October 17, 2013

Eight facts about Orthodox Jews from the Pew Research survey

Orthodox Jews are a growing and in many ways distinctive segment of the American Jewish community, according to the new Pew Research Center survey of U.S. Jews.

The survey went to considerable lengths to obtain a representative sample of the Orthodox, including extra interviews in communities where Orthodox Jews are concentrated. No calls were made on the Jewish Sabbath or on Jewish holidays, when observant Jews generally will not pick up a telephone. All together, the survey included more than 500 Orthodox Jewish respondents.

Here are eight interesting facts about the Orthodox from the new survey:

On average, Orthodox Jews are much younger and tend to have much higher fertility than the overall Jewish population – an average of 4.1 children among Orthodox Jews in the survey ages 40-59, compared with 1.9 children per Jewish adult overall. This suggests that the Orthodox share of the Jewish population is growing.

FT_Orthodox_RetentionThe retention rate of the Orthodox seems to be improving. In the past, high fertility in the U.S. Orthodox community was at least partially offset by attrition: Roughly half of the survey respondents who were raised as Orthodox Jews say they are no longer Orthodox. But the falloff from Orthodoxy appears to be declining and is significantly lower among 18-to-29-year-olds than among older people.

Jews who describe themselves as “Modern Orthodox” tend to have much higher levels of secular education than those who identify as Hasidic and Yeshivish: 65% of the Modern Orthodox Jews surveyed have graduated from college, compared with just 25% of those in the combined Hasidic and Yeshivish category, also commonly called Haredi or ultra-Orthodox Jews. (Hasidic Jews, including the Chabad movement, are part of a tradition that dates back to 18th century Eastern Europe. Yeshivish Jews, including members of Agudath Israel of America, are part of a tradition that emphasizes the kind of Talmud scholarship exemplified in the past by Lithuanian yeshivot, or religious schools.)

Observing Jewish law is far more important to Orthodox Jews than to other Jews. In fact, nearly eight-in-ten Orthodox Jews (79%) say observing Jewish law is “essential” to what being Jewish means to them, compared with just 19% among Jews overall. More broadly, the survey shows that Orthodox Jews are much more observant than Jews as a whole on a variety of religious measures. For example, three-quarters of Orthodox Jews say they attend synagogue at least monthly (compared with 23% of Jews overall); 92% of Orthodox Jews say they live in a kosher home (compared with 22% of Jews overall); and 95% of Orthodox Jews say they fasted on Yom Kippur (compared with 53% of Jews overall).

Not all Jews who describe themselves as Orthodox always meet all the standards that might be considered normative for their group. For example, while 77% of Orthodox Jews say they refrain from handling or spending money on the Sabbath, 22% say they do not. But there is nothing unique about this nonconformity. Virtually no religious group in America displays complete uniformity in surveys, perhaps in part because every large group contains some new members and some marginal members. As Duke University sociologist of religion Mark Chaves has noted, inconsistencies in people’s religious ideas, values and practices are surprisingly common. And, these inconsistencies cut in more than one direction. While the survey finds that 7% of Jews who call themselves Orthodox do not keep a kosher home,  it also finds that 7% of Jews who identify with the Reform movement say they do keep a kosher home.

Intermarriage is practically nonexistent among Orthodox Jews. Fully 98% of the Orthodox respondents who are married have a Jewish spouse. By contrast, among all married Jews in the Pew Research survey, 44% have a non-Jewish spouse, including nearly six-in-ten of those who got married in 2000 or later.

On average, Orthodox Jews express much more emotional attachment to Israel than do other U.S. Jews. This is particularly true of Modern Orthodox Jews, 77% of whom say they feel “very attached” to the Jewish state. By contrast, among ultra-Orthodox Jews, 55% say they feel very attached to Israel. And among American Jews overall, 30% say they are very attached to Israel.

Politically, Orthodox Jews are far more conservative than other Jews. For example, 57% of Orthodox Jews describe themselves as Republicans or say they lean toward the Republican Party, while 36% are Democrats or lean Democratic. Among Jews as a whole, the balance tilts strongly in the other direction: 70% of Jews overall are Democrats or lean toward the Democratic Party, while just 22% are Republican or lean Republican.

Topics: Religion and Society, Religion and U.S. Politics, Religious Affiliation, Religious Beliefs and Practices, Jews and Judaism

  1. Photo of Alan Cooperman

    is director of religion research at Pew Research Center.

  2. Photo of Gregory A. Smith

    is an associate director of research at Pew Research Center.


