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NJPS Findings on Jewish Students Drive Debate About Interfaith Future

December 17, 2003
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College-age Jews today are almost evenly divided between those with two Jewish parents and those with only one.

That was among the major findings of the National Jewish Population Survey 2000-01, presented Sunday to officials of Hillel: Foundation for Jewish Campus Life at the organization’s annual professional staff conference in Princeton, N.J.

Billed as the most comprehensive demographic portrait ever of American Jewry, the latest NJPS found that 48 percent of students aged 18-29 have two Jewish parents, 45 percent have only one Jewish parent and 7 percent said neither parent was Jewish, though they identified themselves as Jews.

Furthermore, the study found that children with only one Jewish parent socialize with Jews far less frequently, participate in fewer Jewish activities and don’t feel as connected to the Jewish people as those with two Jewish parents.

While many studies, including the NJPS, have shown intermarriage rates nearing 50 percent, the survey of college- age Jews offers a rare comparison of the children of Jewish and interfaith households and suggests a wider future impact beyond the college campus.

“It points to the creation of the intermarriage momentum,” said Sylvia Barack Fishman, a Brandeis University professor and author of an upcoming book about interfaith couples called “Double or Nothing? Jewish Families and Mixed Marriage.”

“The large proportion of kids from interfaith homes generally reinforces the American norm of cross-cultural relationships,” she said. College-age Jews “are living in an America where it’s not cool to say you’ll date only Jews.”

The study comes about a year after Hillel funded its own landmark study by the University of California at Los Angeles surveying incoming Jewish college freshmen. That study found that Jewish identification dropped dramatically among children of interfaith homes.

While 93 percent of those with two Jewish parents identified as Jews in the UCLA study, only 38 percent of those with just a Jewish mother and 15 percent of those with just a Jewish father called themselves Jewish.

But Linda Sax, who conducted the study for UCLA’s Higher Education Research Institute, said the two surveys were not directly comparable because she looked only at incoming freshmen, not all college-age Jews.

It’s no accident that Hillel led the previous study and asked NJPS officials to present the latest data. In recent years, Hillel has sought to rebuild itself from a largely religious organization to one offering dynamic cultural programs that capture young Jews’ imaginations.

Avram Infeld, Hillel’s interim executive director, called the finding that nearly half of college-age Jews have only one Jewish parent “a pretty astounding number” that underscores how far the organization still has to go.

“That presents for us a very, very serious challenge,” he said. “How do we begin to work with those with only one Jewish parent in a more intensive manner?”

To observers of intermarriage, the answer is to approach all college-age Jewish students with a single strategy.

“The more we can create environments where they can forge connections to the Jewish calendar, to Jewish intellectual tradition, to Jewish behaviors, to the Jewish community and to Jewish friendship groups, that will help kids with two Jewish parents and one Jewish parent draw closer to Judaism,” Barack Fishman said.

Others said the survey of college-age Jews offers more than just cause for concern.

Steven M. Cohen, a Hebrew University sociologist and senior consultant to the NJPS, said he was surprised not only by how many students have only one Jewish parent, but also by how many call themselves Jewish.

“There’s a mixed message there: more intermarriage, but possibly more Jewish identification,” he said.

Based on the answers of 216 college-age Jews among 4,550 total NJPS respondents, the survey’s authors estimated that there are 270,954 undergraduate Jews between the ages of 18-29; 88,620 graduate students; and 454,135 in that age group who are not in college.

Other major findings include:

Fifty-four percent of all Jewish college students said they currently are dating, but only 36 percent of those with two Jewish parents date other Jews exclusively, and 55 percent date both Jews and non-Jews.

Among students with one Jewish parent, only 1 percent date Jews exclusively.

The NJPS project director, Lorraine Blass, cautioned that any figures about dating are suspect because few students were willing to answer that part of the survey.

Among students with two Jewish parents, 12 percent said all their friends are Jews; 30 percent said most of their friends are Jews; 14 percent said about half are Jews; 39 percent said some are Jews; and 5 percent said none are Jews.

None of those with one Jewish parent said all their friends are Jews; 3 percent said most are Jews; 48 percent said some are Jews and 35 percent said none are Jews.

Forty-four percent of those with two Jewish parents said having a Jewish spouse in the future is “very important;” 29 percent called it “somewhat important;” 9 percent said it’s “not very important;” and 18 percent said it is “not important at all.”

Of those with one Jewish parent, 59 percent said marrying a Jew is “not important at all;” 26 percent said it is “somewhat important;” 14 percent said it’s “not very important,” and 2 percent called it “very important.”

Those with two Jewish parents also indicated that Judaism plays a more important role in their spiritual lives.

Twenty-six percent of those with two Jewish parents attend religious services at least once a month; 31 percent attend less frequently and 22 percent do not attend Jewish religious services at all.

By contrast, 61 percent of those with one Jewish parent do not attend Jewish religious services; 52 percent attend less than once a month and 8 percent attend at least once monthly.

Regarding affiliation with the major denominations, those with two Jewish parents are divided almost evenly among “just Jewish,” Conservative and Reform, while the children of one Jewish parent overwhelmingly said they are Reform.

Twenty-seven percent of those with two Jewish parents said they are Reform, 26 percent Conservative, 22 percent “just Jewish,” 16 percent Orthodox; 4 percent secular, and 5 percent “other.”

Forty-six percent of single-Jewish-parent homes said they were Reform, 28 percent “just Jewish,” 19 percent secular, 4 percent Conservative, 1 percent Orthodox and 1 percent “other.”

Infeld said the NJPS findings would make Hillel “take a close look” at how to encourage Jewish identity, starting simply with getting Jewish students together.

“There is far less of a chance of dating a Jew if you don’t meet them,” he said.

Others found little surprise in the study’s portrait of a population split between more Jewishly identified students with two Jewish parents and those with one Jewish parent who are less tied to the community.

The study “underscores what we’ve been saying all along,” said Paul Golin, spokesman for the Jewish Outreach Institute, which urges efforts to promote Jewish ties among less active Jews.

In a 2002 report called “The Coming Majority,” the Jewish Outreach Institute predicted that current intermarriage rates mean there are more intermarried households than households with only Jews.

The NJPS found 47 percent of Jews who married in the past five years wed non-Jews, up from the previous study — recalculated at 43 percent — a decade ago. That means there are at least four interfaith households for every three all- Jewish households, Golin said.

Many college students have not yet fully formed their identities, however, and even those with tenuous Jewish ties would benefit from Jewish programs, he said.

NJPS also showed more college-age Jews participating in Hillel than ever: Of those currently aged 18-29, 28 percent took part in Hillel activities.

Other results compared all college-age Jews to the Jewish population generally, and found that college students:

are less likely to have been to Israel or volunteer for a Jewish organization, but more likely to have used the Internet for Jewish purposes;

feel less intensely about Jewish peoplehood than do other Jews;

are far more likely to identify as Democrats than Republicans, with 53 percent of students identifying as Democrats, compared to 16 percent Republican, 22 percent independent and 17 percent “something else.”

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