U.S. Jewry Little Changed In Decade


After years of anticipation and a $6 million price tag, the results of the National Jewish Population Survey 2000-01 were unveiled this week, revealing a community little changed from the way it looked a decade ago.
The new study finds a slightly smaller American Jewish population, with 5.2 million Jews compared to 5.5 million in 1990; increased interest in Jewish education, with more students attending Jewish day schools and college Jewish studies courses than in the past; and a slight rise in the intermarriage rate.
But the survey, sponsored by United Jewish Communities, appears to be prompting little of the drama that played out in the wake of the last study, in 1990.
That study was the first in two decades and the news that more than half of Jews were marrying non-Jews shocked the Jewish establishment into sharply shifting its focus, ushering in the era of "Jewish continuity."
The 52 percent intermarriage rate from the ’90 survey has been recalculated by NJPS 2000-01 researchers using different criterion: cutting out people who would not have been considered "core Jews" in the 1990 study. The current researchers say the intermarriage rate actually was 43 percent then and is 47 percent now.
If calculated the way it was in 1990, the rate would have increased from 52 percent to 54 percent among those most recently married.
The new NJPS findings are confirming trends first documented in the 1990 study: the Jewish community is aging, producing fewer children, achieving high levels of educational and professional attainment, and intermarrying at record rates that may now be leveling off.
"It’s not surprising that there are no surprises," said Steve Bayme, director of contemporary Jewish life at the American Jewish Committee. "The real story of continuity is that Jews look today like they did 10 years ago. It’s not that long a time" in which to expect significant social change, he said.
The NJPS 2000-01 has been plagued by controversy for more than a year. Initial findings were released last October, but the rest were shelved while a special committee investigated the implications of data that were lost and serious questions about the survey’s design and research methods. But UJC officials say there is much rich data to be gleaned from the survey and that its data will hold up. "We have a high degree of confidence" in the survey, said Lorraine Blass, UJC senior planner and NJPS project manager, noting the numbers have been "checked and double-checked."
The survey presents a few unexpected developments: nearly one in four Jewish children has attended a yeshiva or day school at some point during first to 12th grade.
"There really has been a sharp increase owing to the larger number of Orthodox kids and Conservative kids who go to day school now compared to 10 years ago," said Steven M. Cohen, a sociologist, Hebrew University professor and senior consultant on the new NJPS. "That’s all good stuff."
What’s more, two of every five Jewish college students take a Jewish studies course.
"College is a completely new venue for thinking about Jewish education, separate from the usual Jewish institutional way of thinking about it," said Bethamie Horowitz, a social psychologist who is research director of the Mandel Foundation Israel and author of two studies of New York Jewry for the Jewish federation here.
While the question about Jewish studies course attendance wasn’t asked in the 1990 survey, Horowitz said that the 41 percent of Jewish college students in the new survey who said they are taking such a class is significant.
"It bespeaks the integration of Jews into America that colleges are offering Jewish studies courses and kids are taking it," she said. "When we think about all our worries about identity, if kids are interested enough to take it in college when they’re open to all sorts of points of view, then it’s great news. It indicates that the community ought to think more broadly beyond its usual bounds about how to reach people."
Among the other NJPS 2000-01 findings:
Of the 46 percent of U.S. Jews who belong to a synagogue, 39 percent are Reform, 33 percent are Conservative, 21 percent are Orthodox, 3 percent are Reconstructionist and 4 percent are other. Reform had a 4 percent increase over 1990, while Conservative dropped 8 percent. Orthodox virtually stayed the same.
77 percent say they attend a Passover seder.
35 percent have visited Israel.
41 percent have donated to a Jewish cause but not their Jewish federation.
The median age of Jews is 42, seven years older than for Americans in general.
In addition, more than half of Jewish women (54 percent) have not had a child by age 34, compared to 28 percent of American women, and 26 percent of Jewish women have not had a child by the approximate end of their fertility at age 44, compared to 19 percent of American women.

Jewish men are less likely to get married than other American men: 48 percent of Jewish men are married by age 34, compared to 59 percent of other American men. And Jewish women are slightly less likely than other American women to be married, though the gap is smaller than it is for men. By age 44, 85 percent of American Jewish women have been married, compared to 87 percent of American women in general.

The new NJPS also reveals some age-related trends: Younger Jews are less likely than older ones to have mostly Jewish friends: 45 percent of Jews ages 35 to 44 have a majority of Jewish friends, compared with 59 percent of people aged 55 to 64.

But by several percentage points they are more likely to light Sabbath candles, keep kosher at home and attend a synagogue service monthly or more than their older counterparts.

Questions Over Methodology
Controversy has followed the NJPS 2000-01 since its planning stages, and debate over its credibility has escalated in the last year.

Part of the problem relates to the fact that many of the questions in the new survey were phrased differently than they were in 1990, and the basis on which people are classified as Jewish or not was altered, making it difficult to reliably track key trends in Jewish engagement. As a result, there are few comparisons between the two studies presented in the new report.

Moreover, many questions relating to Jewish identity were asked of most but not every NJPS 2000-01 respondent, leaving out those classified as a "person of Jewish background": that is, someone with a single Jewish parent who does not regard himself as currently Jewish. Some 800,000 people were put in this category.

Sociologist Egon Mayer, a member of the new study’s technical advisory committee and a sharp critic of its research methodology, describes this as "a little bit of sleight of hand" because the researchers are in essence saying that " ‘we’ll only talk to people who have proven they’re really, really Jewish when we talk about the important things.’ "
Those raised as Jews but who have rejected Judaism and now identify as Buddhist, Hindu or with another pantheistic faith were counted as Jews in the new NJPS. But those raised as Jews who have rejected Judaism for Christianity or Islam were not counted as Jews.

