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New Survey of American Jews Reveals Strong Religious Identity

American Jews’ connection with the religious part of their identity is solid but their sense of connection to the ethnic aspect of Jewishness — their sense of peoplehood — is rapidly declining.

That is the central finding of a Jewish Community Centers Association study released this week.

It may seem axiomatic, but another major finding of the study is that those who are active in one Jewish organization are likely to be involved in others as well — that any engagement in Jewish life spurs more.

The study, conducted by sociologist Steven Cohen for the JCCA, was the first one underwritten by the association that focused on broad communal concerns rather than internal JCC issues.

It is part of the JCCA’s effort to become a key player in Jewish education and scholarship at a time when many Jewish organizations across the spectrum of American Jewish life are clamoring to make an impact on those issues that are considered central to Jewish continuity.

Cohen, who has been retained as a senior consultant by the JCCA, said more studies will be forthcoming on these wide-ranging issues.

He analyzed the findings of a mailed questionnaire that was completed in the summer of 1997 by 1,005 Jewish adults between the ages of 25 and 65 who were randomly selected by the Washington research firm Market Facts.

Cohen found that the youngest respondents are as religiously oriented as the oldest.

More than half of those surveyed scored high on measures of ritual observance, as did about one-third of respondents when it came to feelings of religious commitment and faith in God.

But marked declines among younger Jewish adults became obvious when they were asked about the strength of their ethnic ties, such as attachment to Israel and whether most of their close friends are Jewish.

“Being Jewish is really a combination of religion and ethnicity,” Cohen said in an interview. “It’s about being `a holy people.'”

Communal leaders who believe that more resources should be invested in Jewish education should find encouragement from the study.

The findings also show, Cohen said, that “identity can be formed by intensive Jewish education” in any form.

That conclusion is borne out in a separate study, also released this week, that Cohen conducted for Young Judaea, the Zionist youth movement of Hadassah — the Women’s Zionist Organization of America.

In his survey of Young Judaea alumni, Cohen compared their responses to those in the JCCA study.

Young Judaea alumni are inherently more likely to be highly engaged with Jewish life than are the statistically average Jews who responded to the JCCA survey.

They generally come from Conservative movement-affiliated homes in which there is a sufficiently strong Zionist bent to prompt them to seek out an ideologically based youth group.

Among the findings of the telephone survey of 603 alumni of Young Judaea programs — youth clubs, summer camps and trips to Israel for high school and college students — are:

Sixty-one percent regularly engage in Jewish learning, compared to just 27 percent of those in the general population as measured in the JCCA study.

Fifty-nine percent light Shabbat candles, as opposed to 24 percent in the general population.

Seventy-nine percent of the youth movement’s alumni belong to a synagogue, compared to less than half of those in the general Jewish population.

The JCCA analysis focuses more intensively on measures of ethnic identification. Among its findings are that:

Nearly half of respondents between 55 and 65 feel a significant sense of attachment to Israel, but less than a third of those 35 to 54 do.

Some sixty percent of those in the oldest age group said that most of their friends are Jewish, but just a third of those aged 35 to 44 said the same.

The idea of Jewish ethnicity, when expressed in terms of peoplehood, family, history and victimization, garnered widespread endorsement from respondents overall. But more particularistic expressions of Jewish ethnicity were found to be decidedly less popular.

When asked if “Jews have a permanent bond,” for example, more than 75 percent said yes.

But when asked if they feel a special responsibility to take care of Jews in need around the world, 39 percent said no and 47 percent said yes. Only 9 percent agreed strongly that they have that special responsibility.

In contrast, the Young Judaea alumni evinced a much stronger sense of Jewishness. Almost all — 93 percent — said they felt a special responsibility to take care of Jews in need.

They also demonstrated higher levels of community involvement and Jewish philanthropy, greater commitment to Jewish education for their children and a tendency to have close Jewish friends, as well as a stronger connection to Israel than does the general population.

When it comes to marriage, Young Judaea alumni are much more likely to marry other Jews — in this study, 95 percent of married alumni did — than are Jews in general, as reflected in the JCCA study, in which just 77 percent of respondents married Jews.

Some 60 percent of the JCCA respondents, compared to 82 percent of the Young Judaea alumni, agreed with the statement, “Jews should marry Jews.”

But, in the JCCA survey, when asked if their child were considering marriage to a non-Jew who had no plans to convert, a clear majority — 64 percent — said they would be neutral about it. Just over 25 percent of respondents said that they would oppose the marriage.

To Cohen, the overall findings point to some clear policy directions for North America’s approximately 275 Jewish community centers and affiliated organizations.

The Jewish Community Centers Association “needs to capitalize on their ability to shape community and build connections between Jews in conjunction with schools and synagogues more than they do now,” he said in an interview.

“They all need to give explicit attention to community building rather than seeing it as fortuitous byproduct of good Jewish education,” said Cohen, who works as a professor at Hebrew University, in Jerusalem, in an interview.

He suggested, for example, that JCC staff members pay close attention to making connections between constituents.

The staff could ensure that those who use JCC services are introduced to others with similar interests, like parents of pre-schoolers being matched with other parents and encouraged to socialize.

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