How Would a European Pew Survey Look?

For those who work with Jewish communities in Europe, the Pew Survey led to an inevitable question: How would a European Pew survey look?

By Marcelo Dimentstein

In 2013, the publication in the US of the Pew Survey, “A Portrait of Jewish Americans,” gave place to numerous and heated debates in the American Jewish world. Optimistic, pessimistic, alarmist and critical reactions succeeded one another in what was virtually the first nation-wide survey after the much-disputed National Jewish Population Survey of 2000-2001. Among its most salient findings, the survey showcased the existence of a non-negligible percentage of Jews defined as “of no religion,” high intermarriage rates, especially among young respondents, a considerable phenomenon of interdenominational “switching,” and, last but not least, high levels of support and attachment to Israel, though with growing concern among young Jews. Beyond the polemics and the debates that the Pew survey generated, it is undeniable that it offers unique data, constituting a real community asset.

For those who work with Jewish communities in Europe, the Pew Survey led to an inevitable question: How would a European Pew survey look? Would it be similar? Would it be different? In which aspects?

Unfortunately, nothing like the Pew Survey has been done in Europe in recent years. To be sure, language barriers, the existence of different Jewish realities in each country and certain gaps still existing between East and West Europe make the task of building a “portrait of European Jews” very difficult both from a logistical and a methodological standpoint. Yet, we can count on a number of research pieces conducted during the last years that help us build a decently informed picture of European Jews, among them those undertaken by JDC-International Centre for Community Development.

So, what do we know?

According to the Pew Survey, 94% of American Jews say they are “proud to be Jewish.” 80% say being Jewish is important to their lives. Three-quarters feel “a strong sense of belonging to the Jewish people.” As historian Jonathan Sarna pointed out in an article reflecting on the Pew Survey, this is not surprising as we live in the era of ethnic, religious, sexual and gender-based pride. But seen from a historical perspective it is heartening. “A century ago,” Sarna reminded, “being Jewish in America was widely seen as a misfortune.” European Jews are no different. Evidence shows that in Europe an increasing Jewish self-awareness has been gaining momentum across the continent. In Western Europe, at least since the Six-Day War of 1967 Jews proclaimed publicly their support for Israel and their proudness of being Jewish. But during the last decades a considerable increase in the percentage of children attending Jewish schools, the success of Jewish learning programs such as Limmud, and the renewal taking place in communities in the UK and Germany suggest that the phenomenon has a new allure.

This is even more dramatic when we consider post-communist countries such as Hungary, Bulgaria, Romania, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Poland and the Baltics. During communism, Jews were persecuted and Judaism was suppressed. Foreign observers considered Judaism to be on the verge of extinction. Yet, since the demise of the communist regimes, Judaism returned with a renewed vigor and was embraced with enthusiasm by many Eastern Europeans of Jewish descent. Hungarian sociologist Victor Karady spoke about “a Promethean historical moment,” when describing how Jewish identity had benefited by an unprecedented liberty as a result of the end of communism. Hundreds of Eastern European Jews found in Judaism – certainly defined less as a religion than as an ethnic-cultural tribe – their place of belonging. This Jewish “revivalist” process has been once again confirmed in Identity à la carte, a survey conducted by the JDC in five Eastern European countries a few years ago and considered the most important research project carried out among Eastern European Jews in the post-communist era. There, between 62 and 81% of Eastern European Jews declared that their Jewishness was more or much more important than when they were a child. In addition, the survey showed how Eastern European Jews observed much more Jewish practices in their current families than during their childhood. Moreover, a strikingly high percentage of respondents’ children (between 41% and 70% depending on the country) participated in Jewish education.

Having said this, we know that, like in America, intermarriage rates remain high in Europe. Identity à la carte also showed that the rate of mixed marriages among respondents was almost the same or even higher that among the parents’ generation. In Bulgaria, 72% of respondents were intermarried against 66% of their parents; in Hungary, 46% vs 42%; in Latvia 52% vs 38% and in Romania 72% vs 59%. In Western Europe, intermarriage rates oscillate between 40 and 50% depending on the country. Does intermarriage lead to assimilation? That is a more difficult question to answer. In Eastern Europe, and given the “revivalist” trend taking place, we could say that so far it is quite the opposite: hundreds of Jews who are intermarried – a common practice during communist times – or who are themselves children of intermarried couples choose to self-identify as Jews.

Intermarriage is an inevitable consequence of the successful integration process of Jews in their respective societies. Given that the “social walls” fell, European non-Jews find that marrying and having children with a European Jew is an acceptable practice (although not as imbued within the melting pot narrative as in America). True, technically, this is not a new thing in the European landscape. Intermarriage, though not in high rates, is as old as the Emancipation of Jews in Europe. Marrying a non-Jew was considered by many Jews belonging to the nineteenth-century bourgeoisie to be “a ticket to integration” and was usually accompanied by conversion to Protestantism or Catholicism. The reality today must be seen with a more nuanced view. While it is true that intermarriage still is a manifestation of a “way out” from Judaism, leading to assimilation, we can also say that Jews intermarry qua Jews, and seek to build a Jewish household. For example, in a JDC co-sponsored survey carried out among Italian Jews aged 18-35 years old, 60% disagreed with the statement “a family can be Jewish only if both spouses are Jewish.”

