Cultural Judaism or Civil Religion

Bonnie K. Goodman
28 min readAug 5, 2022


The Latest Paradigm Shift in Judaism towards Secularism?

An examination of the religious views of Jews in the United States versus Israel

By Bonnie K. Goodman, BA, MLIS

Source: Wikipedia

(The research of this essay is based on a doctoral proposal research I have been working on since 2018 entitled, “Good Jewish Citizens: Israel or Zionist Education the Key to Saving North American Jewish identity.” My research examines how civil religion or civil Judaism can be integrated into Israel education to keep young Jews engaged in and supportive of Israel despite waning religious observance.)

Source: Temple Beth Hillel and Beth El, Philadelphia, PA

For the past three weeks, I have been attending an online class, Paradigm Shifts in Judaism, hosted by Temple Beth Hillel and Beth El in Wynnewood, Pennsylvania, a mainline suburb of Philadelphia. [1] Their congregation’s new rabbi, Rabbi Ethan Witkovsky, is teaching the four-part course; he is the former Assistant Rabbi at Park Avenue Synagogue in New York. Rabbi Witkovsky’s lively and engaging lectures spotlight the major turning points in the observance of Judaism. [2] A Paradigm Shift is “a fundamental change in approach or underlying assumptions.” The Miriam-Webster Dictionary defines it as “an important change that happens when a new and different way replaces the usual way of thinking about or doing something.” [3] On the advertisement for the class, the question is “whether or not we are living through a paradigm shift today?”

Rabbi Witkovsky explains three significant shifts in Judaism in the class. The first shift was the start of monotheism and Hashem’s covenant with Abraham in the Book of Genesis. The second shift was the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem by the Romans in 70 A.D. and the creation of Rabbinic Judaism. The creation allowed Judaism to adapt from a temple-centered religion based on prayer, laws, Shabbat, and religious holidays. The third class examined how the Enlightenment movement, Haskalah altered Judaism and gave rise to denominations and modern branches of Judaism. Among the movements in the eighteenth century, how Emancipation gave rise to the Reform movement in Western Europe, which led to liberal Jewish movements, and on the opposite end, the rise of the Hasidic movement, which gave rise to modern ultra-Orthodox movements.

The class would be much more relevant in the university setting, where Jewish youth feel less connected to the religion and even have a Jewish identity. They would be able to see through history the quandaries Jews had with adapting Judaism and religious observance to a changing world, for over 3,000 Jews since Abraham have been grappling with the same struggles and questions. Appropriately, an overnight radio show on Canada’s iHeart Radio, The Showgram with David Cooper, veered off topic in his segment “Therapy Thursday on a Wednesday” with social worker Gary Direnfeld to discuss Jewish identity. Both are Jewish; Cooper is an older millennial doing the show from New York, and Direnfeld in Toronto, Canada, is a younger Baby Boomer, an age group usually more engaged with Judaism. The two discussed the conundrum of Jewish identity. Both affirmed they define themselves as culturally Jewish, but not religiously, with Cooper going as far as calling himself agnostic. Is it the shift young Jews are pushing modern Judaism to the precipice of a new era of Judaism?

The class looks at the shifts from a religious perspective instead of a historical one. As a historian, I tend to view everything from the prism of a historical perspective. Our last class is supposed to look beyond the modern development of the liberalization of Judaism and denominations, the Reform movement, and its backlash with the rise of Modern Orthodoxy and the Conservative movement. Two major historical shifts changed twentieth-century Jewry; in the 1940s, the Holocaust, destructing six million Jews and shifted Jewry center to the United States, and then the founding of the modern state of Israel in 1948. The question is whether we are now part of the fourth paradigm shift in Judaism, moving from a religious identification to a cultural one that started with Israel’s modern political founding. In my research, I have written about the theory of civil religion in Judaism, or as the late sociologist Jonathan Woocher coined it, “Civil Judaism.” [4]

In the past thirty years, modern Jewish population surveys have shown that American Jewish youth were moving away from religious Judaism through intermarriage rates and then religious identification. In 1990, American Jewry received their first shock with the 1990 National Jewish Population Survey, which showed the rising intermarriage rates. [5] In 1990, the community was in overdrive in trying to determine a solution. Jewish continuity became the buzzword, along with Jewish education, one of the best solutions. Fast-forward twenty-three years to 2013, the Pew Research Center released a “Portrait of American Jews.” [6] The Pew report was a devastating view of non-Orthodox American Jewry, with an intermarriage rate overall above 50 percent, with the risk of losing Millennial Jews high, as they looked to intermarriage, was the most detached from the religion and Israel.

