Rising Intermarriage, Fewer Jews

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 (NJPS) 2000-01. Federations and Jewish communal leaders use these studies every decade for policy and planning decisions.

The United Jewish Communities (UJC), 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."

While many of these findings 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."

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.

"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 noting 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 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.

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.

"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 and 41 percent of college and graduate students said they had taken a Jewish studies course.

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."

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.