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.
This finding attracted considerable attention and criticism. Steven M. Cohen, a prominent researcher, raised a number of critiques in a controversial article in Moment magazine, and pegged the true 1985-1990 intermarriage rate at 41 percent.
In most surveys, demographic weights are employed to account for discrepancies in the population surveyed. Cohen argued that the NJPS weights were incorrect. As there is no authoritative list of Jews in the United States, it is necessary to draw a sample of the entire population in order to determine the proportion of Americans that are Jewish. But, Cohen pointed out, the weights used didn’t take into account that Jews and non-Jews may not have responded to surveys at the same rate.
Cohen’s logic was not unreasonable; however, his next step was to forgo using the weights entirely. Perhaps the weights used were not as sophisticated as they needed to be, but any scientific study requires some method of weighting.
Cohen’s other criticism concerned the calculation of the intermarriage rate itself. He argued that the rate should have been calculated on current religious identification. By including people born Jewish who do not identify as Jews, and marry non-Jews, NJPS swelled the numbers of those “intermarried,” Cohen claimed.
The problem with Cohen’s argument is that many people change religion as a result of intermarriage. Just because they don’t currently identify as Jews, should their intermarriages be excluded from the total count?
While the findings concerning intermarriage and assimilation were the best remembered findings of NJPS, other data reinforced existing perceptions of American Jewry. The most important of these was that American Jewry was a graying community with a large number of baby boomers. American Jews delayed marriage and put off having children, leading to a below-replacement level birthrate. Not unassociated with the aging population, NJPS documented a shift away from the Midwest and Northeast toward the sunbelt states of the South and West.
The study also showed the other side of assimilation, the extremely high socio-economic status of American Jews, whose education and income exceeded those of virtually all other ethnic and religious groups.
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.