National Jewish Population Survey: 1990

Fifty-two percent intermarriage rate shocks community.

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The greatest impact of NJPS may have been on the self-image of American Jews. To peruse Jewish newspapers and magazines of the 1990s is to see the 52 percent statistic cited by an astounding number of articles and op-eds, almost always in terms of shock and dismay. American Jewry went from a community that was appreciating its successful rise to the upper echelons of socioeconomic status to one that was concerned about its very survival.
NJPS was used in communal policy more as a generalized impetus to further initiatives in the field of Jewish continuity--which became a buzzword of the 1990s--rather than a source of specific data for decision-making. By itself, NJPS offered no policy prescriptions. Accordingly, preexisting policy inclinations tended to shape the response to concerns about high intermarriage in particular and assimilation in general.
Organizations such as the American Jewish Committee and the Conservative movement urged "inreach"--increasing programming for already affiliated Jews--and reinforcing boundaries between Jews and non-Jews. The Reform movement continued its outreach efforts and the newly founded Jewish Outreach Initiative, established in 1988, received an immediate impetus in its mission of promoting the embrace of intermarried families and encouraging their participation in Jewish life. Jewish federations on the whole tended to engage in both outreach and inreach.
In addition, the level of support by federations and individual philanthropists for policies that had shown promising outcomes in NJPS and related research increased. Jewish day school was shown to be particularly effective, leading to increased emphasis on day school education for non-Orthodox Jews. Jewish summer camps also saw an increase in interest, associated with positive findings, as did adult education. The Birthright Israel program, which offers young Diaspora Jews a free 10-day trip to Israel also grew out of the concerns raised by NJPS.
Just as the roots of NJPS 1990 can be traced to NJPS 1970-71, the 1990 study prefigured its successor, NJPS 2000-01. In spite of its ambiguous impact, the findings of the 1990 study were valued highly enough that another study was carried out a decade later. The design of the 2000-01 survey responded to many of the perceived inadequacies of NJPS 1990. These changes were controversial enough that another national survey of American Jews, the American Jewish Identity Survey of 2001, was carried out with techniques that closely mirrored those of NJPS 1990.
Although it is impossible to say what would have happened without NJPS 1990, its finding of a 52 percent intermarriage rate clearly inaugurated the present era of intense concern about Jewish continuity. Communal policies reflect this.
Jewish federations direct a greater proportion of funds to domestic use than 20 years ago. Jewish day schools catering to non-Orthodox Jews continue to be founded and are far more diverse than those of the 1980s. Jewish summer camps are now served by the Foundation for Jewish Camp.
Beyond all this, the struggle between advocates of outreach and inreach for the minds of American Jewry continues unabated, with each new piece of research dissected for its implications and every statement by one camp soon met with a riposte by the other.

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Dr. Benjamin Phillips

Benjamin Phillips is a senior analyst/project director at Abt SRBI Inc. He is a former associate research scientist at the Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies at Brandeis University.