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A Snapshot of American Jewry

This article is reprinted with permission of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency. Visit www.jta.org.

NEW YORK, Sept. 10 (JTA) -- The Jewish population is aging and shrinking, its birthrate is falling, intermarriage is rising and most Jews do not engage in communal or religious pursuits.

Yet a majority attend a Passover seder and celebrate Chanukah, Jewish education is booming, and many Jews consider being Jewish important and feel strong ties to Israel.

These are not dueling headlines, but parallel portraits contained in the long-awaited National Jewish Population Survey 2000-01.

Federations and Jewish communal leaders use these studies every decade for policy and planning decisions.

The United Jewish Communities, the federation umbrella group, officially released the $6 million study this week, nearly a year after retracting initial NJPS data and delaying the survey's release amid controversy over its methodology and missing data.

A subsequent internal audit led to an independent review that UJC officials said should be made public by week's end.

But they and others said the study that emerged paints the most comprehensive, reliable picture of American Jewry to date.

Not only did the reviews reinforce the data's validity, but the NJPS was compared to other communal studies and "our numbers checked out very nicely," said Lorraine Blass, NJPS project director and senior planner at UJC.

Those numbers add up to a complex Jewish continuum.

On one end lies a small segment of the community experiencing a Jewish renaissance, on the other a majority that continues to assimilate.

In the vast middle remain most Jews who engage in few Jewish pursuits.

"The big story is how the affiliated and the unaffiliated sharply differ on all measures of Jewish life," said Steven M. Cohen, a senior NJPS consultant and Hebrew University professor.

"As a group, American Jews may be moving in two different directions simultaneously: increasing Jewish intensification alongside decreasing Jewish intensity. It may well be the most and least involved are gaining at the expense of those with middling levels of Jewish involvement."

Among the study's key findings:

* There are 5.2 million U.S. Jews, down 5 percent from 5.5 million counted in the 1990 population study.

* Of those, 4.3 million have "stronger Jewish connections," meaning they attend Passover seders and light Chanukah candles. This number also includes those more Jewishly committed--people who keep kosher homes, routinely attend synagogue, attend Jewish schools and belong to at least one Jewish organization.

* Intermarriage is rising but at a steady pace, at 47 percent for the past five years. That represents a 4 percent increase from 1990, which was calculated differently. Of all Jews currently wed, one-third are intermarried.

* Day school enrollment is rising, with 29 percent of youths ages 6-17 saying they have attended day schools or yeshivas.

* An estimated 353,000 people, including 272,000 adults and 81,000 children, live in households with incomes below the poverty line.

* Jews live in 2.9 million households, with a total of 6.7 million people, meaning that two out of every nine people living in households with Jews in them are non-Jews.

* The median Jewish age is 42, compared to 35 for Americans generally, and the birthrate was 1.8, below the 1.9 rate for American women generally.

While many of these figures did not change sharply from the last NJPS in 1990, some warned of troubling signs for the coming decade.

There was a drop in the population of Jewish children, especially in the 0-4 age bracket, and though the initial report did not contain the exact figure, it said 20 percent of the overall population were children, down 1 percent from a decade ago.

"In the next few years, there will be fewer Jewish children to go into Jewish schools and to bring their parents into synagogues," Cohen said.

David Marker, a member of the National Technical Advisory Committee that consulted on the NJPS and a senior statistician at Westat, a statistics firm, agreed, but he said the trend underscores that Jews must face up to intermarriage now that it appears to be "stabilized."

According to the NJPS, intermarriage stayed at the same rate of 43 percent between 1985 and 1990 and between 1991 and 1996, then climbed to 47 percent through 2001.

"Intermarriage doesn't have to be viewed as a negative," Marker said. "The Jewish community needs to do a better job of reaching out to the families of the intermarried, making them feel wanted and comfortable in Jewish institutions without pushing them away."

In the wake of the 1990 study, the volatile intermarriage issue took center stage, launching an ongoing debate over whether the community should spend money on reaching out to Jews on the fringes and the intermarried, or on "Jewish continuity" and identity building of more committed Jews.

Rabbi Ephraim Buchwald, director of the National Jewish Outreach Program, continues to advocate the latter.

He calls the decline in Jewish numbers and the intermarriage rate "staggering."

Groups such as his only succeed in getting an estimated 4,000 Jews "back" a year, he said, while 80,000 are "lost."

That means the community should spend "serious" money on Jewish education and practice, since the 4.3 million that are considered "engaged" Jews remain mostly "marginally connected," Buchwald said.

"It's not lighting Shabbat candles, it's not sending a Rosh Hashanah card or ethnic pride, it's not belonging to a JCC or love of Israel or Jewish philanthropy or memorializing the Holocaust," he said. "We know from 3,000 years of empirical evidence that the key to Jewish survival is Jewish practice."

On the other side of the debate stands those like Edmund Case, publisher of Interfaithfamily.com, which encourages Jewish connections in the interfaith community.

Case said the intermarriage rate is not surprising and that no matter the number, intermarriage remains "huge."

More importantly, Case said, is how the community can increase the number of interfaith couples who raise their children as Jews.

According to the study, 33 percent of interfaith couples raise their children as Jews, compared to 96 percent of Jewish couples who do.

"I am less interested in the gross numbers and more interested in the qualitative experiences of interfaith families connecting with Jewish life," he said.