Before the crisis, American Jewry celebrated secular elements of the religion in a unique Civil Judaism that bonded the nation through community ties and common support for Jewish causes, including Zionism and support for Israel. Civil religion allows citizens to all celebrate their nation’s traditions. In Israel, civil religion takes on a religious flavor as the nation’s traditions and holidays adhere closely to Judaism, and even the most secular Israelis participate in Judaism’s traditions, if not at a religious level at a patriotic level. Sociologist Robert Bellah’s 1967 essay “Civil Religion in America” introduced the modern concept of civil religion. [7] Bellah looked particularly at the American civil religion and the patriotic traditions that bond the nation across the religious divide.

Civil religion was a theory created by French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau in his 1762 book “The Social Contract” chapter 8, book 4. According to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy:

“The tenets of Rousseau’s civil religion include the affirmation of the existence of a supreme being and of the afterlife, the principle that the just will prosper and the wicked will be punished, and the claim that the social contract and the laws are sacred. In addition, the civil religion requires the provision that all those willing to tolerate others should themselves be tolerated, but those who insist that there is no salvation outside their particular church cannot be citizens of the state. The structure of religious beliefs within the just state is that of an overlapping consensus: the dogmas of the civil religion are such that they can be affirmed by adherents of a number of different faiths, both Christian and non-Christian.” [8]

In the 1980s, scholars delved into civil religion in Judaism in both the United States and Israel. Nowhere has the concept of civil religion and Judaism been perfected than in Israel, where at least for the majority Jewish population, a secular religion has evolved that incorporates Judaism in everyday life in a way that was lost on American Jewry. Social anthropologist and political scientist Myron Arnoff was the first to adapt and publish Bellah’s theory of Civil Religion to Israel or Judaism in his 1981 article, “Civil Religion in Israel.” Arnoff argued that Zionism was at the center of the state’s civil religion, which he used “to explain the complex range of religious views and relate them to the even more complex variety of ideological perspectives.” [9]

According to Arnoff, “By placing the collectivity at the center of its meaning system, civil religion can order the environment and shape the experiences only of those whose personal identity merge with the communal identity.” Although civil religion in Israel has never encompassed the entire population, it has the majority of Jews and identifies with “Jewish history and culture.” Arnoff recounts, “From the begging of the modern Zionist movement, the national and religious symbols intertwined. The attributes of Israeli civil religion revolve this mix of religious and national myths, legends, symbols, shrines, and rituals.” [10]

Political scientists Charles S. Liebman and Eliezer Don-Yehiya first analyzed Israeli civil religion in their 1983 article “The Dilemma of Reconciling Traditional Culture and Political Needs: Civil Religion in Israel” and subsequent book, “Civil Religion in Israel.” [11] They delineated the evolution of the adaption of civil religion in Israel for the predominantly Jewish population. Liebman and Don-Yehiya defined civil religion as “a system that provides sacred legitimization of the social order.” They described civil religion as “the ceremonial myths, and creeds with legitimate the social order, unite the population, and mobilize the society’s members in pursuit of its dominant political goals.” [12]

Liebman and Don-Yehiya believe there need to be three elements For civil religion to exist:

“(1) integration (uniting the society by involving its members in a set of common ceremonies and myths, which are themselves integrative and in turn express a sense of a common past, a common condition, and a common destiny on the part of the participants); (2) legitimation (transmitting the sense of an inherent justness or rightness in the nature of the social order and in the goals pursued by the society); and (3) mobilization (galvanizing the efforts and energies of society’s members on behalf of socially approved tasks and responsibilities.” [13]