"The delineation reflects conventional understanding among Jews of what would preclude someone from being considered part of the Jewish population," said NJPS consultant Cohen. "In the U.S., being part of Wicca or Buddhism is not regarded as writing yourself out. But adhering to faith in Jesus or Allah leads to someone being regarded as non-Jewish."

This, some say, is a decision with dire consequences because most people raised Jewish but now identifying as Christian probably do so because they married a Christian, and it leads to an undercount of the size of the American Jewish population and underestimate of the intermarriage rate.

"Their definition of who is Jewish and who is not is totally arbitrary and halachically bizarre," said Mayer, referring to the traditional Jewish definition of Jewishness according to maternal lineage.

"They get this lower intermarriage rate and lower population count, but it totally eliminates the dynamic of how people’s identities are shaped because the very reason a person is no longer Jewish may be because they’re intermarried," said Mayer, who is also chairman of the sociology department at Brooklyn College.

"If you eliminate those who have stopped being Jewish because they intermarried, you’ve eliminated the impact of intermarriage. It defines the problem away."

Cohen counters that only a tiny percentage (1 percent, he said) of people born Jewish who now identify as Christian do so because of intermarriage.

"Hardly any Jews leave Judaism as adults," Cohen said. "Most people leave by way of their parents raising them as non-Jews."

According to the study, about one-third of the children of intermarriages are raised as Jews.

"Different researchers at different organizations will define the Jewish community in a variety of different ways," said Laurence Kotler-Berkowitz, NJPS research director. "We have our definition that has been put out officially by UJC. Others will analyze different larger and larger circles of people in some way connected to the Jewish community and we encourage that, which is why we’re putting the data file out there in the public domain for people to examine."

‘ëBig Tent’ Vs. ‘Little Tent’

The way Jews are defined and counted is of enormous consequence to the way the findings of a study like the NJPS 2000-01 are used.

And there is an ideological battle playing out among those designing the surveys between those who hold a "big tent" view of Jewish identity and want to count everyone with any connection to Judaism, and those, like Cohen, who hew to a more traditional line. The dispute also reflects the fluidity of religious identification now playing out among all Americans, not just Jews.

In 2001, using the same criterion as the 1990 NJPS to define who should be counted as Jewish, Mayer conducted the American Jewish Identity Survey with Barry Kosmin, who had been technical director on the 1990 NJPS, and Ariella Keysar. They found that 3.7 million American households with a total of 9.8 million people contained at least one Jew.

The 1990 NJPS found 3.2 million households containing 8.1 million people.

Both provide a strong contrast to the 2000-01 NJPS finding 2.9 million households with a total of 6.7 million people including at least one Jew, using this slightly different criterion for defining what makes a Jew.

From the start of the NJPS 2000 process, Jewish groups pushed and pulled over what questions should or should not be asked. Then there were data-collection problems. Soon after fieldwork began in August 2000, researchers realized that fewer people than anticipated were willing to answer all the questions, and in October they began offering potential respondents $25 to finish the lengthy questionnaire, and later $50.

"Mucho bucks" were spent on the effort, said a senior researcher who worked on the project for the polling firm, Roper Audits & Surveys Worldwide.
The UJC ran out of research funding in the spring of 2001, and the work had to be put on hold until more money could be raised. That is thought to be when information from about 3,500 screening calls was lost or erased by Roper. The data loss was not known even to UJC officials until after a first, limited release of information from the 2000-01 NJPS in October.

It prompted the head of UJC, Stephen Hoffman, to delay releasing the rest and appoint an oversight committee. The head of that committee, Bernard Shapiro, vice-chancellor emeritus of McGill University in Montreal, wrote in a preamble to the NJPS 2000-01 report that in addition to concern about the missing data, there were questions about the effects of the weighting and design used in the study, low response rates, accurate counting of the population, the screener questions used and comparability between the 1990 and 2000-01 studies.

An external review committee also was appointed. Its head, Mark Schulman, president of the American Association for Public Opinion Research, has yet to make his report public but is expected to do so shortly.

In part because of the imbroglio, UJC is striving to make the findings of the NJPS as transparent as possible, publishing the complete data set on its Web site (www.ujc.org/njps) as early as the end of this week and making it available to scholars and laypeople. The questionnaire used in the NJPS 2000-01 already is on the Web site.

UJC also plans to soon publish 12 to 15 short reports of four to six pages each on key topics from the study. That plan is a marked contrast to the plan following the 1990 study to partially fund, and publish, a number of book-length monographs by leading academics on various study-related topics.

"Given the delay on the study and the need for the information, this gets it into the hands of the establishment must faster," Cohen said. "It takes seven or eight years for some monographs to come out. A lot of what you need now is fairly straight analysis, not the in-depth stuff it takes time to cook."

Despite everything, the new findings are being welcomed as useful by some who are relieved that they have finally been published.

"It’s been an intense experience and I’m glad to finally have a chance to review it," said Horowitz. "We’ve had so much in the past year about the problems with it that we’ve lost sight that this is a study that has quite a bit to teach us."

The big lessons to be drawn from the new study, said the AJCommittee’s Bayme, are that "The population we have continues to be the largest community known in Jewish history. Some losses are inevitable, but the American Jewish community is basically large enough to sustain itself.

The question is, he said, "what kind of Jewishness will the community sustain?

"How Jewish do we want to be? Those who want in have greater opportunities to stay and those who want to leave have never had more opportunity to do so."