November 10, 2002

A Clouded View of U.S. Jews

Religion: One study finds numbers falling; another finds growth. The results raise divisive questions.

Marin Independent Journal

For more than a decade, the American Jewish community has poured millions of dollars and thousands of hours into programs driven by a single fear--the prospect that the country's Jewish population is dwindling away.

Now, two conflicting population studies have set off a new debate over whether those programs are failing--or even aimed in the wrong direction.

Preliminary results released Tuesday from the most comprehensive survey ever conducted of America's Jewish residents--the $6-million, five-year National Jewish Population Survey--show that in the last decade the population dipped slightly, to 5.2 million. The results come just two weeks after another study found the population increasing to 6.7 million.

The difference involves not just issues of demographic technique, but also emotionally divisive questions of who should be properly considered Jewish and what the future holds for American Jewry.

That future "doesn't look too good," said Viv Klaff, a University of Delaware professor who was one of the directors of the latest population survey. The study's numbers show an aging population that has too few children to keep its numbers steady.

By contrast, "Jews are a growing, thriving, sustained and even powerful American subculture," insists Gary Tobin, president of the San Francisco-based Institute for Jewish & Community Research, which conducted the survey showing that the population is growing.

The study results involve emotional issues of identity and powerful practical ramifications.

On the practical level, the numbers are used to set the national Jewish agenda for years to come and influence spending priorities for the roughly $850 million raised in annual campaigns by Jewish federations throughout North America.

The emotional punch comes from the question of whom to count.

Virtually all American ethnic groups face similar issues of how to maintain a distinctive identity while assimilating into the broader American society. The debate over group survival is particularly emotional, however, for a people that has suffered a history of pogroms, peril and the horror of the Holocaust.

For centuries, Jewish religious tradition held that to be considered Jewish, a person had to be the child of a Jewish mother or had to have undergone a formal conversion. In more recent years, Judaism's Reform movement decided to count the offspring of Jewish fathers as Jews. But demographers employ a far wider definition.
The national survey, for instance, counted as Jewish those respondents who reported Judaism as their faith, along with those who considered themselves ethnic or cultural Jews: those who may have said they practiced no faith but were born of Jewish parents or who were raised Jewish.

Tobin, on the other hand, cast his net even wider. In addition to the 6.7 million Americans who reported Judaism as their primary faith or ethnic identification, he found another 6.6 million linked in some way to the Jewish people. They include those who practice Judaism as a secondary faith, those who have some Jewish ancestry but do not practice Judaism, and those married to a Jew.

"There is a huge potential for people to become Jews," Tobin said. "Jews are caught in this obsession with birthright and bloodline. But the experience of America is that religious identity is a matter of choice. It's time for the American Jewish community to change its psychology and think of who can come in instead of who's going out."

Tobin also criticizes the national survey on technical grounds. The study was an enormous undertaking involving 5 million calls made to households using random digit dialing to find 177,000 households that included 4,500 Jewish respondents.

But Tobin asserts that the survey method undercounts recent immigrants from Russia and Israel, along with younger Jews and those who live in the West.

He also said the national survey failed to include entire segments of the population, such as adopted children and the offspring of women more than 40 years old--thereby misstating the fertility rate. His own survey, based on 250 Jewish respondents gleaned from 10,000 households screened, found 18% more Jews than reported in earlier studies.

Officials of the United Jewish Communities, the umbrella organization that sponsored the population study, declined to respond to Tobin's critique, saying the survey "stands on its merits."

The dispute is a renewal of a 10-year-old debate over how best to ensure the long-term survival of the American Jewish population.

In 1990, the last national Jewish population survey found Jewish numbers to be stagnant, and 52% of Jews married in the preceding five years had wed non-Jews. That figure, although widely criticized since as inaccurate, caused the organized American Jewish community to mount an intensive campaign to strengthen Jewish identity through day schools, programs to Israel and other activities.

The survey inspired similar programs across the religious spectrum.

They ranged from the Orthodox National Jewish Outreach initiative to teach Hebrew and Sabbath rituals to a larger number of Jews, to the multidenominational Synagogue 2000 effort aimed at transforming synagogues from largely ethnic enterprises to centers of spirituality that would attract and hold larger numbers of people.

In Southern California, the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles began pouring millions of new dollars into Jewish education: support for Jewish day schools, summer camps, college programming and visits to Israel for youths. Across the United States, the number of non-Orthodox Jewish high schools has increased to 29 from five since 1990.

Federation President John Fishel said the 1990 survey helped make Jewish education the organization's No. 1 priority--a focus the Orthodox community has always promoted.

"The most committed community is the knowledgeable community," said Rabbi Elazar Muskin of Young Israel of Century City, an Orthodox synagogue. "The survey proves that the community has to continue to improve the effectiveness of Jewish education."

Stephen Hoffman, chairman of United Jewish Communities, said the new results may prompt a review of whether Jews are being deterred from having more children because of the high cost of Jewish education and other services.

Lowering the cost of such services might produce more involvement in Jewish life, said Pini Herman, a Los Angeles-based demographer who has studied the Jewish population.

A "big basket" of services for a family of four--including such items as Jewish day schools, synagogue and organizational memberships, bar and bat mitzvah events--runs as much as $28,000 annually, he said.

Making Jewish life more affordable should be a higher priority for the community, he said. "A lot of Jews are being priced out of the Jewish market," he said.

Tobin and other critics of the organized community's efforts argue that Jes should adopt a different strategy to increase their numbers: abandoning their traditional reticence about proselytizing and putting more resources into embracing potential Jews.

A leading national proponent of that idea is Rabbi Harold Schulweis of Valley Beth Shalom in Van Nuys, who speaks often of opening Judaism to what he calls "the unchurched and the seekers."

Schulweis said he plans to make that a particular focus this year by organizing more one-on-one encounters--invitations to Friday night dinners, for instance--between Jews in his synagogue and those interested in the faith.

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