Civil religion was a way for Israeli Jews to express their Jewish identity. Liebman and Don Yehiya explain, “If any one factor accounts for the development of Israeli civil religion and its particular character, it is the continued Jewish identity of the vast majority of the population, the desire of the majority of Israelis to express that identity symbolically and transmit it to their children, and their inability to find in the system of traditional Judaism an adequate expression and vehicle for their Jewish Identity.”[14]

In his 2018 follow-up article “Changes and Developments in Israeli Civil Religion: 1982–2017,” Don-Yehiya explains that civil religion, writing, and traditional religion are centered on a supernatural being, while civil religion is focused on society and its institutions, which are perceived as having intrinsic sacred nature. [15] Jonathan Woocher adapted the concept in his 1986 study Sacred Survival: The Civil Religion of American Jews to American Jewry’s celebration of Jewish communal traditions, philanthropy, and Judaism and Israel, creating a civil Judaism. Woocher claims, “American Jewish civil religion is an activist religion emphasizing the pursuit of Jewish survival and social justice.” [16]

The Federation/UJA system became the central political/polity structure of American Jews. Woocher defined Jewish civil religion as “the constellation of beliefs and practices, myths and rituals which animates the organized American Jewish community today.” It was the “activity and ideology of the vast array of Jewish organizations which are typically thought of as ‘secular.’” Woocher believed there were seven elements to Civil Judaism:

1. The unity of the Jewish People

2. Mutual responsibility

3. Jewish survival in a threatening world

4. The centrality of the state of Israel

5. The enduring value of Jewish tradition

6. Tzedakah: philanthropy and social justice

7. Americaness as a virtue [17]

Woocher defines three tenants, “Holocaust Rebirth,” which views the Holocaust and the establishment of the state of Israel as “a paradigm for Jewish history and a continuous inspiration for Jewish action.” The second tenet is “American Jewish exceptionalism,” which is the “striking Philo-Semitic character of American society.” The last tenet Woocher defines as “Jewish chosenness,” the only one based on Jewish religious tradition. [18]

Among the activities that make up Civil Judaism is a mix of religious observance and communal activities based on the Federation system. The religious activities include observing Shabbat and studying the sacred texts, but the secular and communal activities include “missions to Israel, retreats, major meetings, and conferences.” As historian Jonathan Sarna notes in his 1987 review of Woocher’s book, these activities were “designed to forge feelings of group solidarity and to spur Jews to the kind of activism that civil Judaism demands.” [19] Their first major challenge was raising money for Israel before, during, and after the Six-Day War. Then they endured controlling the growing assimilation problem, trying to maintain Jewish continuity, as intermarriage threatened Jewish hegemony.

The Jewish continuity crisis of the 1990s put this golden age in peril as American Jews fell out of love with Israel and looked to a personal religious renaissance instead of the communal. In 2001, American Jews were shaken by 9/11 and renewed support for Israel, but it has been shaky and no longer unconditional. According to Woocher, the support of Israel and Jewish education were a cornerstone of this Jewish civil religion. Woocher writes, “They turned to the federations and demanded that verbal professions of concern for Jewish survival be matched by a greatly augmented financial and programmatic commitment to Jewish education as the best guarantor of Jewish continuity.” [20]

In 2006, for the twenty-fifth anniversary of his seminal work, Woocher reexamined the American Jewish community’s adherence to its civil religion in a book chapter, “‘Sacred Survival’ Revisited: American Jewish Civil Religion in the New Millennium.” Woocher claims American Jewish civil religion has declined since he wrote his first study in the late 1980s. The decline corresponds with the rise of intermarriage that started in earnest in the 1990s. Woocher attributes the fall of the collective to the rise of individualism, which he calls “a highly individualized appropriation of Jewish symbols, beliefs, and practices as part of the search for personal meaning.” The focus on the individual has only increased since then. As Woocher indicates, “freedom of choice” is the new mantra instead of uniting around a community.

