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Study: Shul Affiliation is Rising, but Jewish Population Declining

February 28, 2002
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The number of American Jewish households affiliating with a synagogue has increased by 15 percent in the past decade, even as the “core” Jewish population is shrinking and the number of intermarried families has grown.

It appears that the rising affiliation rates largely are benefitting the Reform movement, which now claims 41 percent of all affiliated households, up from 35 percent in 1990.

Those are among the major findings of the American Jewish Identity Survey 2001, a demographic snapshot that was recently released in full after publishing selected highlights this fall. The study is based on a random sampling of 1,668 U.S. Jews.

Conducted under the auspices of the Center for Jewish Studies at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, the American Jewish Identity Survey is similar to the National Jewish Population Survey 2001-2002, which is sponsored by the North American Jewish federation system and is expected to be released in full this fall.

Egon Mayer, one of the released study’s authors, said it shows that American Jewry is facing “multiple trends” — increased involvement by some Jews at the same time as others are growing more distant from their Judaism.

Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the Reform movement’s Union of American Hebrew Congregations, said he had not yet read the full study, but said the highlights confirm his movement’s experiences in the past decade.

Approximately 320,000 North American households are affiliated with a Reform synagogue, according to the UAHC, compared to 288,000 in 1990.

Yoffie credits the movement’s growth to its “amalgamation of tradition and modernity,” gender equality, focus on social justice and its willingness to include a wide variety of Jews, including those who are intermarried.

“Intermarriage, depending on how we respond to it, is potentially a danger, but it need not mean the death knell for American Judaism,” Yoffie said.

While welcoming the finding that affiliation rates have increased, Yoffie said Reform — along with the other movements — needs to do a better job of reaching the many American Jews who do not belong to a synagogue.

The Reform movement has reached out more aggressively to intermarried families than the other major Jewish movements. It also recognizes patrilineal descent, meaning that the children of Jewish fathers and non-Jewish mothers can be considered Jewish.

However, some observers are skeptical that the findings signify a real growth for Reform.

Steven Cohen, a sociologist at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem who has been a consultant for the upcoming National Jewish Population Survey, said counting households rather than individual Jews is “artificially boosting the Reform movement by adding non-Jews to their memberships.”

He explained: “If the Reform movement is drawing a lot of intermarried households, they’re picking up one Jew per household or maybe one and some kids, so that household will have fewer Jews” than one affiliated with a Conservative or Orthodox congregation.

Cohen recently gave a plenary address at the Conservative movement’s convention, speaking about the communal challenges posed by intermarriage and urging Conservative synagogues to consider raising their religious expectations of members.

Despite the findings of increased synagogue affiliation, the American Jewish Identity Survey also reports that the “core” Jewish population — those who say Judaism is their religion, who say they are of Jewish parentage or upbringing but have no religion, or who consider themselves Jewish — has declined.

In addition, the number of people who are of Jewish origin but identify with another religion has increased.

The rate of new intermarriages has not risen — 51 percent of Jews who wed in the past 10 years married non-Jews, compared with 52 percent in the five years preceding the 1990 National Jewish Population Survey — but the effects of years of intermarriage are being felt.

Thirty-three percent of core Jews are married to non-Jews, compared with 28 percent in 1990. In addition, almost one-third of core Jews do not have a Jewish mother. That means that with the exception of those who are converts, they would not be recognized as Jewish by Conservative or Orthodox leaders.

Smaller in scope and sample size than the forthcoming federation-sponsored study, the American Jewish Identity Survey replicates most of the methodology and many of the questions of National Jewish Population Survey 1990.

Among some of the other new findings:

The core American Jewish population has declined from about 5.5 million in 1990 to about 5.3 million. However, the number of persons who are of Jewish origin — including those who have another religion — has increased from 6.8 million in 1990 to nearly 7.7 million.

Approximately 1 million American households — 15 percent more than in 1990 — report affiliation with a Jewish congregation. Forty-one percent of them belong to a Reform temple, 41 percent to a Conservative synagogue and 18 percent to Orthodox. In 1990, 35 percent of affiliated households belonged to Reform, 43 percent to Conservative and 16 percent to Orthodox.

More core Jews — 30 percent — identify with Reform than with any other movement. Some 24 percent identify with Conservative, 8 percent with Orthodox, 1 percent with Reconstructionist and 1 percent with Humanistic Judaism.

However, those who identify with Conservative Judaism and Orthodoxy are far more likely to be synagogue members than those who identify with Reform.

Among unmarried Jews living with a partner, 81 percent are living with a partner who is not of Jewish origin.

Those who say they are Jewish by religion are older, more affluent, more likely to be Democrats and more clustered in the Northeast than those who are of Jewish parentage but have no religion or who identify with a religion other than Judaism.

The average Jew who says Judaism is his or her religion is age 51 with a household income of $72,000, while the average Jew with no religion is age 44 with a household income of $58,000.

Non-core Jews, or those with Jewish origins but who identify with other religions, tend to be younger, have lower incomes and vote Republican.

The Northeast still is home to more Jews than any other region of the country, but the percentage living there – – 38 percent — is decreasing. Meanwhile, the percentage in the South is growing, and the percentage in the West and Midwest has remained fairly stable in the past decade.

In addition to Mayer, the study was conducted by Ariela Keysar, also of CUNY’s Center for Jewish Studies, and Barry Kosmin, who oversaw the 1990 study and currently is director of the Institute for Jewish Policy Research in London.

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