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A Smaller, Graying American Jewry Poses New Challenges for Community

October 9, 2002
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America’s Jewish population declined by 5 percent during the past 10 years, according to a new survey, a trend that is likely to continue given the community’s aging population and low birth rates.

The number of Jews now stands at 5.2 million, down from 5.5 million in 1990, even as the total U.S. population is growing, according to the National Jewish Population Survey 2000-2001.

The picture of a declining, graying population was unveiled Tuesday by the United Jewish Communities, the umbrella organization of local Jewish federations that sponsored what is believed to be the most comprehensive demographic survey of the Jewish community to date.

The statistics released this week — including the fact that Jews now represent 2 percent of the American population — represent only the demographic findings of the survey.

Other parts of the study, which will address issues of Jewish identity and affiliation, will be released at the group’s annual gathering in Philadelphia at the end of November.

The study is likely to be scrutinized for weeks, months and the years ahead, as the findings spark new debates about the numbers themselves and what they mean for the Jewish community.

Much of the study pointed to demographic changes that have been emerging for years, some contained in the 1990 NJPS.

For instance, the latest study found that the Jewish population is "skewed" to the Northeast, with 43 percent of Jews living there, while the Midwest, with 13 percent of the community, remains the sparsest Jewish area.

Other findings confirmed what has been known, but are still seen as significant, including the aging population and the low birth rates.

The median age of American Jews climbed from 37 in 1990 to 41 in 2000, with 19 percent age 65 and older, compared with 15 percent in 1990. At the same time, Jewish women approaching the end of their childbearing years, ages 40-44, have an average of 1.8 children, which is below the replacement level of 2.1.

Stephen Hoffman, chief executive officer of the UJC, said the study’s conclusions of an aging population coupled with low birth rates "raise policy questions" about how Jewish agencies should spend money.

For example, with fewer Jewish children, agencies might examine policy questions about Jewish camp fees, Jewish school costs, even college aid.

And with an increasingly aging population, "we need to proportionately devote more attention to caring for the elderly," he added.

One who welcomed the scrutiny on an aging Jewish population was Rabbi Dayle Friedman, who is currently developing Hiddur: The Center for Aging and Judaism at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College.

"I hope we’ll stop viewing this as bad news, but as an invitation to tap the resources of people who are older and tap their creativity in ways we haven’t imagined," said the Philadelphia-based rabbi who has worked extensively with the Jewishly elderly.

For example, Friedman said retired educators who are Jewish could be retrained to help address a shortage in Jewish school educators.

Referring to the overall demographic trends, Frank Mott, a professor of sociology at Ohio State University who co- chaired the National Technical Advisory Committee, which helped steer the 2000-01 NJPS, said: "It doesn’t look too good."

"Unless there are some significant changes" in Jewish demographic patterns, Mott added, Jews ultimately "are not going to replace themselves."

America’s 5.2 million Jews live in what the NJPS identified as 2.9 million Jewish households.

But the study also found 6.7 million people in those households, which means that 1.5 million people in these households are not Jewish.

But NJPS officials are not saying yet how those non-Jews are related to the identified Jews.

To study America’s Jews, the NJPS surveyed 4,500 Jews from every state and the District of Columbia, the largest Jewish demographic study to date.

The NJPS relied on four questions to determine Jewishness. They were: 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; and if your religion is not Jewish, were you raised Jewish?

Those questions remain virtually unchanged from the last time the NJPS was conducted in 1990, when it threw American Jewry into upheaval by showing that 52 percent of Jews who married in the previous five years had chosen non-Jewish spouses.

That revelation alone sparked intense debate and soul-searching and spurred tens of millions of dollars’ worth of programs in the past decade meant to solidify Jewish identity and reach out to Jews.

While the 1990 NJPS became known mostly as the harbinger of troubling news about the community’s viability, the team behind the 2000-01 NJPS tried to avoid creating a single focus by releasing the data in two parts.

This week officials of the UJC, the umbrella organization of local Jewish federations, released what Mott termed only a "skeleton outline" of the Jewish population.

