Jewish Identity Crisis

A new study reporting decreased identification with Judaism and rising intermarriage rates is generating concern, but not shock, in the Jewish community.

Instead, many leaders see the new findings, released last week, as a continuation of trends reported in the 1990 National Jewish Population Survey. Rather than viewing the study as a call to radically change course, most see it as a signal to step up existing efforts to strengthen Jewish continuity.

For some, that will come through day school education and making synagogues more spiritually meaningful to people. For others, it means support for nonreligious forms of Jewish expression — such as social action and the arts — that will appeal to people not interested in studying texts or going to synagogue services.

The American Jewish Identity Survey 2001 is an unofficial follow-up to the 1990 survey, conducted by three researchers who were involved in the original study. Preliminary findings were released last week. The researchers — Egon Mayer, Ariela Keysar and Barry Kosmin — are still analyzing the data and expect to offer more details in coming months, particularly about intermarriage and how children of intermarriages are raised.

The study is part of a larger examination of religion in America.

As Jewish leaders analyze the new study, many say its importance depends on how one determines who is Jewish. The study’s estimate of 5.5 million American Jews — of whom 1.4 million identify as members of another religion — includes people who say they are Jewish or of Jewish upbringing or parentage.

Some observers say it would be less surprising for a person with one Jewish parent and who was raised with no religion — or even raised as a Christian — to reject Judaism than for a person who was raised Jewish. Such distinctions are impossible to make from the findings reported so far.

But the study does report that even among people who identify Judaism as their religion, 42 percent profess a secular outlook and 14 percent say they do not believe in God. In contrast, only 15 percent of Americans describe their outlook as secular.

It also finds that while only half of American Jews are affiliated with a synagogue or Jewish community organization, most identify with a stream of Judaism. Thirty percent identify with the Reform movement, 24 percent with the Conservative movement, 8 percent with Orthodoxy, 1 percent with Reconstructionism and 1 percent with Secular Humanism.

Six percent used self-generated labels like "liberal" or "atheist," and 20 percent declined to identify with any label or branch of Judaism.

Yet the findings are contradicted by other measures that would seem to show that interest in Judaism is higher than ever.

Enrollment at Jewish day schools is up, and scores of new schools have been founded in the past few years. Sales of books on Judaism are up.

Adult Jewish education courses — including structured text-study programs that require two-year commitments — are proliferating. Jewish summer camps have long waiting lists of prospective campers.

In addition, the Reform movement — which once rejected many customary Jewish practices — is increasingly embracing traditional ritual and observance.

L.A.’s Rabbi David Ellenson, president of the Reform movement’s Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, said the findings of the survey do not contradict the other evidence.

Modern American life, Ellenson said, has had a dual effect on Jewish identity. On the one hand, acceptance has triggered high rates of assimilation and intermarriage, but it also has "caused other Jews to seek identity and community.

"[There] is a return to tradition, but against a backdrop of American religiosity, where individuals construct their own sense of meaning and look to tradition not as commanding, but for resources to seek meaning in their own lives," Ellenson said.

Jonathan Woocher, president of the Jewish Education Service of North America and the chief professional of the Jewish Federation system’s Renaissance and Renewal Pillar, agreed with Ellenson that there is "nothing surprising" in the new study.

"This is what one would have expected, given everything else we’ve seen in what’s happening in Jewish life," Woocher said. "There’s nothing here that says, ‘Whoa, we’re really on the wrong track,’" he said.

Instead, he said, the findings point to a "diverse population" and illustrate the need for a variety of approaches to engage Jews in Jewish life.

Rabbi Nina Cardin, director of Jewish life at the Jewish Community Center of Greater Baltimore and author of two guides on Jewish observance and rituals, said the findings — particularly the low rates of organizational affiliation and religious views — show the need to broaden outreach efforts beyond day schools and synagogues.

While education and synagogues remain important, Cardin said, the organized Jewish community needs to step up support for Jewish social action, environmental and cultural activities.

These arenas are "begging for our increased attention, [and attract] a lot of Jews who will not walk into a synagogue or Torah study class," Cardin said.

Rabbi Norman Lamm, the president of Yeshiva University, called the findings "tragic," saying they show the need for more Jewish education.

Lamm called for strengthening the commitment of Jews already involved in Jewish life by spending more money on Jewish day schools, so the schools can accommodate more students and pay better salaries.

The study’s funder, Felix Posen, said it suggests that secular Jews and those not affiliated with synagogues are a significant segment of the community, and cannot "be dismissed as if their number were insignificant or vestigial."

However, not all are convinced that findings of a low level of Jewish religiosity are so significant.

Jack Wertheimer, provost of the Conservative movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary, said that members of other faiths may have different definitions of what it means to be religious, and that Jews may say they are secular or have a secular outlook simply because they are not Orthodox.

Often, people will say they are secular, but "if you press further and ask ‘Do you attend synagogue? Do you pray?’ — some of these secular people will answer yes," Wertheimer said.

"I don’t know of anybody who has written off secular Jews. That’s not the issue," Wertheimer said in response to Posen’s comments. "What came out of the 1990 population study was very powerful evidence that secular Jews who do not participate in organized religious life of the Jews are the least likely to successfully transmit strong Jewish identity to their children."