In his 2018 follow-up article “Changes and Developments in Israeli Civil Religion: 1982–2017,” Don-Yehiya concurs that since 1982 when they first studied civil religion in Israel, there has also been a shift from the communal to the individual. Don-Yehiya explains there has been “more room for expressions of individuality and cultural pluralism. These changes have greatly intensified since 1982. It was reflected in the further decline in the authority of state institutions, the growing tendency to adopt individualistic patterns of behavior, and the further weakening of commitment to collective ideals and state authorities.” [21] Israeli civil religion relied on celebrating traditional Jewish holidays, festivals, and religious symbols within the public sphere, giving the nation a Jewish character celebrated by all Israeli Jews. However, recently there has been a shift to celebrating these holidays in private among family. Even national celebrations such as Hanukkah and Yom Haazmaut, which had public pageantry, have become familial celebrations in private with parties or picnics.

Jewish identity remained central to Israeli civil religion. As Don-Yehiya explains, “All various variants of civil religion described above shared the common perception of Israel as a state that bears responsibility for the realization of the Zionist vision and insisted on the preservation of its Jewish identity.” However, among some groups, there have been objections to Israel’s Jewish character and the “Zionist visionary state.” As Don-Yehiya notes, their proponents want to change it to a “service state,” transcending the Jewish character of Israel for a model that is more welcoming to Israel’s non-Jewish citizens, whether Arab, Druze, or Christian. This groups wants to Israel to abandon “all laws destined to keeping the Jewish identity of Israel, and replacement of Jewish symbols and rituals of the state with new ones that might be shared by all its citizens.” [22]

Happening after Don-Yehiya wrote his article, the objections over Israel’s Nation-State Law optimizes the shift in Israeli civil religion. In July 2018, the Israeli Knesset passed with a vote of 62–55 and two abstentions the Nation-State bill, Nationality Law. [23] The law only confirmed what has been an essential part of modern Israel’s creation and existence for the past seventy years, that Israel is the “national home of the Jewish people.” The bill is a Quasi-Constitutional Basic Law and focuses on affirming Israel’s Jewish signs, the flag, and shield, Hatikvah, the national anthem, recognizing Jewish holidays and remembrance days, and making the Hebrew Calendar official. The law essentially affirmed Israel’s civil religion and traditional Jewish character. [24]

At the time, the news media hailed the new law as controversial, whether in Israel, the Diaspora, or the non-Jewish media. The primary concern is that Israel did not appear democratic or concerned enough with religious minorities, particularly the large Israeli Arab population, and does not address the status of Jewish denominations within Israel. The law demotes the status of the Arabic language from official to special, promotes settlement of Jewish communities, and defines Israel’s relationship with the Diaspora but still defines Israel as an Orthodox Jewish state.

The reaction from the Diaspora mainly was negative except for Orthodox groups. Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, called it “a sad and unnecessary day for Israeli democracy.” Jacobs was critical the law did not “promote a Judaism in Israel that is inclusive and pluralistic and reflective of our values of equality for all.” [25] The reaction from Diaspora reflected American Jewry’s shift from Jewish religious observance to cultural and ethnic identification concerned more with social justice than Judaism, even if the secular character of Israeli civil religion’s modified version of traditional Judaism.

After the law was passed, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called it “a pivotal moment in the annals of Zionism and the State of Israel.” He continued, “We enshrined in law the basic principle of our existence. Israel is the nation-state of the Jewish people, which respects the individual rights of all its citizens. This is our state — the Jewish state. In recent years there have been some who have attempted to put this in doubt, to undercut the core of our being. Today we made it law: This is our nation, language, and flag.” [26]

Both recent Pew Research surveys in 2013 and 2020 determined a rising disconnect between American Jews and religion. American Jews do not have the opportunities to be exposed to Judaism without the religiosity of Israeli Jews. The biggest skeptics to the Jewish observance remain the American Jewish youth with loose attachment to Judaism and Israel; with anti-Semitism mostly a non-issue, assimilation is appealing and most opportune. The shift is from religion to secularism, a Judaism that finds importance in cultural activities, such as Jewish food, movies, news, and humor taking precedence over Jewish religious observance. Most American Jews belong to the liberal branches of Judaism, 37 percent Reform, 17 percent conservative, 9 percent Orthodox. In contrast, a third do not belong to any denomination, and 4 percent belong to the smaller liberal streams. Even among Jews associated with a denomination, the trend is moving towards Reform or not affiliating, since both groups gained 2 percent since the 2013 survey. [27]

American Jews, however, are less religious than Israeli Jews and even Americans of other religions. American Jews do not find that “religion is very important in their lives,” with only 21 percent feeling that an additional 26 percent finding religion somewhat important. Among American Jews 47 percent considers their Judaism at all important pales to the 53 percent that find religion, not too and not at all important in their lives. American Jews are even worse at synagogue services than Israelis, with only 12 percent attending weekly Shabbat services or more often for a minyan. [28] Another 8 percent attend at least once a month.

