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A Long-awaited Population Survey to Unveil New Portrait of U.s Jewry

October 1, 2002
See Original Daily Bulletin From This Date

American Jews soon will see the fullest picture of their community ever developed.

The initial results of the much-anticipated National Jewish Population Survey 2000 will be made public Oct. 8, nearly 12 years after the last survey.

If the 1990 survey is any indication, the data will generate many interpretations and spark intense debate in the community.

The NJPS is widely considered the benchmark measure of U.S. Jewry.

By measuring demographic information and issues of Jewish identity, it can help steer spending and policies by the Jewish federation system and other Jewish organizations in areas from synagogues to day schools to programs for the elderly.

The 1990 NJPS became best known as the bearer of the troubling news that 52 percent of the nation’s 5.5 million Jews who had married in the previous five years had wed non-Jews.

The finding stirred years of debate and communal introspection — and spurred millions of dollars of spending on programs to keep Jews in the faith and to build Jewish identity.

In many ways propelled by that controversy, the upcoming NJPS is shaping up as the most ambitious demographic study yet of American Jewry.

"We think this gives a very nuanced view of what it means to be Jewish today," said Jim Schwartz, who is overseeing the NJPS 2000 for the United Jewish Communities, the umbrella organization of North American Jewish federations that is sponsoring the study.

The results are "as representative of the Jewish population as possible," he said.

The data is being closely guarded; only a handful of researchers and officials involved in the NJPS are privy to the findings as they continue to crunch the numbers.

When UJC does hold its news conference on the initial results next week, it will release only basic findings such as the total number of U.S. Jews, number of Jewish households, population locations, birth rates, incomes and occupations.

The data on other findings, including those related to questions of Jewish identity and affiliation, won’t be released until UJC’s annual General Assembly, taking place in Philadelphia on Nov. 20-22.

To create this detailed picture, and to avoid the type of criticism that greeted the previous survey, researchers used a large study sample of 4,500 Jewish households, almost double the number questioned in 1990.

"We wanted a sample the results of which could not be challenged," said Mandell "Bill" Berman, who co-chaired NJPS 2000 and chaired the 1990 study as president of the former federation umbrella, the Council of Jewish Federations.

The NJPS team hopes that no single issue will overshadow the other findings this time, as happened in 1990 when other details were lost in the uproar over intermarriage, Berman said.

The intermarriage controversy forced a sea change in the U.S. Jewish landscape, Berman added, with a minimum of "tens of millions of dollars" spent on Jewish education, identity-building programs and outreach efforts to unaffiliated Jews.

"Clearly, people are very anxious to find out if things have improved" in rates of intermarriage and Jewish identification, he said.

The 1990 study found a "core" Jewish population — Jews by religion, parentage or upbringing — of 5.5 million.

The numbers alone are likely to spark a debate about who is counted as a Jew, and what that means for the future of the American Jewish community.

In a 2000 study for the American Jewish Year Book, published by the American Jewish Committee and based on local community counts, Schwartz found 6.1 million core Jews.

And just last week, a study by Gary Tobin of the Institute for Jewish & Community Research found 6.7 million Jews, defined as those who were either born to Jewish parents, were raised Jewish, primarily practice Judaism or consider themselves Jews culturally or ethnically.

Tobin also found an additional 2.5 million people connected to Judaism in some way, such as by practicing Judaism as a secondary religion. In addition, he found, another 4.1 million Americans claim Jewish heritage because of a Jewish grandparent or other ancestor.

That gives a total of 13.3 million "Jewishly connected" Americans, showing that the community is not dying out but in fact shows "enormous potential" for growth, Tobin said.

Just what the upcoming NJPS numbers will reveal about changes in population, Jewish identity and the future of U.S. Jewry remains a subject of intense speculation.

If intermarriage rates continue to rise, for example, some will say the outreach efforts of the past decade have failed, while others will say they need to be expanded, said Ed Case, president and publisher of, which promotes Jewish life and identity in interfaith families.

The 1990 study also indicated that the children of intermarriages were not being raised as Jews. The new study delves into that issue more deeply, surveying how these children are being raised.

At $6 million, the new study carries a far heftier price tag than the 1990 study, which cost some $400,000.

For the new study, the UJC raised $4 million from its nearly 200 constituent federations, family foundations and individuals, and used $2 million of its own.

The project was budgeted over seven years.

A bulk of the money funded more than five years of research — including field work and compiling the data — the length of time it took to conduct as comprehensive and scientific a survey as the sponsors envisioned.

The budget for the next two years will support publication of the findings, as well as publicity and analysis, UJC officials said.

More than 900 people — including a 20-member National Technical Advisory Committee of leading demographers, sociologists and other academicians — helped shape the survey.

Out of that process emerged a thick survey with 330 questions examining areas such as Jewish heritage, behavior, education, charitable activity, ties to Israel, Web habits and attitudes toward a range of Jewish issues.

The actual survey was conducted between August 2000 and August 2001 by RoperASW, a research and polling firm.

Because of the survey’s depth — the average interview took 42 minutes — and the random calling method used until Jewish homes were found, surveyors on average had to make 1,300 to 1,400 calls before completing one survey, UJC officials said.

That meant it took 1.3 million phone calls to arrive at the final sample, they said.

Because of the time commitment needed to answer all the questions, the NJPS team began offering $25 "incentives" to those who agreed to take part. Respondents also had the option of donating the money to charity.

The incentives cost about $10,000 in total, Schwartz said.

Calls were not made on Shabbat or Jewish holidays. After the 1990 study, many Orthodox groups criticized the NJPS for failing to fully take their community into account.

Russian and Yiddish versions of the survey also were used. About 100 respondents answered in Russian, though no one needed a Yiddish-language survey, the NJPS team said.

After a few months of surveys, the NJPS team had reached 3,100 people, Schwartz said, some three times what typical Gallup surveys generally include.

But UJC officials wanted to increase the sample to their original goal of 4,500, and delayed the study while they raised the necessary money.

Lorraine Blass, UJC’s senior planner and project director for NJPS, said the team sought that figure in order to build a sample twice the size as the previous study and to have sufficient data to analyze subgroups within the Jewish population.

Originally scheduled to be released at the 2001 G.A., the report’s delay nevertheless prompted yet more conjecture about the project and heightened debate about the new figures.

Central to the new NJPS is the debate at the heart of every Jewish survey — the eternal "Who is a Jew?" question.

In this case, the NJPS relied on four questions to determine Jewishness. They included: What is your religion, if any? Do you consider yourself Jewish for any reason? If your religion is not Judaism, do you have a Jewish mother or father? If your religion is not Judaism, were you raised Jewish?

These questions are very similar to those used in the 1990 survey.

"There are a multitude of ways we, individually or as a community, can define who is a Jew," Schwartz said. These questions were designed "to define the Jewish community in the broadest way possible."

Egon Mayer, director of the Center for Jewish Studies at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York and a member of the 2000 NJPS advisory panel, said there was a "tremendous amount of good-faith effort" this time to "reach out to every segment of the population."

Mayer, who led his own 2001 study meant as a second opinion to the new NJPS, found a core Jewish population of 5.5 million, echoing the NJPS from 11 years earlier.

But he also found that only 51 percent defined themselves as Jews, lower than the 58 percent figure from the 1990 NJPS.

Mayer also found that of those who said they were Jews or raised as Jews, 33 percent were married to non-Jews, higher than the 28 percent found in 1990.

Unless there is something "dramatically different" about intermarriage this time, Mayer said, the report will not ignite the same uproar it did in 1990.

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