10 Surprising Facts About Jewish Americans to Emerge From the Latest Pew Report

What do American Jews value more – prayer or a game of fetch with Spot? Is eschewing pork or performing stand-up more integral to Jewish identity? Pew’s latest Jewish community survey offers some unexpected insights

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Hundreds of Orthodox men and boys attending a Lag Ba'omer holiday celebration in front of the Chabad Lubavitch World Headquarters in New York last month.
Hundreds of Orthodox men and boys attending a Lag Ba'omer holiday celebration in front of the Chabad Lubavitch World Headquarters in New York last month.Credit: Mark Lennihan/AP
Judy Maltz
Judy Maltz
Judy Maltz
Judy Maltz

As might be expected, the 248-page Pew study is chock-full of basic demographic data, such as how observant Jewish Americans are, how educated are they, how much they earn, where they live, how many children they have and where they stand politically.

But buried among the graphs and charts are some unexpected revelations about their life choices and priorities, perceptions of Jewish identity, attitudes to other groups and knowledge about Israel. Here are 10 of them...

What’s BDS?

The Israeli government has poured lots of money and energy into fighting the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement, with a particular focus on college campuses in the United States. It turns out, though, that a large share of Jewish Americans haven’t the slightest clue what BDS is.

According to the Pew survey, nearly a quarter of Jewish Americans (24 percent) say they have never heard of the movement, while 19 percent say they haven’t heard much about it. Unaffiliated Jews were the least likely to have any knowledge about BDS. Another 43 percent of respondents said they opposed the movement, while 10 percent said they supported it.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, BDS support is highest among young Jewish Americans under age 30, who tend to be more critical of Israel than their parents and grandparents.

Pets trump prayer

When asked which activities or aspects of their lives provide them with the most gratification, Jewish Americans are more than twice as likely to say spending time with their pets than their religious faith. Fully 43 percent of the respondents checked spending time with their pets as something that provides them with meaning and fulfillment, compared with only 20 percent who checked their religious faith. Reform Jews were more than three times as likely to prioritize their pets.

A woman feeding her dog while celebrating Israel's Independence Day, in Times Square, New York, last month.Credit: CAITLIN OCHS/ REUTERS

That being said, spending time with family and friends topped the list of activities that provided gratification to Jewish Americans, regardless of their denomination.

Leaders in same-sex marriage

Just a few years after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that states could not prohibit same-sex marriage, fewer than 1 percent of marriages among Americans overall are between partners of the same sex. Among Jews, though, the share is double.

According to the Pew report, 2 percent of U.S. Jews who are married have a spouse of the same sex, and 3 percent of those who are married or living with a partner have a partner of the same sex.

Comedy v. kashrut

Jews are known to be funny, but who would have imagined this trait would be considered more essential to Jewish identity than observing basic religious commandments? Indeed, more than a third of the respondents (34 percent) checked “Having a good sense of humor” as an essential part of what being Jewish means to them – more than twice the share (15 percent) who checked “Observing Jewish law.”

How popular is Birthright?

The conventional wisdom is that young Jewish Americans are less and less engaged with Israel. But according to the Pew study, a substantial share have visited the country thanks to Birthright (the organization that provides free 10-day trips to Israel).

According to the study, a quarter of Jews aged 18 to 34 have been on a Birthright trip.

The Muslim connection

Despite overwhelming support for Israel among evangelicals, U.S. Jews believe they have more in common with Muslims than with evangelicals. Nearly four in 10 respondents said they had a lot (4 percent) or something (34 percent) in common with Muslims, while only two in 10 said they had a lot (2 percent) or something (18 percent) in common with evangelical Christians. Moreover, Jews who are not affiliated with any denomination say they have more in common with Muslims than with Orthodox Jews.

Cliquey Northeasterners

Jews who live in the Northeast – where Jews are disproportionately concentrated – are more likely than Jews in other regions to have a network of friends that consists mostly or entirely of other Jews. Among Northeastern Jews, 38 percent said that all or most of their friends were Jewish. That compares with 19 percent of Western Jews, 22 percent of Midwestern Jews and 27 percent of Southern Jews. It could have to do with the fact that Orthodox Jews tend to stick together, and most Orthodox Jews live in the Northeast.

Less likely to be moms

Jewish women between the ages of 40 and 59 are twice as likely not to have children than American women overall in that age bracket. According to the study, 20 percent of Jewish women aged 40 to 59 are childless – compared with 10 percent of American women overall. More than half of Jewish women aged 18 to 39 (54 percent) are childless, compared with 44 percent of American women overall.

What if a grandkid marries a non-Jew?

Most U.S. Jews don’t really care whether or not their grandchild marries a Jew, according to the Pew study. Although more than six in 10 respondents said it was important for them that their grandchildren be Jewish, less than half (44 percent) said it was important for them that their grandchildren marry someone Jewish.

Among young Jewish adults, only a third said it was important for them that their future grandchildren marry someone Jewish. For most of the respondents, it was more important that their grandchildren share their political convictions than that they be Jewish or marry someone Jewish.

Chabad is huge

Nearly one in five U.S. Jews said they often (5 percent) or sometimes (12 percent) participate in activities or services sponsored by Chabad, the Orthodox outreach movement. And they aren’t only Orthodox: A quarter of Conservative Jews, 12 percent of Reform Jews and 8 percent of those who don’t identify with any affiliation said they regularly engaged with Chabad. Could it be because Chabad often offers services and activities free of charge?

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