A chunk of American Jews, 27 percent, are high holiday Jews, attending synagogue for the fall high holidays of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur and maybe the three pilgrimage holidays, Sukkoth, Passover, and Shavuot. The majority of American Jews, 52 percent, seldom or never attend synagogue services. Therefore 79 percent of American Jews rarely attend Synagogue. However, for most Jews outside Orthodoxy, synagogue attendance has a cultural motivation; 92 percent say they find it “spiritually meaningful,” 82 percent for a “sense of belonging,” and 83 percent because of “connection to history.” Yet, religion is the prime reason for 67 percent of American Jews who do not attend service do not do so. American Jews’ belief in God is also problematic, with only 26 percent believing in the God of the Bible. [29]

Woocher’s brand of civil Judaism, however, continues to be part of the cultural Judaism that most American Jews find essential, including those that do not consider themselves religiously Jewish. These elements include the Holocaust, morals and ethics, justice and equality, intellectualism, and humor. As Pew recounts, “Many American Jews prioritize cultural components of Judaism over religious ones. Most Jewish adults say that remembering the Holocaust, leading a moral and ethical life, working for justice and equality in society, and being intellectually curious is “essential” to what it means to them to be Jewish.” [30]

Most American Jews, most of whom are younger, find the cultural components and activities more important than religious ones. However, as Woocher revisited his civil Judaism thesis in 2006, he determined the change from communal cultural elements to the individual. The cultural elements essential to American Jews are solo activities focusing on self-improvement rather than benefitting the community. Of those, American Jews often and sometimes partake of includes.

· Eating and cooking traditional Jewish food, 71 percent

· Visiting Jewish historical sites and synagogues, 57 percent

· Observe Shabbat in a meaningful way outside of religion, 39 percent

· Celebrate Jewish holidays with non-Jewish friends, 62 percent

· Read Jewish news in print or online, 42 percent

· Read Jewish literature or Jewish history, 44 percent

· Listen to Jewish or Israeli music, 37 percent

· Watch Jewish-themed Television, 43 percent

· Political activism, 30 percent

· Watch Jewish films, 26 percent [31]

The only two activities related to the Jewish religion were getting involved with Chabad at 17 percent and discussing Judaism online at 16 percent. Although 62 percent participate in multiple Jewish cultural activities, 48 percent do not get involved often. Pew notes these activities are replacing traditional Jewish observance, “Jewish cultural activities or individualized, do-it-yourself religious observances are directly substituting for synagogue attendance and other traditional forms of Jewish observance.” [32]

One of Woocher’s elements, Jewish tradition, does not seem to have the same importance, as Pew found observing Jewish Law as not as important to American Jews as the social and cultural elements. Pew explains, “Far fewer say that observing Jewish law is an essential part of their Jewish identity. Indeed, more consider “having a good sense of humor” to be essential to being Jewish than consider following halakha (traditional Jewish law) essential (34% vs. 15%).” [33]

Younger Jews increasingly identify as Jews of no religion; they think of being Jews as an ethnic, cultural, or familial identity rather than a religious one. In 2020, 27 percent of American Jews identified as Jews of no religion. Young Jews under 50 years old are the most likely not to identify religiously, with 40 percent of Jews aged 18–29 and 33 percent of Jews between the ages of 30–49 viewing themselves as Jews of no religion. As Pew indicates, “Among young Jewish adults, however, two sharply divergent expressions of Jewishness appear to be gaining ground — one involving religion deeply enmeshed in every aspect of life, and the other involving little or no religion at all.” [34]

In contrast, a 2016 Pew survey looked at the religious divisions among Israeli Jews and their differences from American Jewry. The survey entitled “Israel’s Religiously Divided Society” found the Jewish population in Israel is greater than in the U.S., 6.6 million to 5.7 million, with only 4.2 million identifying religiously as Jews. [35] Israel’s population is 81 percent Jewish, with 19 percent non-Jewish, 14 percent Muslim, and 2 percent each are Druze and Christian.