More interesting is to raise the question about the situation of the children of intermarriages. What’s going on with that population, that unlike the US, their particular concerns are often ignored by the Jewish communities of (Western) Europe? In a qualitative study conducted among children of intermarriage aged 20-40 years old living in France, The Netherlands and Germany, we found that even if their Jewish parents intermarried and “opted-out” from Judaism, the children never quite disconnect from Judaism and a good percentage of them proactively seek Jewish spaces where they could be accepted as such and legitimized. Naturally, there could exist huge differences if we talk about children whose mother is Jewish and those with a Jewish father. But sometimes, the psychology of both is not that different. It is, no doubt, a challenge that Western European Jewish communities, often functioning under more or less strict Orthodox lines, will need to face as soon as possible. This issue is not only important from a demographic perspective, but also touches on a certain sense of religious pluralism and overall inclusiveness. Not all the Jewish communities in Western Europe are prepared to discuss these issues. And yet they are becoming pressing: a survey commissioned by the Consistoire in 2013, the central body regulating Jewish religious life in France, which was co-sponsored by JDC, found that among 674 Jewish community leaders from across the country, 76% plead for an ease in the conversion process, perceived by many as too difficult and discouraging.

Israel, young adults

Israel is of course another important and sometimes divisive issue. The Pew Survey concluded that “emotional attachment to Israel has not waned discernibly among American Jews in the past decade, though it is markedly stronger among Jews by religion (and older Jews in general) than among Jews of no religion (and younger Jews in general).” We know that Jewish leaders across Europe, those who form the core of the communities, stand behind Israel and are proud of the Jewish state. In the last edition of the JDC “Survey of European Jewish Leaders,” released in 2012, it was found that 78% considered that Israel is critical to sustain Jewish life in Europe and another 55% support Israel fully, no matter how its government behaves. However, we also found that this relationship has become more problematic and contentious in recent years, as events in the Middle East have reverberated throughout Europe. In that respect, 85% of the leaders agreed that “Jewish communities should provide opportunities for members to share different opinions and points of view on Israel and its policies.”

Like the Pew Survey suggested for the American young adults, European young adults also seem to be building a totally new relationship with Israel, though we must avoid making generalizations. For many young Jewish adults in Europe, advocating vigorously in the public arena in support of Israel is a mission full of Jewish meaning and of capital importance in a continent whose civil society (including the media) is considered to be biased and hostile to the Jewish state. Others, however, feel less enthusiastic about it and do not hesitate to voice criticisms towards the policies of the Israeli government vis-à-vis the Palestinians. We know from focus groups conducted across different European capitals, that overall young adults manifest pride with Israel, have been there more than once and cheerfully spend their summer vacations or entire seasons in Tel Aviv in order to gain experience in the job market. Yet, very few of them envisage doing Aliyah. Or, like with the case of Eastern European young adults, did Aliyah but came back after a few years. Many are connected to Israel, but their connection to Israel became more targeted (fascination with the “start-up” initiatives, involvement with NGOs, interest in the Arab-Israeli music scene, and so on and so forth). Israel has also become less romanticized, though geographically closer (thanks to low cost flights from Europe). But in an atmosphere where Israel is the target of continuous criticisms, they are just tired of speaking on behalf of the Jewish State. Like a young lady from London expressed it: “I find the ‘whole Israel thing’ uncomfortable, because there is too much of it, it has tentacles on it, it jumps out and you can’t get away of it, although you would sometimes like to.” Even if this testimony cannot be taken as representative, it certainly shows the scope of opinions existing among young Jewish adults of Western Europe.

Relationship with Israel aside, their reluctance to identify with the traditional denominational streams is striking. In a 2012 survey conducted in Gesher, a JDC-sponsored summer gathering for 18 to 25 young adults from the Black Sea region with an attendance of 300, we found that 52% declared being “just Jewish,” in detriment of Orthodox (7%), Modern Orthodox (5%), Liberal/Progressive (10%) and Masorti/Conservative (2%). It is a detachment from religious boxes for sure, but not at all a lack of spiritual needs. Much on the contrary, evidence shows that important segments of European Jewish young adults have very strong spiritual needs. Some of them even try experiments in that direction, creating independent minyanims, or just making sense of the Jewish calendar in their own terms. At many of our regional programs Shabbat represents an emotional peak. In the same vein, young adults seem to especially value spaces where internal pluralism, non-traditional settings and a fresher and less solemn Judaism coexist. It remains to be seen how these new features will impact the official communities. Young adults seem to share much of the characteristics with Pew’s young adults, something that makes us wonder if this generation shouldn’t be taking part in a more global conversation.

There’s still much to be done in Europe in terms of research. For example, we know very little about the religious itineraries of European Jews, the “denominational switching” that the Pew Survey so eloquently illustrates. We also know little about mobility, social aspirations and political orientations of young cohorts of Jews. Statistics show that there has been an important movement of intra-European migration during the last years, especially among young people. Are there Jews among them? Why do they migrate? In order to pursue better professional opportunities? Due to anti-Semitism? To find a suitable Jewish life? We don’t know yet. We know little about young Jewish families. How much does it cost to build a Jewish household? What kind of Jewish education (if any) they want to give to their children? And the list could go on and on.

Seen from a European perspective, the findings of the Pew Survey or, more accurately, the debates around it, have shown that social research and community matters are intertwined in the American Jewish landscape. This is definitely a positive sign. Assessing present needs and planning future policies in order to make Jewish life more vibrant must rely on accurate information. Europe lags behind, but efforts going in that direction during the last years have put us in the right direction.

Marcelo Dimentstein is Director of Research & Evaluation, JDC Europe.

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