National Jewish Population Survey: 2000

A snapshot of American Jewry.

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On the other side of the debate stands those like Edward Case, publisher of Interfaithfamily.com, which encourages Jewish connections in the interfaith community. Case said the intermarriage rate is not surprising and that no matter the number, intermarriage remains "huge." More importantly, Case said, is how the community can increase the number of interfaith couples who raise their children as Jew.

According to the study, 33 percent of interfaith couples raise their children as Jews, compared to 96 percent of Jewish couples who do. "I am less interested in the gross numbers and more interested in the qualitative experiences of interfaith families connecting with Jewish life," he said.

In a recent essay contest his Web site sponsored, Case said many Jews in interfaith couples revealed that intermarriage forced them to re-examine their faith, sparking "increased participation" in Jewish life.

Beyond the debate over intermarriage, Cohen and others said the growing gap between active and inactive Jews remained a big hurdle for Jewish organizations such as Jewish community centers, synagogues and other institutions seeking to gain members.

According to the NJPS, among the more connected 4.3 million Jews, 44 percent did not belong to any Jewish group; 28 percent were "moderately affiliated" to one group, and 28 percent were "highly affiliated" with two or more.

Among those Jews belonging to one or more Jewish organizations, Jewish religious and communal ties grew while dropping sharply among the unaffiliated. "It's a policy challenge, because it diminishes the sense of fluidity between the affiliated and unaffiliated," Cohen said. "We certainly have our job cut out for us."

Among the more active Jews, there were some surprises when it came to education. Day school enrollment is rising, with 29 percent of youth ages 6-17 saying they have attended day schools or yeshivas, and 23 percent of those ages 18-34 saying they have attended such schools. At the same time, 41 percent of college and graduate students said they had taken a Jewish studies course.

Those day school figures are in line with a survey by the Avi Chai Foundation of schools in 1998-1999, which found that there were nearly 185,000 students enrolled in Jewish day schools, up 20,000 from earlier in the decade. Of those, 80 percent come from Orthodox families, according to Yossi Prager, executive director of the Avi Chai Foundation.

Bethamie Horowitz, another NTAC member and director of research for the Mandel Foundation, Israel, said the popularity of Jewish studies courses at the nation's universities is an opportunity to build Jewish identity among young Jews. "I think Judaism will sell itself if we can get kids to think about it," she said.

If nothing else, Cohen said the study's measure of increased involvement in Jewish education will redouble communal support for such institutions. "I am sure this study will encourage the investment of millions of charitable dollars into Jewish education," he said. "For that alone, the investment in NJPS was well worth it."

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Joe Berkofsky

Joe Berkofsky is the United Jewish Community's Director of Communications. He was previously a staff writer at the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.