Who Is a Jew? The Pew Research Center Tackles the Question — And Gets Some Answers

Pages in Hebrew and Aramaic from the Bleichrode Jewish prayer book published in 1923 in Franfurt. Photo by BF Newhall

Pages in Hebrew and Aramaic from a Jewish prayer book prepared by Dr. J. Bleichrode and published in Frankfurt in 1923. Photo by BF Newhall

By Barbara Falconer Newhall

Who is a Jew? Before it could undertake its 2013 survey of U.S. Jews, the Pew Research Center had to think hard about what makes you Jewish in twenty-first-century America.

(It turns out that believing in God is not essential to Jewishness, and neither is being married to a Jewish spouse. Having a sense of humor helps a lot, however. And, too – a huge majority of Jews say they are proud of their Jewishness.)

The Pew researchers told a gathering of the Religion Newswriters Association meeting in Austin last week that before starting their survey they had to settle on a series of questions about Jewish identity in order to screen potential interviewees.

They decided to start with the question: Are you Jewish by religion? Anyone who said yes fell into the Pew survey’s “net Jewish” category.

If you said you were raised Jewish or had a Jewish parent, you too would be counted as Jewish – but not if you said you practiced another religion or stated that, no, you really weren’t Jewish.

The resulting study came up with some fascinating results. For starters, it found that a full 22 percent of self-identifying American Jews say they are not religious. That figure is very similar, by the way, to the increasing number of Americans in general – 20 percent – who say “none” when asked their religion.

As for the number of Jews in America, the Pew Center estimates, based on its telephone survey, that the U.S. population of Jews, by religion and by identity, is something like 5.3 million – or 2.2 percent of the U.S. population.

Here’s a sampling of other survey results:

  • The overwhelming majority of Jews say they are proud to be Jewish — 97 percent of Jews by religion and 83 percent of Jews of no religion.
  • When asked what it means to be Jewish, 73 percent said remembering the Holocaust was essential, 42 percent said having a sense of humor was key.
  • Sixty-eight percent said you could be Jewish and not believe in God.
  • Thirty-four percent said you can be Jewish if you believe Jesus was the messiah.
  • Thirty-two percent of young adult Jews say they have no religion.
  • Many Jews say other groups face more discrimination in the U.S. than they do. Seventy-two percent say there is a lot of discrimination against Muslims; 64 percent say African Americans experience a lot of discrimination.
  • Intermarriage is on the rise. Fifty-eight percent of Jews married since 2005 have a non-Jewish spouse. Of Jews married before 1970, only 17 percent intermarried.
  • Thirty percent of Jews say they are “very attached” to Israel.
  • Forty-four percent say that continued building of Jewish settlements hurts Israel’s security.
  • Forty percent say they believe God gave Israel to the Jewish people.
  • Reform Judaism continues to be the largest movement in American Judaism; it claims 35 percent of the Jewish population, compared to 18 percent Conservative and 10 percent Orthodox.
  • Most Jews have a college education – 58 percent. One quarter say their household income exceeds $150,000; 20 percent report incomes of less than $30,000.
  • Seventy percent of Jews support the Democratic Party over the Republican Party.
  • More than half – 56 percent – say that working for justice and equality is essential to their Jewish identity.

You can count my Jewish Aunt Grace among those 17 percent, pre-1970 interfaith marriages.



  1. three intriguing posts, interesting and unusual photos. more, please!

  2. Mike Shaler says:

    Hey Barb,
    Well, Ellen — my Jewish wife — and I — her gentile husband — who were married by an agnostic rabbi from the Society for Humanistic Judaism would agree that pride in one’s faith doesn’t necessarily mean one must believe in a deity.

  3. Jean MacGillis says:

    Technically, for a person to be Jewish, their mother must be Jewish. Jewishness is passed through mothers. They do not have to be practicing Jews. Example, my two half sisters are Jewish because their mother was Jewish, even though their father was not Jewish. My half-sister, Linda, married an Irish Catholic guy by the name of Sullivan. Their three sons apparently are Jewish because their mother is Jewish. One of the boys, who married a non-Jew, recently became a father. The baby is not Jewish. Amen!


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