Style and Substance


What can the 2003 National Jewish Population Survey (NJPS) tell us that TheNew York Times wedding announcements can’t?

I read both this weekend, pretty much one after the other, and I can tellyou that the nuptial notices make up in pretty portraits what they lack inhard data.

As for the NJPS, it makes up in hard data what it lacks in sober analysis.

I’m not the first to point out that the usual dire headlines thataccompanied the survey’s release are overripe. “Where have all the Jewishpeople gone?” read one news release. “Jewish Population Declining” screameda newspaper headline. Even comedian Bill Maher chimed in on his HBO show:With fewer Jews, he asked, “Who will write all those sitcoms about Latinoand African American families?”

The survey, funded for $6 million by the federation umbrella group UnitedJewish Communities, reported that the nation’s population of 5.2 millionJews represented a decline of 2 percent from the 1990 survey, which reported5.5 million Jews.

But critics have pointed out that the survey’s numbers are well within themargin of error. Beyond that, barring direct evidence of a decline, the NJPSactually states in its methodological appendix that, “many researchersbelieve that the methodologies of survey research may yield undercounts ofthe Jewish population.” That decline you’ve been reading about all week? Itmay in fact be a slight rise.

As for intermarriage, the survey reported a national intermarriage rateamong all married couples involving a Jew at 43 percent. Hardly shocking, asany weekend reading of Times wedding announcements would seem to indicate.This week, for instance, I saw that Dana Sacher, daughter of Susan and JoelSacher of Springfield, N.J., married John Thomas Rollins, a son of Claireand Paul Rollins of Venice, Fla. A Methodist minister officiated, the paperreported, while Michele Lazerow of the Martha’s Vineyard Hebrew Center inTisbury, Mass., “took part in the service.”

There were similar nuptials listed, and, taking a hazardous guess, I’d sayThe Times intermarriage rate for Sunday, Sept. 14, 2003, may be close to the43 percent the NJPS reported.

That number, by the way, is down from the 52 percent rate reported in the1990 survey. You remember how the OVER-HALF-OF-ALL-JEWS-INTERMARRY!statistic became an article of faith among rabbis and Jewish professionalspredicting the imminent end of the Jewish people. It was the number thatlaunched a thousand outreach programs, many of them worthwhile, and, asother numbers in the survey demonstrate, remarkably effective at deepeninglevels of Jewish education.

But it turns out the number itself was wrong. The new survey acknowledgesthat in their zeal to be as inclusive as possible, researchers counted asintermarried people who no longer considered themselves Jews. This time theydefined intermarriage as “the marriage of someone who is Jewish to someonewho is non-Jewish at the time of the survey.”

The result of this stroke of brilliant reasoning is a reduction in the rateof intermarriage in as many as 39 communities to 26 percent or lower.

Taking this into consideration, those dire headlines should instead bedownright inspiring. At a time when Jews can move unhindered up and down andacross the social ladder and marry anyone they want, many still place apremium on retaining their attachment to Judaism.

Among those who do intermarry, the survey found that one-third of theirchildren are being raised Jewish; that their children were three times morelikely to marry non-Jews themselves; that by the common measures of Jewishlife (synagogue affiliation, JCC membership, charitable contribution, homerituals) intermarried couples were much less Jewish.

But once again, don’t think for a second these numbers tell the whole story,or even the most important part of it. Jewish life is not a snapshot, it’s amovie. People’s feelings about their religion change depending, among otherthings, on how others within the faith treat them. Not surprisingly, thesurvey shows the number of Reform and Reconstructionist Jews increasing,while the number of Conservative Jews declining. Guess which denomination ismore welcoming to intermarried couples?

If this survey – and those handsome faces in the wedding announcements – donothing else, they should encourage us to redefine intermarriage not as anonus, but as an opportunity.

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