it’s springtime, let’s ponder the fact that for once, at least right here right now, we seem not to be particularly endangered.