  1. Mary Toigo2 years ago

    I just read a story that Israel wanted Orthodox Jews to immigrate to USA because they will not take regular jobs…just the job of religious study, and so are all welfare receipents. They said …”Israel cannot afford these welfare people who have very, by Israeli standards, large families. So, my interest, as an American, are we never to be free of Israeli demanding American financing for whatever they think of next? I love and respect American Jews, but Israel….and Netanyaho…NO!

  2. david2 years ago

    22% of “orthodox” handle money on the sabbath:
    clearly, at least 22% of those described as orthodox arent orthodox.

  3. chaim4 years ago

    From my own personal experience, the PEW survey conclusion that there is virtually no intermarriage by children in the Orthodox community is incorrect. Adding up the stories I have heard, I would conclude that about 20 -25% drop out. The Orthodox families who responded to the survey would be too embarrassed to admit this, but it is a fact of life.
    This would include marriages to converts, whose conversion is not recognized by the rabbinate in Israel

    1. robert2 years ago

      Maybe it’s because when they “drop out” they’re no longer considered orthodox for purposes of the statistic.

  4. Sam4 years ago

    I think, perhaps, that the disconnect here is that the Pew survey relies on self-identification for those classified as “Orthodox”, rather than some sort of index that would classify survey participants according to their responses to a group of questions. This is the same method employed by the NJPS and other surveys. The advantage of the NJPS was that it also asked about the affiliation of the synagogue to which the respondent belonged. Pew did not ask that particular question. The result, then, is confusion when the Pew writers (but not necessarily the analysts who are established and respected in the field of Jewish demographics) use the term “Orthodox” as if 1) there is a universally known and accepted definition of the term and 2) those reading the reports are not doubtful as to the accuracy of participant self-identification. Based on my own research on Jewish identity, I question the retention rates to the extent that people tend to romanticize their childhood upbringing and in doing so may select-up (e.g. respond “orthodox” when the truth is much closer to “conservative” or maybe “conservadox” at best) when asked to classify that upbringing among the popular choices.

    A more nuanced report on those who self-identify as “orthodox” may be helpful.

  5. Howie4 years ago

    As I recall, there were retention numbers in previous surveys. Were they also done by age? What were the numbers? Has there been a measurable shift?

    1. Dan Ab4 years ago

      Howie, I looked through the 1990 and 2000 National Jewish Population Surveys and neither listed denomination switching by age. They listed denomination by age (which would still have a sufficient sample size to make a reasonable estimate. Subdividing each denomination by age group into “denomination by age and denomination raised” probably shrunk the sample size too much to make a realistic measure. The only difference is that Pew decided to publish those noisy numbers without statistical confidence intervals and the past surveys decided not to publish.

  6. Moe4 years ago

    Certainly the Modern Orthodox are far more similar and closer to the Ultra Orthodox than to Conservative Judaism. But while there has been much discussion of the ever rising Orthodox population as a percentage of the Jewish population, one aspect the Pew research data shows that has been entirely overlooked and has received little comment or attention is the breakdown within the Orthodox Jewish demographic. Crunching the raw data shows that within Orthodoxy, the Ultra Orthodox represent over 70% of that population while the Modern Orthodox only represent under 30%. And with even greater long term demographic trends, the data shows that among Orthodox under 30 years old, over (a whopping) 80% of the Orthodox identify themselves as Ultra Orthodox while the Modern Orthodox proportion drops to under 20%.

  7. Harold Berman4 years ago

    It seems that the commenters just can’t accept any data showing that Orthodoxy is growing and thriving. But it is. The idea, as one commenter stated, that falloff from Orthodoxy is cumulative and that’s why we see greater falloff at older ages, is simply an interpretation based on wishful thinking.

    In general, people who are raised Orthodox tend to leave Orthodoxy in their 20s (sometimes earlier), before they have married, established themselves in a community and started raising a family. Although there certainly are people who leave Orthodoxy in their 40s or later, it’s simply not the norm. Religious switching in general tends to take place when people are younger and still figuring out their identity and place in the world.

    Rather, the Pew finding comports with other research that has been done and general trends in the Orthodox world. A generation ago, there were many more people who were “raised Orthodox” (meaning affiliated with an Orthodox shul) but were not observant. A generation ago, far fewer Orthodox children went to day school – today it’s almost universal. We know from many sources that the fall-off from Orthodoxy was much greater decades ago than it is now. Although there certainly is fall-off today (as there is from both Conservative and Reform), it is simply less than in the past.

    People can continue to make up all kinds of reasons why Orthodox isn’t growing because they don’t want to hear the message. But that doesn’t change the facts on the ground.

