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Exploring What It Means To Be Jewish

Lawrie Cate
Creative Commons

Jews make up 2.2% of the population although it fluctuates depending on who gets counted. The U.S. Jewish population is roughly the same size, north of 6 million, as the Jewish population of Israel. 

And, since there are about 14 million Jews in the whole world, an astonishingly high percentage of them live in those two countries. 

In2013, the Pew Research Center Religion & Public Life found that an overwhelming majority of the 3,475 Jews they surveyed were proud to be Jewish - and about 75% say they have a strong sense of belonging to the Jewish people.

What's different is the increasing number of Jews who no longer identify with their religion, and are less concerned about marrying within their religion, especially the youngest generation of Millennials. 

In the U.S. the rate of intermarriage is seismic. For Jews married from 2005 onward, it's 58% and 71% amongst non-Orthodox Jews. Among Millennials, the percentage of Jews identifying themselves as with no religion is 32%.

Judaism dates back thousands of years in a continuous line of people who have survived the force of genocide and discrimination that nearly, but didn't, bring them to the brink of extinction.

But, the more insidious threat they face today may be the fraying of religious identity within the people themselves.  

One could argue that Jews have never uniformly believed in God. So what makes this change so significant - and is belief in God even necessary to the Jewish identity? Some say no, Jewish values and robust communities will sustain through time. Others say no, religion is the backbone of the culture and the values that define Jews aren't especially Jewish without the religion to back them up. The reality may be that it's just too hard to separate the religion from the culture - they're too deeply intertwined.

Credit Chion Wolf / WNPR
Mark Oppenheimer writes the Beliefs column every other Saturday in the NY Times, and he is an editor at large for Tablet, a web magazine about Judaism. He's also author of "Thirteen and a Day," about a year spent crashing bar mitzvahs.

So, what does all this mean for Jewish identity. 

What do you think? Comment below, email Colin@wnpr.org, or tweet @wnprcolin.


Chion Wolf contributed to this show.

Colin McEnroe is a radio host, newspaper columnist, magazine writer, author, playwright, lecturer, moderator, college instructor and occasional singer. Colin can be reached at colin@ctpublic.org.
Betsy started as an intern at WNPR in 2011 after earning a Master's Degree in American and Museum Studies from Trinity College. She served as the Senior Producer for 'The Colin McEnroe Show' for several years before stepping down in 2021 and returning to her previous career as a registered nurse. She still produces shows with Colin and the team when her schedule allows.

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