The study, which was delayed in an effort to reach the sample of 4,500, cost $6 million, compared to only $500,000 in 1990.

Those in the Jewish demographics business — and the Jewish professional world — waited eagerly to hear the initial results, which NJPS officials have kept closely guarded for weeks.

Among those who found the results less than surprising was Egon Mayer, who chairs the Brooklyn College sociology department and directs the Center for Jewish Studies at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York.

"I wish I could say they have got it all wrong, but on this macro level, it’s pretty much what every study has found — they’ve identified what’s real," said Mayer, who sat on the NJPS advisory panel.

If U.S. Jewry dropped even a slight 5.45 percent during a decade when the U.S. population expanded 33 million to 288 million, in some part due to immigration, then even "a modest decline is not a good thing," Mayer said.

Mayer led his own 2001 demographic survey meant as a second opinion to the 2000-2001 NJPS. His survey, which used criteria similar to the 1990 NJPS, counted 5.5 million U.S. Jews.

But Mayer also found that only 51 percent of those Jews identified themselves as Jews, down from 58 percent in 1990.

One critic of the NJPS who issued his own report last month identifying 6.7 million Jews blasted the initial results as a "methodological disaster."

Gary Tobin, president of the San Francisco-based Institute for Jewish & Community Research, said the NJPS scared away some Jews by asking screening questions about their religion immediately.

Unlike his own study, which located 250 Jewish households by asking a series of general questions first, the NJPS "waded way too quickly" into the Jewish survey, he said.

But Ira Sheskin, a member of the NJPS advisory panel and a geography professor at the University of Miami, said the NJPS did use synagogue and Jewish community center lists of known Jews to test whether people admitted to being Jews.

In addition to the 6.7 million Jews he found using the same definition of a Jew as NJPS, Tobin also pinpointed another 2.5 million Americans as "connected non-Jews" who are tied by marriage, ancestry or secondary practice to Judaism; and another 4.1 million with some Jewish ancestor such as a grandparent.

Sheskin said he could not explain why Tobin came up with different figures from NJPS, or from the 6.1 million Jews estimated in the 2000 American Jewish Year Book — a figure itself based on local community lists.

But Sheskin, who has criticized Tobin’s study for casting too wide a net in determining Jews, added that the dueling studies are ultimately "about the same" and differ largely along lines of "how you go about defining who is a Jew."

Indeed, some demographers, cautioned that it would be a mistake to focus too heavily on the NJPS numbers.

Calvin Goldscheider, a professor of Judaic studies at Brown University, said one key challenge will be to study the 1.5 million non-Jews living in the 2.9 million Jewish households that the study identified.

"Who are these people? What’s attractive about the Jewish community from the point of view of a non-Jew?" he said.

These non-Jews are associated with Jews because the community is family-oriented, well-educated, relatively high- income and strongly American, he said.

Given the earlier focus on intermarriage, the community now should focus not on fewer numbers, but at what kind of Jewish life is happening in these homes, he said.

Mayer, who has been involved in outreach programs for interfaith families, agreed.

The greater the decline in those identified as Jews, Mayer said, "the greater the question is, Who are these people in the Jewish household, and what impact will they have on the life of the Jewish community?"

Stephen Cohen, a sociologist of American Jewry and professor at the Melton Centre for Jewish Education at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, said few sociologists would be surprised that after a decade of high intermarriage rates, the NJPS pointed to many non-Jews living with Jews.

Now, the community needs to "look at how to intensify the involvement of Jews, and how to negotiate the boundary between Jews and non-Jews," said Cohen, who was a consultant to the NJPS.

While that symbolic line was once "automatic" between the Jewish and non-Jewish world, it "now runs through families" of Jews, he added.

Some will want to "eviscerate" the line and be as "inclusive" as possible, he said, while others will argue the border should be "more sharply defined."

Mayer, meanwhile, said he is also concerned about the political implications of the overall "decline" in strictly Jewish numbers, coming as it does as the overall population rose by 33 million to 288 million.

"That means that our proportional share has weakened," he said.

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