    1. Dan Ab4 years ago

      @Harold, I think the pushback is less about what is common assumptions about what is happening and more about whether the Pew survey data supports these assumptions. The purpose of a good study is to be able to challenge or affirm assumptions. The problem is that Pew data is interesting, but the survey was not designed in a way to actually test some of the things this post is incorrectly calling facts. From your comment, I agree that Orthodoxy is growing, but it’s very unclear to me if that growth is primarily in the ultra-Orthodox (using Pew’s term) and whether Modern Orthodoxy is growing at all or has merely stabilized after generations of shrinking. The entire Modern Orthodox sample size in this survey is 154 people. That’s big enough to get an estimated size of the Modern Orthodox population, but little else.

      There is very little data about denomination & religion switching. I agree that it’s unlikely that 19% of Jews who considered themselves Orthodox until age 64 changed their minds at 65+, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t real drops well into adulthood. Also, as I mentioned in my earlier comment, the Pew data for this measures is simply too noisy to be given much weight. Whether 57% or 47% of Orthodox-raised jews aged 30-49 remained Orthodox has really affects on how we look at the future of Jewish communities.

      The other major factor that is hinted at in the Pew data, but is difficult to interpret is that the continuity of Orthodoxy, particularly Modern Orthodoxy has depended on Jews becoming Orthodox. Most of those Jews came from other large denominations so that 4% of Conservative Jews becoming Orthodox has a large effect on the total Orthodox numbers. It seems like the # of Conservative Jews is shrinking, but the nondenominational Jews aren’t becoming Orthodox at the same rate. If a healthy Conservative movement was necessary to keep Orthodox growth up, this might be a long term growth issue in the Orthodox world.

    2. Steven Brizel4 years ago

      How can any intelligent reader accept polling data and conclusions re the Modern Orthodox and Charedi ( yeshivishe/chasidic) worlds when the authors of the study claim that any research therein was minimal due to the so called ‘insular’ nature of these communities?

    3. Miriam4 years ago

      Regarding people changing their religiosity as they get older, I personally know many people who become less religious, drop synagogue membership, etc. after their children have left the house. Also, many people retire to communities that might not have an Orthodox shul so thus they self identify with the new shul that they have become members of. For example, if they move from their Orthodox shul to a place in Florida that only has a reform shul, they might switch to reform due to convenience, (it’s the closest shul). And then might redefine themselves as Reform since this is the Shul where they pay dues.

  8. Dan Ab4 years ago

    I would call these 8 interpretations of your data rather than facts.

    As Charlie Hall notes, you can’t talk about retention when such a measure is cumulative and people might leave at later ages. Here is a post that models this issue in more detail: jewschool.com/2013/10/03/30914/n…

    Second, the methodology appendix you link to, shows that the 95% confidence interval is 9.1% within the Orthodox sample. Any measure that breaks this into smaller populations, such as the age brackets, has a MUCH larger confidence interval. If you’re claiming the retention differences by age are a fact, you should publish the confidence intervals for the Orthodox by age bracket subgroups.

    I also have a question about the intermarriage findings. As with most studies, intermarriage is by current denominational affiliation. To understand how upbringing affects intermarriage, it should be by denomination raised, which is data you have. It makes sense that more people who are raised Orthodox and intermarry no longer consider themselves Orthodox while people in denominations that are more accepting of intermarriage are more likely to retain or attract these families. Could you release the intermarriage by denomination raised statistics?

    Finally, I think the most important finding about Orthodox is in the data, but not explicitly stated here. Modern and Ultra Orthodox both use the word “Orthodox” but they are now more dissimilar than the other denominations. They differ on fertility, education, observance, and probably other things you measured too. Modern Orthodox might even be more similar to Conservative than ultra Orthodox now. This is worth highlighting and might lead to more relevant bracketing of denominations in future studies.

  9. Joseph4 years ago

    That study is seriously flawed with its result indicating a percent of Orthodox Jews who own a Christmas tree and a percent of Orthodox Jews who supposedly go to a different religions Church services a few times a year that simply doesn’t pass the laugh test.

  10. Charlie Hall4 years ago

    “the falloff from Orthodoxy appears to be declining and is significantly lower among 18-to-29-year-olds than among older people.”

    I’m not sure the data support this. Dropout is cumulative. In the 18-29 age group 17% have left Orthodoxy. In the 30-49 age group another 26% have done so — over a longer time period. In the 50-64 age group another 16% have done so and in the 65+ age group another 19% have done so. This may be consistent with a constant OTD rate with age.

    I am a biostatistics professor and would be happy to help with an analysis that tested this hypothesis.