In a recent essay contest his Web site sponsored, Case said many Jews in interfaith couples revealed that intermarriage forced them to re-examine their faith, sparking "increased participation" in Jewish life.

Beyond the debate over intermarriage, Cohen and others said the growing gap between active and inactive Jews remained a big hurdle for Jewish organizations such as Jewish community centers, synagogues and other institutions seeking to gain members.

According to the NJPS, among the more connected 4.3 million Jews, 44 percent did not belong to any Jewish group; 28 percent were "moderately affiliated" to one group, and 28 percent were "highly affiliated" with two or more.

Among those Jews belonging to one or more Jewish organizations, Jewish religious and communal ties grew while dropping sharply among the unaffiliated.

"It's a policy challenge, because it diminishes the sense of fluidity between the affiliated and unaffiliated," Cohen said. "We certainly have our job cut out for us."

Among the more active Jews, there were some surprises when it came to education.

Day school enrollment is rising, with 29 percent of youth ages 6-17 saying they have attended day schools or yeshivas, and 23 percent of those ages 18-34 saying they have attended such schools.

At the same time 41 percent of college and graduate students said they had taken a Jewish studies course.

Those day school figures are in line with a survey by the Avi Chai Foundation of schools in 1998-1999, which found that there were nearly 185,000 students enrolled in Jewish day schools, up 20,000 from earlier in the decade.

Of those, 80 percent come from Orthodox families, according to Yossi Prager, executive director of the Avi Chai Foundation.

Bethamie Horowitz, another NTAC member and director of research for the Mandel Foundation, Israel, said the popularity of Jewish studies courses at the nation's universities is an opportunity to build Jewish identity among young Jews.

"I think Judaism will sell itself if we can get kids to think about it," she said.

If nothing else, Cohen said the study's measure of increased involvement in Jewish education will redouble communal support for such institutions.

"I am sure this study will encourage the investment of millions of charitable dollars into Jewish education," he said. "For that alone, the investment in NJPS was well worth it."

But the study's focus on more connected Jews also sparked some dissent and revived the eternal "who is a Jew" debate yet again.

Egon Mayer, who co-authored the 2001 American Jewish Identity Survey, a City University of New York study that measured Jewish population and behavior, said the NJPS cast too small a net in counting Jews. Unlike the 1990 NJPS, he said, the latest study did not count the non-Jews living with Jews in so-called Jewish households.

"It seems to me that is a dramatic shrinking down of the parameters of the population that is connected to the Jewish community," Mayer said.

In his study, Mayer followed the 1990 NJPS in counting non-Jews in Jewish homes. He found 9.8 million people, in 3.9 million homes, compared to the current study, which found 6.7 million people in 2.9 million homes.

But Vivian Klaff, a co-chairman of the advisory committee and a critic of UJC's postponement of the study's release, defended the decision to narrow the way Jews were identified.

"If we had extended the definition of who was Jewish, we could have gotten 7 million Jews," he said. "You can't narrow the definition of Jewishness and still get more Jews."

The NJPS surveyed 4,523 people, representing 28 percent of all those contacted between August 2000 and August 2001.

UJC officials said the response rate was low but met guidelines in an industry where even prominent polling groups like Gallup are eliciting fewer respondents.

Overall, the margin of error of the NJPS was plus or minus 2 percent.

Hebrew for "Head of the Year," the Jewish New Year. With Yom Kippur, known as the High Holy Days. Derived from the Greek word for "assembly," a Jewish house of prayer. Synagogue refers to both the room where prayer services are held and the building where it occurs. In Yiddish, "shul." Reform synagogues are often called "temple." Hanukkah (known by many spellings) is an eight-day Jewish holiday commemorating the rededication of the Second Temple in Jerusalem at the time of the Maccabean Revolt of the 2nd Century BCE. It is marked by the lighting of a menorah and the eating of fried foods. The spring holiday commemorating the Exodus of the Jews from slavery in Egypt. The Hebrew name is "Pesach." Hebrew, literally, for "sitting," refers to a Jewish educational institution that focuses on the study of traditional religious texts (including Torah and Talmud study). A yeshiva can be a day school for elementary or high school students, or a place of study for adults. Traditionally, a yeshiva was attended by boys/men only; more recently, yeshivas have opened for girls/women and even co-ed yeshivas now exist. The Jewish Sabbath, from sunset on Friday to nightfall on Saturday. A language of West Semitic origins, culturally considered to be the language of the Jewish people. Ancient or Classical Hebrew is the language of Jewish prayer or study. Modern Hebrew was developed in the late-19th and early 20th centuries as a revival language; today it is spoken by most Israelis.
Hebrew for "fit" (as in, "fit for consumption"), the Jewish dietary laws. Hebrew for "my master," the term refers to a spiritual leader and teacher of Torah. Often, but not always, a rabbi is the leader of a synagogue congregation. Hebrew for "order," refers to the traditional course of events, or service, surrounding the Passover and Tu Bishvat meals.
Joe Berkofsky

Joe Berkofsky, a JTA staff writer based in New York, covers education, Jewish identity issues, philanthropy and the religious movements. He has been a reporter for the technology network TechTV in San Francisco, daily newspapers in the greater Boston area, and a contributing writer to The Jerusalem Report, The San Jose Mercury News, B'nai B'rith's International Jewish Monthly and other publications. He was also an editor at the Jewish Bulletin of Northern California and at other weekly newspapers.

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