Poll Finding Jews Less Religious Than Others Elicits Mixed Reaction
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Poll Finding Jews Less Religious Than Others Elicits Mixed Reaction

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A recent Gallup Poll finding that Jews are half as likely as other Americans to say that religion is “very important in their daily lives” is eliciting mixed reaction in the Jewish world.

Jewish demographers note that polling techniques and a tendency of Jews to define religion differently than Christians make the contrast seem more dramatic than it really is.

However, some Jewish religious leaders — many of whom report a renaissance of Jewish religious interest — find the data troubling.

The Gallup analysis, based on telephone interviews with a randomly selected national sample of 20,000 adults between 1992 and 1999, found that 60 percent of Americans say that religion is very important in their daily lives, with Mormons, Southern Baptists and Pentecostals topping the list in self-reported religiosity.

By contrast, the analysis describes Jews as one of “the least religious groups,” noting that only 30 percent of Jewish respondents say their religion is very important.

The only group with a lower percentage, the poll found, were “those who declare no formal religious affiliation.” In that group, only 22 percent say religion is very important to them.

In addition to religious affiliation, the analysis found significant differences among various socioeconomic groups, with low-income people, political conservatives and Southerners — demographic groups in which Jews are fewer in number — identifying religion as important far more than those who are affluent, liberal and from other regions of the country.

Sociologist Gary Tobin, the president of the Institute for Jewish and Community Research, said he was not concerned by the new analysis, noting that in national polls over the years Jews have consistently identified as less religious than those of other faiths.

“It’s somewhat misleading,” said Tobin, who is part of the research team for the 2000 National Jewish Population Study, which will amass its own findings about the American Jewish community.

“Jews tend to say I’m not very religious, which means I’m not very observant. It doesn’t mean they don’t care about being Jewish,” he said.

“If you ask the question in another way: how important is it that your children or grandchildren are Jewish, they rank very high. We’ve got apples and oranges here.”

Jack Wertheimer, the provost at the Conservative movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary and the editor of a 1997 demographic study of Conservative Jews, agreed with Tobin, but said there was a cause for concern by the Gallup findings.

“We know that when it comes to religious participation, Jews do participate at lower rates than non-Jews,” he said. “When similar questions are asked about attendance at religious services the previous weekend, the Jewish response tends to be half that of the general population, and that does point to significant problems of allegiance and of commitment to Judaism.”

However, Wertheimer noted, the situation is not completely bleak.

“Anecdotal information suggests that there has been an upsurge of interest in Jewish study and religion,” he said, citing a boom in adult education programs and Jewish book publishing.

The president of the Orthodox Union, Dr. Mandell Ganchrow, expressed skepticism that the poll included a representative sampling of Orthodox Jews, noting that pollsters often call people on Saturdays, a time when observant Jews do not answer the phone.

He also questioned the survey’s wording.

“What’s missing is what is the definition of important,” he said. “In Catholicism it’s a question of feeling, and if you go to church once a week or to confession regularly you can consider yourself a very good Christian.

“In Judaism, ther are actions, both positive and negative, that are required to become a devout Jew, and it’s very difficult to quantify what that means.”

Even so, Ganchrow conceded it is true that for a large number of Jews religion is not important, and “that’s the tragedy of America.”

Mark Seal, the executive vice president of the synagogue arm of the Reconstructionist movement, said the Gallup findings contrast with both anecdotal observations and a 1997 survey of his movement, in which a large number of respondents reported that they were interested in learning and observance and were “more Jewishly literate” than their parents.

However, Seal said that “people are looking for community and values and may not define it as religion.”

Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the Reform movement’s Union of American Hebrew Congregations, agreed with others that Jews tend to define themselves as a people rather than a religion.

Nonetheless, although he has observed a resurgence of Jewish interest in religion, he said synagogues need to do more to “move it along.”

“In the final analysis, while we’re a people, with the absence of commitment to religious life, the Jewish people does not survive,” he said. “You can’t have one without the other and we need a renewed emphasis on the religious dimensions.”

For Rabbi Jerome Epstein, executive vice president of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, part of the problem may be that Jewish leaders have not been “as forthright” as leaders of other faiths in addressing the importance of God.

“We don’t talk about God enough,” he said. “People often don’t find God without someone to help them find God, and that’s part of our challenge.

“In the Conservative movement, we’re finding there is an interest, that people are looking for something beyond material success, and it’s our responsibility to use that opening to begin to engage people,” he said.

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