The path to the 1990 National Jewish Population Survey (NJPS) began, in some ways, more than 20 years earlier, with persistent demands from Jewish demographers for a scientific, national study of American Jews.
Then, as now, studies of individual Jewish communities were produced under the auspices of local Jewish federations. The Council of Jewish Federations and Welfare Funds (predecessor to today’s United Jewish Communities), the umbrella body of the local federations, supported a National Jewish Population Study in 1970-71. However, the bulk of that survey’s attention was focused on post-war concerns of integration and socioeconomic progress. Few questions looked at Jewish ritual practice or subjective Jewish identity, giving little attention to the issues of assimilation that proved most explosive two decades later.
In 1987, the World Conference on Jewish Demography in Jerusalem recommended that a new national survey of American Jewry be carried out. The following year, the Council of Jewish Federations agreed to conduct the survey.
In keeping with the Jewish community’s recognition that NJPS 1990 would be a major resource for communal planning, it asked questions on a wide array of topics, including the sociodemographic characteristics of the Jewish population, intermarriage, Jewish education, philanthropy, observances of Jewish rituals, synagogue membership, utilization of social services, volunteerism, and attitudes to certain issues of Jewish concern.
The survey identified Jewish households by placing screening questions in a national market research study. It took about a year to identify the more than 5,000 households that would be surveyed, those in which an adult was currently Jewish by religion, raised as a Jew by religion, or was born a Jew by religion.
Findings and Critiques
The 1990 NJPS is best remembered for one number: 52 percent. This was the study’s estimate of the intermarriage rate (counting marriages between 1985 and 1990) for individuals born as Jews. This contrasted sharply with intermarriage rate estimates of 44 percent for marriages between 1975 and 1984, 25 percent for 1965-1974, and 9 percent for those that took place before 1965.