The Jewish divisions in Israel contrast sharply with American Jewish denominations. They are divided by Haredi (“ultra-Orthodox”) 9 percent, Dati (“religious”) 13 percent, Masorti (“traditional”) 29 percent, and Hiloni (“secular”) 49 percent of the population, 22 percent considered themselves Orthodox, while 78 percent are non-Orthodox. [36] The Haredi and Dati are the most religiously observant, but the Masorti is in the middle. The group is divided between religiously observant and on issues that relax religious observance in Israeli law. As Pew explained, “About half (51%) say religion is somewhat important in their lives, as opposed to very important (32%) or not too/not at all important (16%).” [37]

As in the United States, “Most of the ultra-Orthodox say “being Jewish” is mainly a matter of religion, while secular Jews tend to say it is mainly a matter of ancestry and/or culture. However, in contrast, secular Israeli Jews view being culturally Jewish as associated with Israel’s established civil religion, which is more based on religious tradition than American Jewry’s view of being culturally Jewish. By American standards, Hiloni Jews would be considered more religious than the cultural Jews of no religion in the U.S.

Don-Yehiya observes about the new civil religion and secularism that there are more elements of Jewish tradition Don-Yehiya explains, “The decline of the “old” secular Zionist ideologies largely motivated the renewed attachment to Jewish religious tradition in the ‘new civil religion’ as a significant source of national unity and identity.” [38] However, among secular Israelis they are increasing celebrating non-Jewish holidays more associated with Christian society, including “Valentine’s Day, Sylvester (New Year’s Eve), and even Christmas.” [39] Don-Yehiya notes, “What is unique about these festivals is that they are devoid of any roots in Jewish tradition or in modern Jewish nationalism and carry no association with any specific worldview, religious or secular.” [40] This trend collaborates with what Pew found Israel society is becoming more secular because of immigration from more secular countries, including the Soviet Union, to Israel. Pew notes, immigrant “Russian-speaking Jews in Israel stand out for relatively low levels of observance of Jewish beliefs and practices.” [41]

Secular Israelis want complete separation of religion and religious laws from Israeli laws and “public life.” A majority of secular Israelis, 59 percent value their Israeli citizenship more than their Jewish identity, 40 percent do not believe in God, and only 18 percent believe in God. Among Israelis, 33 percent attend synagogue services, 60 percent of whom are Hiloni Jews, most are Askenazi, and 61 percent are Russian speakers. [42] Unlike American Jews, secular Israelis’ lack of religious observance is not based on age and is more related to demographics and immigration.

Since Jewish rituals are part of the Israeli civil religion, most secular Jewish Israelis still celebrate religious holidays, including Hanukkah and attending the Passover Seder. Even 56 percent of Israeli light Shabbat candles, including half of secular Jews, and a third keep kosher. Still, most Hiloni Jews and half Masorti do not adhere to Shabbat rules, and only half

fast through Yom Kippur. Pew found that “Substantial proportions of Hilonim practice some aspects of Judaism, whether for cultural or religious reasons.” [43] Pew concludes, “These views reflect the fact that 83% of Hilonim see being Jewish as a matter of ancestry and culture rather than as a matter of religion.”

Despite lax observance, being Jewish is more important to secular Israelis than to American Jews of no religion. Pew found, “Overwhelming shares of Hilonim say they are proud to be Jewish and believe a Jewish state is necessary for the survival of the Jewish people.” Overwhelmingly, Jews in Israel feel a strong sense of belonging to the Jewish people and are proud to be Jewish. Fully 93% of Jews say they are proud of their Jewish identity, and 88% say they feel a strong sense of belonging to the Jewish people.” Among Israeli Jews who are proud of their Judaism and feel they belong includes 88 and 81 percent of Holonim, respectively. [44]

With most Israelis identifying as secular, there is a growing objection to the Haredi Orthodox controlling life cycle events and marriages. The religious and secular remain at odds over whether Israeli should be a religious or democratic state, at the core of the conflict over the Nation-State law. According to Pew, most “Jews across the religious spectrum agree in principle that Israel can be both a democracy and a Jewish state.” The Ultra-Orthodox, find religious law should take precedence over democracy, while the secular feel the opposite.

