Population Survey Will Measure Forms of Jewish Identity, Practice
Menu JTA Search

Population Survey Will Measure Forms of Jewish Identity, Practice

Download PDF for this date

Lighting Shabbat candles is a traditional symbol of Jewish identity. But watching a Jewish film festival?

Researchers working on the year 2000 National Jewish Population Survey are looking into unconventional Jewish activity — such as joining Jewish book clubs or attending museum exhibitions — alongside more standard measures of observance and affiliation to gauge what contributes to Americans’ sense of Jewish identity.

This new line of questioning is the result of findings from the last nationwide Jewish population survey in 1990, which showed American Jews moving away from Jewish ritual and membership in synagogues and Jewish organizations.

“There are many forms of being Jewish,” Alice Goldstein, a member of the new survey’s advisory committee, said in a telephone interview.

“We didn’t have a handle on that” in the 1990 survey.

The 2000 survey is being designed to build on the demographic information collected a decade ago — and then to probe deeper into the ways Jewish identity is formed and maintained in American society.

The 1990 survey, sponsored by the Council of Jewish Federations, sent shockwaves through the Jewish community with its report of a 52 percent Jewish intermarriage rate. As a result of that finding, the organized Jewish community refocused its agenda on examining and promoting Jewish continuity.

Organized by the United Jewish Communities — the new national entity formed by the merger of CJF, the United Jewish Appeal and the United Israel Appeal – – next year’s survey will canvas 5,000 households selected through hundreds of thousands of random phone calls.

With twice the budget and a survey sample twice the size of 1990’s, the 2000 survey is planned to be “the most comprehensive, socially graphic portrait ever done of the American Jewish community,” said Jim Schwartz, director of the UJC’s research department.

The $4 million survey and subsequent studies are being funded largely by private donors, with local federations contributing about $1.7 million.

As with the results of the 1990 survey, Schwartz said, the 2000 findings will be used to help determine communal needs, fund-raising strategies and funding allocations, and for follow-up research.

Next year’s survey will be translated into Russian and Yiddish for better coverage of new immigrants and other communities that might otherwise be left out.

The increased number of respondents will allow for more in-depth analyses of responses, particularly in the areas of Jewish education and philanthropic trends, organizers say.

Thus, in a current draft, questions on religious upbringing can be compared to current denominational affiliation and synagogue membership to help draw a “wonderful portrait of denominational mobility,” Schwartz said.

A hearty section on charitable giving is now augmented with numerous questions about volunteerism for Jewish and secular causes. It may also ask whether respondents prefer giving to umbrella organizations, such as the United Way or Jewish federations, or to individual charities.

Next to questions about religious observance and theological beliefs are inquiries into Jewish cultural activities and spirituality: “Do you say any prayers in your own words?” “In the past year have you used the Internet or e- mail to learn about Jewish topics?”

Whereas the 1990 survey asked respondents’ levels of Jewish education and that of their children, this time around they will be asked to evaluate the quality of those programs.

Respondents will also be asked about summer camp experiences and the frequency and quality of Israel trips, as well as the sponsoring organizations.

Sections dealing specifically with social activism and perceptions of anti- Semitism have been pared down to two questions each.

Still, many questions will be repeated from 1990 so trends can be charted over the past decade.

Schwartz is compiling the questionnaire with the National Technical Advisory Council, a group of academicians, Jewish organizational leaders and federation professionals co-chaired by Professors Vivian Klaff of the University of Delaware and Frank Mott of Ohio State University.

The surveys, which are planned to take about one half-hour of phone time, will be conducted by the New York-based firm Audits and Surveys Worldwide during the first half of the year 2000. An initial summary report is expected out in mid- 2001.

A draft of the survey questionnaire has been circulated for comment to leaders of Jewish organizations, religious denominations and local federations, so some refinements are expected.

So far, religious leaders are praising the UJC’s efforts to request their input in shaping the questionnaire.

“That’s something they did not do 10 years ago,” said Rabbi Daniel Freedlander, the program director for the Reform movement’s Union of American Hebrew Congregations.

He noted specific interest in the impact of Jewish preschool education, and in affiliation rates of interfaith couples and their openness to outreach from Jewish institutions.

The Orthodox Union’s executive vice president, Rabbi Raphael Butler, said he appreciates the opportunity to clarify how surveyors will account for large Orthodox families and for populations who might hesitate in taking part in telephone polls.

Specifics yet to be determined include preliminary questions to determine which households will be included in the final survey.

Some observers questioned the sampling techniques that helped derive the 52 percent intermarriage rate found in the 1990 survey.

Schwartz said his team was still pondering how to deal with this question in the 2000 survey.

The intermarriage finding tended to overshadow several other significant results from 1990 that researchers and federations hope to revisit in the coming survey.

The last survey found “a clear drop” in the levels of organizational membership, volunteerism, synagogue membership and ritual observance “across the board,” said Alice Goldstein.

As a member of the Rhode Island federation’s education planning commission and a past president of the local Bureau of Jewish Education, she said she was “frankly more concerned with that than with intermarriage,” which she views as a symptom of the larger trends.

The geographic distribution of Jewish populations is a “major area” for examination, said Sidney Goldstein, a professor of population studies and sociology at Brown University and the 1990 research team’s co-chairman.

The Goldsteins co-authored one of five monographs that draw on the 1990 data, “Jews on the Move: Implications for Jewish Identity.”

One of the most fruitful outcomes of the 1990 survey was its indication of philanthropic-giving patterns along generational lines.

It found that American Jews who grew up during the war years tend to give to Jewish causes and to collective institutions, and that younger Jews are nearly twice as likely to give to secular organizations.

These findings forced a change in fund-raising approaches to younger generations of Jews, said Donald Kent, CJF’s vice president for development and marketing.

The 1990 findings reverberated throughout UJA and CJF — American Jewry’s most broad-based fund-raising and social service organizations — even before their merger into the UJC.

They led to collaborations with synagogues and Jewish educators and to the creation of commissions on intermarriage and on continuity.

Significantly, one of the four “pillars” underlying the UJC’s new programmatic mission is “Jewish Renaissance and Renewal,” a direct outgrowth of the communal focus on Jewish continuity over the past decade.

Founding Funders

The digitization of the JTA Archive would not have been possible without the generous support of the following donors:
  • The Gottesman Fund
  • Righteous Persons Foundation
  • Charles H. Revson Foundation
  • Elisa Spungen Bildner and Robert Bildner, in honor of Norma Spungen
  • George S. Blumenthal
  • Grace and Scott Offen Charitable Fund