Joseph Nathan Cohen

Department of Sociology, CUNY Queens College, New York, NY

How the 2020 Pew Study Classifies Jews

Who counts as a Jew? How the 2020 Pew study of Jewish Americans determined who should be included in the survey.

This post is part of a mini-series that revisits the Pew Research Center’s Jewish Americans in 2020 report. The full report can be downloaded here. This post series highlights key findings from the report, posted on Friday afternoons in hopes of providing fodder for community discussions.

Who counts as a Jew? Within Jewish culture, this is an old philosophical saw. It is a standard in Hebrew school curricula and in religious scholarship think pieces. The question is generally asked with the intention of imparting the journey of exploring the question rather than arriving at a final answer. There really is no final answer (at least insofar as social scientists see the question).

Eternal questions are fine for think pieces, but when you conduct empirical research, you have to make some calls. You need to establish criteria by which surveyors can decide whether or not a person is a viable respondent, and for research on American Jews this means creating a test to classify people as Jews or non-Jews. When researching ethnicity in social scientific analysis, it is a convention to use self-reporting. The principle of self-reporting maintains that you believe people have the identity that they describe themselves as possessing. The first screening question is described in the documentation:

Screener respondents were considered eligible for the extended survey if they met any of the following three conditions: [(1)] They identified as Jewish when asked about their religious identity. [(2)] They did not identify as Jewish by religion but said that they consider themselves to be Jewish in any other way, such as ethnically, culturally or because of their family’s background, [or (3)] They did not identify as Jewish at all but indicated that they were raised in the Jewish tradition or had a Jewish parent.

Why use self-reporting? There is no objective standard as to who counts as a “Jew.” Some leaders in the Orthodox community believe that most American Jews are not “real” Jews. Reform and unaffiliated Jews, on the other hand, view the details of their heritages, selves, and lived experiences as “Jewish.” What about Jews for Jesus? These are not questions that can be answered conclusively using the tools of social science, but are rather more eternally-contestable philosophical questions. But, to move forward in our research projects, we fall back on the convention of respecting people’s self-description and try to be explicit with readers. It is up to the reader to triangulate their religious beliefs and what the data – as measured – say about this nominally-similar group.

Once a respondent is established as Jewish, the researchers in the Pew Study employed this flowchart of considerations to sort them into categories of Jews, sorted into four generic types.

Four Types

By the Pew scheme, there are four kinds of Jews:

  • Jews by Religion. These are people who self-describe Judaism as their religion. These people are counted as Jews in the Pew Study.
  • Jews of No Religion. People with a Jewish parent or upbringing, and self-report as having no religion. These people are counted as Jews in the Pew Study.
  • People of Jewish Background. People with a Jewish parent or upbringing who are now part of a different religion. These people do not count as Jews in the Pew Study.
  • People with a Jewish Affinity. People who do not have a Jewish parent or upbringing, and do not count Judaism as their religion, but feel connected culturally or by background to the Jewish people. These people do not count as Jews in the Pew Study.

Distribution among Jews in Study

This figure comes from the report. It suggests that three-quarters of those identified as “Jewish” by this study believed themselves to be affiliated with the religion. For this group, Judaism has a religious affiliation component.

About one-quarter self-identify as being of Jewish background and having some subjective tie to Jews but no religious affiliation.

Distribution among Other Jews Not Counted by Study

This figure shows the religious affiliations of those whom the study counted as being of “Jewish Background” or having “Jewish affinity”.

At least half of both groups did not leave religion but rather moved to a Christian faith, including Messianic Judaism (i.e., Jews for Jesus). About one-fifth of either group has no religion and feels no affiliation to the Jewish people.

I do not know what to make of those with Jewish affinity. The group does not strike me as indicative of much. They are the rejected respondents of a sampling method designed to capture data on a small community in a larger population.

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