While the 2020 Pew survey seems more problematic for Jewish religious identity in the U.S., scholars have lamented Judaism’s demise for thirty years. After Pew released their 2013 survey, Jack Wertheimer, professor of American Jewish history at the Jewish Theological Seminary, told the New York Times, “It’s a very grim portrait of the health of the American Jewish population in terms of their Jewish identification.” [45] Alan Dershowitz ominously and prophetically began his 1997 book, The Vanishing American Jew In Search of Jewish Identity for the Next Century, by stating, “American Jewish life is in danger of disappearing, just as most American Jews have achieved everything we ever wanted: acceptance, influence, affluence, equality. As the result of skyrocketing rates of intermarriage and assimilation, as well as “the lowest birth rate of any religious or ethnic community in the United States,” the era of enormous Jewish influence on American life may soon be coming to an end.” [46]

Even as far back as 1989, historian Arthur Hertzberg lamented the problem intermarriage causes to Jewish continuity. In response to Calvin Goldscheider’s review of his essay “What Future for American Jews?” in the New Yorker, Hertzberg wrote, “The evidence has been mounting that, at most, 30 percent of the children of intermarried couples receive any considerable exposure to Jewish traditions, and that even fewer feel connected to the Jewish community.” [47]

A 2019 survey of the Greater Philadelphia Jewish community, entitled “Community Portrait: A Population Study of Greater Philadelphia,” where Temple Beth Hillel and Beth El is located, concurred that young Jews are less connected to Judaism. [48] The Philadelphia survey examined religiosity differently, finding only 22 percent of the areas Jews are “Highly Engaged,” “Jewishly Engaged Inwardly,” and “Jewishly Engaged Worldly,” the most observant and communally involved of the three groups. A large part of the city’s Jews show “Mixed Patterns of Engagement” with 35 percent, they are “Engaged with Tradition” and “Engaged with Community,” they are more non-traditional in their observance and connected not only to the Jewish community. The last group is “Connected but Not Engaged,” they are the least observant and connected to the Jewish world and represent the largest part of the Philadelphia Jewish community with 44 percent. [49]

The engagement categories cross denominations; however, Orthodox and Conservative Jews are among the most engaged and observant. However, most of Philadelphia’s Jews align with the Conservative Movement. The Survey explains, “Orthodox households are found in the two highly engaged groups, although they are not a plurality in any of them. Conservative households make up at least 20 percent of the first four groups and are the largest component of the two highly engaged ones. Over three quarters of the least connected groups are households that do not identify as Jewish, but they do include both Reform and Conservative Jewish households.” [50]

The results are similar to Pews showing that older American Jews are more involved with the religion. In comparison, half of younger Jews are not engaged and involved with Judaism or the community. The survey recounted, “Respondents who are Jewish Engaged Inwardly and Engaged Communally tend to be older, with 48 and 59 percent, respectively who are 65 or older. Those Engaged with Tradition and with Family Connections tend to be younger, with half being under age 40.” [51]

Although Woocher did not believe Civil Judaism was still relevant, the cultural elements he included are still the most important to Philadelphia’s community.

