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Around the Jewish World Similarities Across the Pond: Survey Finds British, U.S. Jews Alike

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American Jews have more in common with British Jews than they do with other Americans, a new British study has found.

The study, “Secular or Religious? The Outlook of London’s Jews,” relies on a new way of “measuring Jewishness,” which the authors call “outlook.”

They asked respondents to rate themselves on a scale ranging from religious to somewhat religious, somewhat secular or secular.

The results showed that slightly more than 50 percent of London Jews considered themselves secular or somewhat secular, while a 2001 study found that slightly less than 50 percent of American Jews do. The 2001 study was the American Religious Identification Survey, by researchers Barry Kosmin, Egon Mayer and Ariela Keysar of the Graduate Center of the City University of New York.

That is in sharp contrast to Americans as a whole — only 18 percent of whom consider themselves to be secular or somewhat secular.

Eight percent of London Jews and 11 percent of American Jews consider themselves “religious,” while more than 40 percent of Americans as a whole do.

The Institute for Jewish Policy Research, Britain’s leading Jewish think tank, says the finding shows how valuable it can be to measure outlook.

“It enables us to make comparisons. We are measuring Jewishness, which is something scholars are always trying to do,” said the institute’s David Graham, the author of the report.

Graham said another advantage of the four-point outlook scale is that it is more precise and meaningful than previous ways of trying to measure religious identification.

Previous studies in the United Kingdom have asked people to sort themselves into categories such as traditional, progressive, reform, non-practicing and just Jewish.

Graham says it is impossible to make meaningful distinctions between those categories.

“What’s the difference between reform and progressive? Between non-practicing and just Jewish?” he asked with a rhetorical shrug.

On the outlook scale, “each category has meaning relative to the others,” he said.

Perhaps even more important for the Jewish community as a whole, Graham said, outlook seems to be a reliable indicator of actual behavior, which he said previous measures have not been.

Cross-referencing data shows that the more religious people say they are, the more likely they are to attend synagogue regularly, keep kosher outside the home and observe the Sabbath strictly.

“This allows us to predict behavior, which we were totally unable to do before,” he said.

“It is a very useful and powerful piece of information for communal and religious organizations,” he added.

Knowing what synagogue someone belongs to is a much less reliable indicator, Graham says, because roughly 60 percent of British Jews belong to the mainstream Orthodox United Synagogue movement.

“There are all sorts of reasons to belong to the United Synagogue — to get buried, because my wife believes, to get my kids into a particular school,” Graham said.

Outlook, by comparison, can be a good predictor because it measures an individual’s own attitude, independent of outside pressures, he said.

But that may also be its drawback, one of the world’s leading Jewish demographers said.

“We are asking for a self-assessment of a person’s own religiosity, and we find it is highly correlated with that person’s actual religious behavior. Clearly outlook must predict synagogue attendance,” said Sergio della Pergola, a professor of contemporary Jewry at Jerusalem’s Hebrew University.

“I would also assume synagogue attendance predicts outlook. It would be more interesting to see whether outlook is also correlated with variables which do not have a specific religious content, such as number of Jewish friends or neighbors, visits to Israel, or even giving to Jewish philanthropies,” he told JTA.

Even so, another expert said outlook could prove to be a valuable tool.

“This is a much more sensible configuration than analyzing by affiliated or unaffiliated,” which many other surveys have done, said Gary Tobin, president of the Institute for Jewish and Community Research in San Francisco.

“The whole issue is redefining religiosity. This is a smart thing to be doing,” Tobin said.

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