Three in five adults report that their level of Jewish involvement has changed substantially over the course of their adult lives. Remarkably, their involvement is nearly as likely to have increased as to have declined.What’s constant is change. American Jews continually adapt and reinvent their identities throughout their adult lives.
Those are the most important findings in “Connections and Journeys,” a landmark study of Jewish identity scheduled for release next week by UJA-Federation of New York. Four years in the making, it’s one of the most complex looks ever at how American Jews form and re-form their Jewish identities.”The perspective taken in this study is that identity is the result of an ongoing process, rather than an entity that is fully acquired at some point in a person’s lifetime,” writes the author, Brandeis University social psychologist Bethamie Horowitz.
The study suggests that Jewish attachment is subject to many influences, from family attitudes to Jewish schooling, teenage programs and adult relationships. One of the most important, startlingly, is family stability; strained childhood relations with parents point strongly to declining adult Jewish attachment.Some of Horowitz’s findings will cause fireworks. Only 5 percent of respondents report being positively influenced by rabbis; 10 percent say rabbis have turned them off. As for Jewish schooling, it’s decisive only among Orthodox Jews. For others, crucial influences come later: youth groups, Israel visits, relationships, childbirth.
Most troubling, increases are mainly in feelings of Jewish attachment. What’s declining is Jewish practice. For traditionalists, at least, that’s what counts.
But most of all, Jews are in continual flux. “A person constructs a sense of Jewishness from his/her own mix of experiences, engagements, interactions and contexts,” Horowitz writes. “We see evidence of a more pliable, ‘personalized’ Jewish identity, which for many has more to do with personal meaning and expression than with communal expression.” A useful metaphor, she suggests, is “a salad bar.”To capture that dynamism, the study works in two dimensions. First, it “explores people’s current connections to Jewishness,” including what they do and how they feel. Second, it “examines people’s journeys – how people’s Jewish identities change and are influenced throughout the life course.”The study combined telephone surveys with one-on-one interviews and focus groups. In all, 1,504 subjects were included, all born in America after World War II. Ages ranged from 22 to 52.
All lived in the New York area, which could skew the findings. As a metropolitan area that’s fully 13 percent Jewish – and home to one-fourth of all American Jews – New York, Horowitz writes, “can serve as both an exception and a rule about American Jewish identity.”
Horowitz begins by dividing her subjects into three basic “modes” of Jewish identity: assimilated (she politely calls them “Otherwise Engaged”), “Intensively Engaged,” and “Mixed Engagement.” Each “mode” comprises almost exactly one-third of the population.
Divisions are based on survey responses in three categories: “Subjective Jewish Centrality” (pride in Jewishness, sense of belonging); “Ritual Practice” (candle-lighting, separate dishes), and “Cultural-Communal Behavior” (owning Jewish books, attending Jewish lectures).
What Horowitz does next is one of her most important innovations. She divides her three “identity modes” into seven subgroups, a Jewish equivalent of market segments. These become the building blocks for all that follows.
The “Otherwise Engaged” subdivide into “Really Indifferent” (nine percent of the total population, mainly young, male and single) and those “With Some Jewish Interest” (24 percent). Both show low involvement by every measure. The “Intensively Engaged” break down into Orthodox (16 percent) and Non-Orthodox (18 percent, mainly Conservative).
The “Mixed” group divides in three: “Subjectively Engaged” (7 percent), “Tradition-Oriented” (18 percent) and “Cultural-Communal Involvement” (14 percent). Each combines a high score in one engagement type – subjective feeling, ritual or cultural-communal activity – with a low score in other areas.Some subdivisions were a surprise, Horowitz writes. The Tradition-Oriented, with high ritual involvement, tend to be young, fourth-generation Americans. This suggests a quiet resurgence of religiosity.Then again, the most assimilated had been expected to subdivide into a group that was “outright hostile” and another that was essentially passive. Instead, Horowitz found, only 1 percent showed outright hostility, while fully 63 percent were “very positive.” Hence the division into “Really Indifferent” and “Some Interest.”
This led to one of her most important conclusions about contemporary Jewish identity: In contrast to past generations, “the range of emotion about being Jewish has shifted, from acceptance versus rejection to meaningfulness versus indifference.” Jews aren’t running away anymore. They just aren’t being drawn in.
Horowitz’s most ingenious advance, and her riskiest, is her analysis of types of changes Jews undergo. Using survey data asking how subjects acted and felt in childhood, she picks two indicators – Sabbath candle-lighting and Jewish pride – to compare individual Jewish “journeys.”
If the subjects’ memories are to be trusted, two-fifths haven’t changed much since they were 12. One-fifth maintain a “steady, low-intensity Jewish involvement” in attitude and behavior. Another fifth show a “steady, high-intensity” involvement.
The other 60 percent show clear movement. For one-sixth, 17 percent, involvement “lapses or decreases” in at least one dimension, with the other either lapsing or low. Another 10 percent show increasing involvement in one measure, with the other high or increasing.The largest group, one-third of the population, showed an “Interior” journey: rising subjective Jewish involvement, coupled with low or declining ritual practice.
Journeys were closely linked to Jewish denomination. Three-fourths of those raised Orthodox followed Steady-High or Increasing Journeys. Among those raised Conservative, one-fourth had High or Increasing journeys, while 44 percent were Interior. Among Reform Jews, one-tenth had High or Increasing journeys, 36 percent Interior and 55 percent Steady-Low or Lapsing journeys.This is risky stuff. We could be looking at nothing more than Jews who have stopped lighting Sabbath candles but think it’s O.K. Pessimists will look at this and see confirmation of a disintegrating Jewish community.
But Horowitz could be onto something big. Fully 70 percent of her subjects report low or declining ritual observance. Yet nearly as many, 63 percent, report high or increasing levels of subjective Jewish attachment. American Jewish identity “isn’t necessarily declining,” Horowitz writes. But it is changing, becoming more personal, more, well, Interior.
The challenge for the Jewish community is to begin understanding those market segments, to find ways of helping Jews grow. “Although people have journeys which can be very idiosyncratic,” Horowitz writes, “the Jewish community can develop pathways to help bolster people along the way.”