  • Leading an ethical and moral life (92%),
  • Remembering the Holocaust (90%),
  • Combating anti-Semitism (87%),
  • Advocating for justice and equality in society (85%),
  • Giving or volunteering to a cause (68%),
  • Caring about Israel (66%),
  • Celebrating Jewish holidays with my family (58%),
  • Learning about Jewish history and culture (57%), and
  • Believing in God (47%). [52]

A 2018 survey entitled “Together and Apart: Israeli Jews’ Views on their Relationship to American Jews and Religious Pluralism” backs up that living in Israel gives a far more Jewish experience at any level of observance than it does in the Diaspora. [53] Israeli Jews consider that their civil religion, even among secular Israelis, guarantees a far more Jewish enriching life than American Jews do. According to the study, with a “two-to-one ratio, Israeli Jews believe that a Jewish life is much more meaningful in Israel than in the U.S.” The study also found that over 60 percent of Israelis do not want the government to consider the views of the American Jewish leaders when devising policy. Israelis also hold a negative view of American Jewry’s religious habit, with “a plurality of 46% vs. 41%” believing “most non-Orthodox American Jews assimilating in the next 10–20 years.” [54]

So are we amid a fourth paradigm shift in Judaism, one that emphasizes secular civil religion? However, according to Pew with 73 percent of American Jews still identify religiously with Judaism, and all Israeli Jews, even those that are secular, still identify as Jewish. As Pew indicates, “Virtually all Israeli Jews say they are Jewish — and almost none say they have no religion — even though roughly half describe themselves as secular and one-in-five do not believe in God.” [55] With those results, it is difficult to see this movement as anything more than a slight deviation rather than an actual paradigm shift. The trend toward cultural Judaism that started with the Holocaust and the establishment of Israel has not yet replaced traditional Judaism and observance. Until it encompasses a majority of Jews, not just in the United States and Israel, it will qualify as a shift in Judaism; until then, the last significant paradigm shift remains the introduction of denominations in Judaism.


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[15] Eliezer Don-Yehiya, “Changes and Developments in Israeli Civil Religion: 1982–2017.” Israel Studies 23(3):189 · October 2018 DOI: 10.2979/israelstudies.23.3.23

[16] Woocher, Sacred Survival: The Civil Religion of American Jews, 131.




[20] Woocher, Sacred Survival: The Civil Religion of American Jews, 66.

[21] Don-Yehiya, “Changes and Developments in Israeli Civil Religion: 1982–2017.”

[22] Don-Yehiya, “Changes and Developments in Israeli Civil Religion: 1982–2017,” 150.





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[38] Don-Yehiya, “Changes and Developments in Israeli Civil Religion: 1982–2017,” 191.

[39] Don-Yehiya, “Changes and Developments in Israeli Civil Religion: 1982–2017,” 191.

[40] Don-Yehiya, “Changes and Developments in Israeli Civil Religion: 1982–2017,” 191.

















Bonnie K. Goodman, BA, MLIS, is a Professional Librarian (CBPQ) and historian. She is the author of “Silver Boom! The Rise and Decline of Leadville, Colorado as the United States Silver Capital, 1860–1896,” “The Mysterious Prince of the Confederacy: Judah P. Benjamin and the Jewish goal of whiteness in the South,” “We Used to be Friends? The Long Complicated History of Jews, Blacks, and Anti-Semitism,” and the viral article, “OTD in History… October 19, 1796, Alexander Hamilton accuses Thomas Jefferson of having an affair with his slave creating a 200-year-old controversy over Sally Hemings.”

Ms. Goodman has a BA in History and Art History, and a Masters in Library and Information Studies both from McGill University has done graduate work in Jewish history at Concordia University as part of the MA in Judaic Studies, where she focused Medieval and Modern Judaism. Her research area is North American Jewish history, particularly American Jewish history, and her thesis was entitled, “Unconditional Loyalty to the Cause: Southern Whiteness, Jewish Women, and Antisemitism, 1860–1913.”

Ms. Goodman contributed the overviews and chronologies to the “History of American Presidential Elections, 1789–2008,” edited by Gil Troy, Arthur M. Schlesinger, and Fred L. Israel (2012). She is the former Features Editor at the History News Network and reporter at, where she covered politics, universities, religion, and news. She currently blogs at Medium, where she was a top writer in history and regularly writes on “On This Day in History (#OTD in #History)” Feature and on the Times of Israel. Her scholarly articles can be found on She has over fifteen years of experience in education and political journalism.



Bonnie K. Goodman

Bonnie K. Goodman BA, MLIS (McGill University) is a historian, librarian, and journalist. Former editor @ History News Network & reporter @