Just the Facts! Ten Key Indicators of American Jewish Behavior

Steven Windmueller, Ph. D.

Posted on May 13, 2015 / 24 Iyyar 5775

Written by Steven Windmueller, Ph. D.

 

Policy and planning begin with an understanding of core data on how a group behaves or performs within a society. Introduced below is a “snapshot” of Jewish communal trends:

  1. Unlike many other ethnic and religious communities in the United States, Jews are today primarily concentrated in only a few major urban settings, namely the metropolitan New York area, Southern California, South Florida, metropolitan Chicago, and the Bay Area. While there are significant, and in some cases, historic Jewish communities residing elsewhere across the United States, these five population centers are crucial to the American Jewish communal system.
  2. Jews define themselves primarily as professionals and are amongst the most educated ethnic and religious community within this society. According to the most recent Pew Study, Hindus, educated outside of the United States but engaged in employment within this nation, have surpassed Jews in educational attainment.
  3. In comparison to other ethnic and religious groups, Jews are among the wealthiest citizens in this country; yet, there are a substantial number of Jews living at or below the poverty line, based on a number of community studies and national research.
  4. The percentage of Jewish giving within the United States to charitable and philanthropic purposes is higher than other ethnic or religious communities.
  5. Jews exhibit a particularly high level of political engagement based on their voter participation record, their financial support of political causes, and their social activism. After African Americans, Jews remain the most connected community to the Democratic Party. The percentage of Jews who today describe themselves as “independent” has increased; nonetheless Jews continue to vote overwhelmingly Democratic. Despite their political passions, Jews remain divided over the nation’s political priorities and hold divergent views around Israel. Orthodox Jews tend to be more conservative politically than other Jews; one study offers the following data: 57% of Orthodox Jews describe themselves as Republicans, while 36% identify as Democrats.
  6. Jews are older than other major religious, racial and social groups within this nation. This is in part connected to the fact that Jews marry later and have lower fertility rates than other ethnic and religious communities within this society. The various population studies point to a resurgence of younger families and higher birthrates among Orthodox Jews in the United States. On average Orthodox families have 4.1 children, compared with 1.9 children per Jewish adult overall.
  7. Increasingly, Jews describe their “Jewishness” less around synagogue/religious connections (as affiliation patterns continue to fall) and more in terms of their “ethnic connections.” All major studies confirm that Jews take pride in “being Jewish”. In general terms, Jews have been more “secular” than other Americans but interestingly express their ethnicity through religious institutions. “Secularism has a long tradition in Jewish life in America, and most U.S. Jews seem to recognize this; 62% say being Jewish is mainly a matter of ancestry and culture, while just 15% say it is mainly a matter of religion. Even among Jews by religion, more than half (55%) say being Jewish is mainly a matter of ancestry and culture, and two-thirds say it is not necessary to believe in God to be Jewish.”
  8. Jews reflect some of the general characteristics of other Americans; for example, some 22% of American Jews indicate that they “have no religion,” this compares with the religious “nones” present within the larger society (20%). Similarly, the religious disaffiliation patterns of Millennial Jews ages 18-29 appears to be identical with the general population base within the United States, where 32% hold no formal connection to religious institutions.
  9. A significant percentage of American Jews exhibit some form of spiritual search. Among the various religious inquiries that have attracted Jews including Buddhism, Hinduism, and various New Age movements. It is estimated, according to one study reviewed for this article that “one-fifth of all American Buddhists” are Jewish.
  10. Outside of the Roman Catholic Church, no other religious system in the United States has the range and depth of educational, social services, cultural and religious, philanthropic offerings as the American Jewish community.

Where Do We Go From Here?

How we understand these trends and other similar social behaviors about the Jewish community will have an impact on communal policy and planning. Listed below are a few of the questions that ought to accompany our thinking about the Jewish future:

  1. What are the overriding trends that we see as reflected in this material and as witnessed within our communities?
  2. What do you see as the institutional and philanthropic implications from this data?
  3. What might we take away from Jewish history and our tradition when addressing the generational questions and the planning priorities?
  4. Much of the current research is centered around the Millennials, what about the other generational cohorts, how ought we to be focusing our energies and resources on these constituencies, as well?
  5. What might we learn from other ethnic or religious communities to inform our own thinking?

This article was published on eJewishPhilanthropy.com on 5/13/14.
Article Link:Just the Facts! Ten Key Indicators of American Jewish Behavior.


Dr. Steven Windmueller is the Rabbi Alfred Gottschalk Emeritus Professor of Jewish Communal Studies at the Jack H. Skirball Campus of the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, Los Angeles.


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