The Jewish population is aging and shrinking, its birthrate is falling, intermarriage is rising and most Jews do not engage in communal or religious pursuits. Yet a majority attend a Passover seder and celebrate Chanukah, Jewish education is booming, and many Jews consider being Jewish important and feel strong ties to Israel.
These are not dueling headlines, but parallel portraits contained in the long-awaited National Jewish Population Survey 2000-01. Federations and Jewish communal leaders use these studies every decade for policy and planning decisions.
The United Jewish Communities, the federation umbrella group, officially released the $6 million study this week [in Sept. 2003], nearly a year after retracting initial NJPS data and delaying the survey’s release amid controversy over its methodology and missing data. A subsequent internal audit led to an independent review that UJC officials said should be made public by week’s end. But they and others said the study that emerged paints the most comprehensive, reliable picture of American Jewry to date. Not only did the reviews reinforce the data’s validity, but the NJPS was compared to other communal studies and “our numbers checked out very nicely,” said Lorraine Blass, NJPS project director and senior planner at UJC.
Those numbers add up to a complex Jewish continuum.
On one end lies a small segment of the community experiencing a Jewish renaissance, on the other a majority that continues to assimilate. In the vast middle remain most Jews who engage in few Jewish pursuits. “The big story is how the affiliated and the unaffiliated sharply differ on all measures of Jewish life,” said Steven M. Cohen, a senior NJPS consultant and Hebrew University professor. “As a group, American Jews may be moving in two different directions simultaneously: increasing Jewish intensification alongside decreasing Jewish intensity. It may well be the most and least involved are gaining at the expense of those with middling levels of Jewish involvement.”
Among the study’s key findings:
– There are 5.2 million U.S. Jews, down 5 percent from 5.5 million counted in the 1990 population study.
– Of those, 4.3 million have “stronger Jewish connections,” meaning they attend Passover seders and light Chanukah candles. This number also includes those more Jewishly committed–people who keep kosher homes, routinely attend synagogue, attend Jewish schools and belong to at least one Jewish organization.
– Jewish intermarriage is rising at a steady pace, with the rate at 47 percent–what would have been two percentage points higher than the 1990 figure of 52 percent if calculated the same way as in the 1990 study).
– Day school enrollment is rising, with 29 percent of youths ages 6-17 saying they have attended day schools or yeshivas.
– An estimated 353,000 people, including 272,000 adults and 81,000 children, live in households with incomes below the poverty line.
– Jews live in 2.9 million households, with a total of 6.7 million people, meaning that two out of every nine people living in households with Jews in them are non-Jews.
– The median Jewish age is 42, compared to 35 for Americans generally, and the birthrate was 1.8, below the 1.9 rate for American women generally.
While many of these figures did not change sharply from the last NJPS in 1990, some warned of troubling signs for the coming decade.
There was a drop in the population of Jewish children, especially in the 0-4 age bracket, and though the initial report did not contain the exact figure, it said 20 percent of the overall population were children, down 1 percent from a decade ago. “In the next few years, there will be fewer Jewish children to go into Jewish schools and to bring their parents into synagogues,” Cohen said.
David Marker, a member of the National Technical Advisory Committee that consulted on the NJPS and a senior statistician at Westat, a statistics firm, agreed, but he said the trend underscores that Jews must face up to intermarriage now that it appears to be “stabilized.”
On the Rise
According to the NJPS, intermarriage stayed at the same rate of 43 percent between 1985 and 1990 and between 1991 and 1996, then climbed to 47 percent through 2001.
“Intermarriage doesn’t have to be viewed as a negative,” Marker said. “The Jewish community needs to do a better job of reaching out to the families of the intermarried, making them feel wanted and comfortable in Jewish institutions without pushing them away.”
In the wake of the 1990 study, the volatile intermarriage issue took center stage, launching an ongoing debate over whether the community should spend money on reaching out to Jews on the fringes and the intermarried, or on “Jewish continuity” and identity building of more committed Jews.
Rabbi Ephraim Buchwald, director of the National Jewish Outreach Program, continues to advocate the latter. He calls the decline in Jewish numbers and the intermarriage rate “staggering.” Groups such as his only succeed in getting an estimated 4,000 Jews “back” a year, he said, while 80,000 are “lost.” That means the community should spend “serious” money on Jewish education and practice, since the 4.3 million that are considered “engaged” Jews remain mostly “marginally connected,” Buchwald said.
“It’s not lighting Shabbat candles, it’s not sending a Rosh Hashanah card or ethnic pride, it’s not belonging to a JCC or love of Israel or Jewish philanthropy or memorializing the Holocaust,” he said. “We know from 3,000 years of empirical evidence that the key to Jewish survival is Jewish practice.”
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.”
But the study’s focus on more connected Jews also sparked some dissent and revived the eternal “who is a Jew” debate yet again.
Egon Mayer, who co-authored the 2001 American Jewish Identity Survey, a City University of New York study that measured Jewish population and behavior, said the NJPS cast too small a net in counting Jews. Unlike the 1990 NJPS, he said, the latest study did not count the non-Jews living with Jews in so-called Jewish households.
“It seems to me that is a dramatic shrinking down of the parameters of the population that is connected to the Jewish community,” Mayer said.
In his study, Mayer followed the 1990 NJPS in counting non-Jews in Jewish homes. He found 9.8 million people, in 3.9 million homes, compared to the current study, which found 6.7 million people in 2.9 million homes.
But Vivian Klaff, a co-chairman of the advisory committee and a critic of UJC’s postponement of the study’s release, defended the decision to narrow the way Jews were identified. “If we had extended the definition of who was Jewish, we could have gotten 7 million Jews,” he said. “You can’t narrow the definition of Jewishness and still get more Jews.”
The NJPS surveyed 4,523 people, representing 28 percent of all those contacted between August 2000 and August 2001. UJC officials said the response rate was low but met guidelines in an industry where even prominent polling groups like Gallup are eliciting fewer respondents. Overall, the margin of error of the NJPS was plus or minus 2 percent.
Reprinted with permission from the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.
Pronounced: KOH-sher, Origin: Hebrew, adhering to kashrut, the traditional Jewish dietary laws.
Pronounced: roshe hah-SHAH-nah, also roshe ha-shah-NAH, Origin: Hebrew, the Jewish new year.
Pronounced: SAY-der, Origin: Hebrew, literally “order”; usually used to describe the ceremonial meal and telling of the Passover story on the first two nights of Passover. (In Israel, Jews have a seder only on the first night of Passover.)
Pronounced: shuh-BAHT or shah-BAHT, Origin: Hebrew, the Sabbath, from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday.