Are We Growing or Shrinking?

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The National Jewish Population Survey 2000-01 may have undercounted the American Jewish population by more than 1 million, says a new study just released by Brandeis University’s Steinhardt Social Research Institute. A preliminary picture of the study’s results had been reported more than a month ago, but the new figures are in: the “core Jewish” population is 6 to 6.4 million–as compared to the NJPS’s estimate of 5.2 million.

Why the huge disparity? Before the NJPS was even released, the architects of that study admitted there were numerous flaws that would tend toward undercounting the population. The authors of the new study, Leonard Saxe, Elizabeth Tighe, Benjamin Phillips and Charles Kadushin, ignored the NJPS and based their findings on a synthesis of results of 37 government and independent surveys that addressed religious identification. Their general conclusion was that the NJPS significantly undercounted the non-Orthodox and the young.

This may seem like mere mental calisthenics, but there are important ramifications from the Brandeis survey. For one, if the American Jewish population increased, not decreased, since 1990 (as the NJPS 2000-01 would have us believe), then the American Jewish community is not quite in the kind of trouble that allows advocates of aliyah to argue that assimilation and intermarriage have “ravaged” American Jewry. Secondly, if there are larger numbers of non-Orthodox Jews than previously thought, the argument that Orthodox Judaism provides the only guarantor of Jewish continuity is also diminished. Further, as the authors note, the underestimation of the population may have led to an overestimation of the success of programs–and a misunderstanding of what populations they should reach.

The authors of the study also feel that the NJPS undercounted children of intermarriage who identify as Jewish. They point to demographer Bruce Phillips’ studies that say that the NJPS identified more than 1 million children of interfaith couples who should be counted as Jewish but were not. “Including these individuals would bring our estimate to between 7 and 7.4 million individuals,” say the new study’s authors. “More broadly, the present static analysis does not take account of the dynamic impact of intermarriage. One needs to understand the cumulative effect of intermarriage, as well as to track changes in the Jewish engagement of intermarried families.There is increasing evidence, for example, that more intermarried families are choosing to raise children Jewishly. If that trend continues, it portends an increase in the Jewish population.”

A Tale that Wags Are Talking About

A study that says the Jewish community is divided between the inmarried and the intermarried, authored by sociologist Steven Cohen, is finally getting some significant press–more than a month after it was first available.

We blogged about the study in early January. Titled A Tale of Two Jewries: The “Inconvenient Truth” for American Jews, the study argues that the Jewish behaviors of the inmarried are much higher than the Jewish behaviors of the intermarried, and the gap is growing. It says that the Jewish community should partially judge the success of Jewish youth activities by how much they lower the participants’ potential for intermarriage. Our criticisms, which are many, with his approach and message, are catalogues in the previous blog post and may also be in a forthcoming JTA op-ed.

In the meantime, Cohen himself has written an op-ed defending and explaining his study in the Jerusalem Post as a response to Jewish Outreach Institute Assistant Director Paul Golin’s op-ed criticizing the study. One interesting critique Golin brings up that we didn’t mention is Cohen’s own admission that zip code may be a more powerful factor in determining Jewish behavior than intermarriage; that is, living near other Jews may be a greater determinant of Jewish behavior than whether you’re married to a non-Jew. If that’s the case, Cohen’s entire argument is baseless. Rather than separating the Jewish population between the intermarried and the inmarried, it should be separated between those who live in Newton, Mass., Brooklyn and Cherry Hill, N.J., and those who don’t.

Non-Jewish Moms in Atlanta, Interfaith Couples in Cali

Next Monday, participants in the first Mothers Circle program in the country will be speaking at the Jewish Federation North Metro Campus in Alpharetta, Georgia, a suburb of Atlanta. The Mothers Circle is a nine-week course for non-Jewish mothers raising Jewish children started by the New York-based Jewish Outreach Institute. In the Atlanta Jewish Times, one of the early participants, Abi Auer, eloquently explains the value of the Mothers Circle: “Everyone who is involved in the Mothers Circle has made a sacrifice to give up some of those things we were raised with,” she says. “You don’t know what you don’t know when you are raising Jewish children and weren’t raised Jewish yourself.”

The JTA had a recent story on how Federations are becoming more sophisticated in how they allocate funding. One example of what the article calls “priority-based” funding is the Jewish Community Federation of San Francisco, the Peninsula, Marin and Sonoma Counties, which put money towards interfaith sensitivity training after finding that 75 percent of the couples in Sonoma and Marin counties were intermarried.

Groovin’

There’s an article in the most recent issue of The (New York) Jewish Week on people who convert to Judaism who are not in a romantic relationship with a Jew.

Leana Moritt, diretor of Jewish outreach at the 92nd Street Y, points out that many non-Jews exploring Judaism do so because of the influence of a Jewish person or persons in their life. One such person is Amanda Melpolder, who decided to go through an Orthodox conversion after being inspired by the lifestyle of her Jewish colleagues. Another is Linette Padron, who dated a Jewish man for nine years but only pursued conversion after they broke up. At InterfaithFamily.com, we think of interfaith relationships solely in romantic terms, but sometimes non-romantic interfaith relationships can be just as influential on the people involved.

Also in this issue of The Jewish Week is a review of Getting Our Groove Back, a 10-point proposal for reinvigorating and strengthening the American Jewish community written by Scott Shay, self-described “concerned citizen of American Jewry.” Normally a lay-written book like this doesn’t get much press, but Shay is a philanthropist and board member of the UJA-Federation of New York, the largest federation in the country.

The book includes some valuable advice but is based on a flawed analysis of American Jewish demographics–he still clings to the long-discredited notion that there are only 5.2 million Jews in the U.S. But far worse is his approach to intermarriage, which is nearly as offensive as it is ridiculous. In the book, he says the Reform movement should scrap its 1982 decision on accepting patrilineal descent and rabbis who officiate at intermarriages should be ostracized from the community, to the point that they should be denied aliyah in any synagogue.

I’ll let the absurdity of these proposals speak for themselves.

Does Fear of Intermarriage Equal Xenophobia?

Shmuel Rosner, the correspondent for Ha’aretz who covers the American Jewish community, continues his ongoing series of discussions relating to intermarriage in America. Previously, he’s interviewed our own Ed Case and Double or Nothing: Jewish Families and Mixed Marriage author Sylvia Barack Fishman and written about Steven Cohen’s study Two Jewries: The Inconvenient Truth for American Jews.

His newest correspondence is with Ira Sheskin, a University of Miami professor and one of the most prolific demographers in the American Jewish world. He and Arnie Dashevsky recently authored an essay in the 2006 American Jewish Year Book debunking the widespread notion that the American Jewish population was only 5.2 million; according to their survey of nearly 600 local demographic studies, the actual number is more like 6 million.
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You Can Actually Learn Something From Reality TV

I was told recently that I’m a reality TV junkie, and while contrary to popular belief, I don’t profess to love so called reality shows–I’m finding myself into the History Channel and PBS lately! BUT I can’t seem to help getting sucked into the “Celebreality” type shows on channels like VH1. My newest indulgence has been the truly silly “I Love New York”, which for those of you as sucked in as I am, have followed this spin-off from the equally silly Flavor of Love series starring the rapper Flavor Flav. For those of you with better things to do with your time, I’ll give a re-cap: the show is based around an African-American woman named Tiffany, better known to the world as “Miss New York” and it follows her in a dating-like game of suitors who live in a house with her and compete for her love, with each week an elimination round and 2 men getting the boot. Final goal – to be the last man standing and win New York’s heart. Of course the cast of characters is perfectly scripted, with men pushing their own agendas (like passing out their mix tapes!) and others looking for their 15 minutes of fame while having nervous breakdowns. The contestants range from the ones you find yourself oddly rooting for to the ones you know the producers just keep on the show to make good TV–and overwhelmingly the cast of men is African-American as well–with one notable exception: My new favorite character, Mr. Boston.
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