There’s a major problem in any survey of Jews: deciding who is really Jewish, and who gets to decide. Orthodox Jews demand that the mother be Jewish, while more liberal Jewish groups are willing to accept those with a Gentile mother if the father is Jewish.
Jews stopped the practice of converting Gentiles in the fourth century C.E. for a very persuasive reason. At that time, the Roman Empire, having adopted Christianity as the state religion, made conversion to Judaism a criminal offense punishable by death of both the proselytizing Jews and their converts. Such conversions are no longer crimes, but Orthodox Rabbis discourage conversion and many reject would-be converts three times; if they remain adamant in their desire to convert, they are then allowed to begin the conversion process. Different branches of Judaism are more welcoming to those who wish to become Jews, but Orthodox Jews don’t recognize converts to Judaism by other branches.
And then there are Jews with adjectives. I know some Unitarian Jews, Buddhist Jews, and Quaker Jews. Most Jews don’t see such “Judaism plus” as a problem for Jews. I have an adjective, myself: atheist Jew, so some Jews might think of me as a “Jew minus.” However, I’m not such a minority. The Pew Research Center’s landmark new survey of American Jews found that 62 percent say being Jewish is mainly a matter of ancestry and culture, while just 15 percent say it’s a matter of religion. Jews are considerably less religious than the U.S. public as a whole, with 23 percent of Jewish Americans saying they don’t believe in God, compared to only seven percent in the general public.
Even religious Jews are generally not very concerned about the existence of atheist Jews. They reserve their antagonism for Jews with a different adjective: Messianic Jews (Jews for Jesus). Much to the surprise of many Jews, the Pew Survey showed that 34 percent of American Jews think that a person can be Jewish if he or she believes that Jesus is the Messiah. Had I been surveyed, I would have been among those 34 percent. In fact, I think the percentage should be much higher. Ultra-Orthodox Jews have more beliefs in common with Jews for Jesus than with Jews like me. Both sects believe that a Messiah is coming. They differ only on whether it will be his first or second trip to Earth. When my Orthodox uncle died, his family flew his body to Jerusalem for burial because he and a number of other Jews believe that those buried in Jerusalem will be resurrected first when the Messiah comes.