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Focus on Issues: New Identity Study Reignites Debate on How to Target Jews

June 28, 2000
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Ever since the 1990 National Jewish Population Survey reported that intermarriage rates were at an all-time high, the American Jewish community has desperately been seeking ways to stem the tide of assimilation.

Community leaders have wanted to know which programs are most effective at engaging Jews and keeping them engaged, and which Jews to target with those programs.

The quest has sparked many sociological studies, most of which have been more successful at pointing to relationships between programs and identity rather than pinning down causal connections.

Thus, for example, studies have shown that graduates of day schools and alumni of certain youth groups are more religiously observant than Jews as a whole.

However, a sort of chicken-and-egg question has lingered: Did the day school or youth group spark the religious observance, or did those institutions simply attract a population already predisposed to being observant?

A new study exploring Jewish identity may be raising more questions than it answers.

The study of New York-area Jews finds that feelings about being Jewish change throughout the lifetime of non-Orthodox American Jews, and that those who are not religiously observant or Jewishly involved by traditional measures may still consider their Jewishness an important aspect of their identity.

Proponents both of “outreach” — those who want to target uninvolved Jews – – and “inreach” — those who believe Jewish communal resources would best be spent strengthening the commitments of moderately affiliated Jews — say the study supports their views.

The study also doesn’t single out any particular programs — be they day schools, summer camps or Israel experiences — as the most effective, but instead suggests that a variety of experiences can affect different people at different stages of their lives.

The study’s author admits that the study offers fodder for different approaches to outreach, but says it ultimately calls for a diversified approach to promoting continuity.

“Connections and Journeys,” by Bethamie Horowitz, a senior scholar at Brandeis University’s Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies, distinguishes itself from other recent studies on Jewish identity by focusing on how people feel about their Jewishness, rather than relying solely on traditional measures such as ritual practice and involvement in Jewish organizations.

The study is limited to New York-area Jews, and Horowitz acknowledges that Jews in New York City differ from other American Jews in that they live in more densely Jewish areas and are more likely to be Orthodox than Jews in other parts of the country.

However, she notes, Jews in New York’s suburbs do resemble Jews elsewhere. And because New York-area Jews comprise 26 percent of America’s Jews, she says, “on statistical grounds alone, what happens in New York, matters to America.”

Commissioned by the UJA-Federation of New York’s Commission on Jewish Identity and Renewal, the study is based on in-depth interviews, focus group sessions and a survey of 1,504 American-born Jewish adults ages 22-52.

Among the key findings:

Sixty percent of the people surveyed reported they have experienced changes in their relationship to Judaism over time, suggesting, writes Horowitz, that “Jewish identity is not a fixed factor in one’s life but rather a matter that parallels personal growth and personal development.”

Ritual practice is either steadily low or decreasing for nearly 70 percent of those studied, while “subjective attachment” — or feeling that one’s Jewishness is important — is either steadily high or increasing for 63 percent.

Those who are not intensively engaged in Jewish life define their Jewishness in personal ways, what Horowitz describes as a “salad bar” approach of selecting various aspects of the tradition — from Jewish law to “an individual’s feelings about his Uncle Louie” — that they find personally meaningful.

Remembering the Holocaust and leading an ethical and moral life topped the list when respondents were asked to rate the importance of certain aspects of being Jewish. At the bottom of the list, fewer than 30 percent of those surveyed said observing Jewish law, supporting Jewish organizations, attending synagogue or studying Jewish texts were important aspects of being Jewish for them.

Day school education and other early childhood experiences appear to play a stronger role in cementing adult Jewish identities of the Orthodox than of other Jews. Liberal Jews report that voluntary experiences — like Israel trips, teen experiences and college involvement — exerted greater influence on their adult Jewish identity.

Although positive childhood educational experiences “predispose” non-Orthodox Jews to engage in Jewish activity later in life, the study says, “the individual who has not had a steady, intensive Jewish upbringing is open to influence by experiences that come later in life.”

Respondents said positive experiences with family members and institutions are what attracted them most to Judaism. Asked what factors turned people away from Judaism, people reported negative experiences with Jewish institutions, poor family relationships and unpleasant encounters with people who are more religious than they are.

More Jews would be upset if their child converted to Christianity or never got a college degree (77 percent in each case) than if their child married a non- Jew (51 percent), and 45 percent said it wouldn’t matter to them at all if their child married a non-Jew.

The study finds feelings of Jewish attachment among Jews not actively involved in the community but also notes that the Jewish identity of people with “mixed” levels of Jewish engagement are most affected by outside influences.

In part because of those two findings, the study is reigniting the longstanding “outreach/inreach” debate.

Jonathan Woocher, executive vice president of the Jewish Education Service of North America and head of the North American federation system’s committee on renaissance and renewal, said the study shows the need to figure out how to engage Jews who — although not highly involved in Jewish life — feel positively about their Jewishness.

According to the study, that’s about 34 percent of U.S. Jews.

“We cannot just write off those people and assume that because at this moment in time they’re not behaving in the way the Jewish community most values that they’re not interested in being Jewish and will never be more actively engaged,” he said.

Alisa Rubin Kurshan, vice president of strategic planning and organizational resources at the UJA-Federation of New York, said, “We have to stop waiting at the door. Many Jews are not looking up where the local synagogue is, so it’s about finding where Jews are and doing what they’re doing.”

Egon Mayer, a sociologist and director of research for a national organization focusing on intermarried Jews and their families, agreed.

“The community must find as many portals of entry as there are portals of exit, because clearly the portals of exit are quite vast,” he said.

But those in the “inreach” camp point to the study’s finding that “the people who are most intensively involved in Jewish life, as well as those who are least connected” are “generally less susceptible” to experiences that might alter their Jewish identities.

Steven Bayme of the American Jewish Committee has long contended that outreach to intermarried and unaffiliated Jews is a poor use of scarce resources. He said the study shows that “the future of Jewish continuity initiatives really needs to be targeted toward the middles — not those who are intensively involved or those on the periphery.”

Horowitz said she doesn’t see the two views as contradictory.

“I do think the middle is where there’s most volatility, but it’s also true that the least involved — the indifferent — are most likely to be young, single males, and if you can catch them at that stage of life I would hate to write them off,” she said.

Like Horowitz, many interpret the findings as a sign that it is important to offer a diversity of programs, recognizing that different types of experiences can influence people at different stages in their lives.

“This confirms the strategy we’ve employed that there’s no single magic bullet, no one place we can inoculate all the 5-year-olds and make them Jewish,” said Kurshan.

“It would’ve been easier, but it’s too simplistic,” she continued. “You have to work on different planes, with different institutions.”

Woocher said what the study argues for is “just what we’ve been doing: trying to have multiple options.”

Woocher, Kurshan, Horowitz and the New York federation’s executive vice president, John Ruskay, all said the study points to the need for further research on Jewish identity.

But one staunch advocate for Jewish day schools — who has stated repeatedly that funding day schools should be the single-most important goal for the Jewish community — is skeptical about the utility of Horowitz’s findings.

George Hanus, a Chicago real estate developer who has launched a national campaign urging all Jews to donate 5 percent of their estates to day school endowments, said that since the release of the 1990 National Jewish Population Survey, there have been “enough studies, blue-ribbon commissions, task forces and high-level conferences to fill a garbage truck.”

“The answer is simple, and all these studies are silly,” he said. “If we educate our children Jewishly, we will have a greater number of Jewishly involved adults.

But Horowitz defended her research, saying that it leads to a more nuanced understanding of identity that will help the community better tailor its approach to engaging Jews.

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