By Steven Windmueller, Ph.D.
On October 1st 2013, the Pew Research Center released its “Portrait of Jewish Americans” study. Now, five years later, what has been the impact of this research on Jewish life in America and how has American Jewry changed since the release of this report? Indeed, the study itself would reignite a debate on where and how the Jewish community ought to prioritize its resources. Should the emphasis be directed to its core, those committed Jews who hold institutional connections or ought funding be devoted to “winning souls,” namely reaching out to the under-affiliated and marginally involved?
The Pew survey generated a wide array of other responses. Some of the initial reaction was centered on questions of methodology and data analysis. A more comprehensive review and analysis was offered by Jack Wertheimer and Steven M. Cohen one year after the release of the study. These writers offered a pessimistic view of the findings:
…We focus on how Jews relate to Judaism, Jewish institutions and causes, and what if anything they are doing to perpetuate Jewish life in the United States. The exercise should tell us a good deal about the American Jewish condition—a condition that is dire enough to warrant the serious attention of anyone concerned about the Jewish future.
Other analysts referenced the findings as a “depressing outlook for the future of any continuation of Jewish affiliation outside of Orthodoxy.”
Particularly striking are the average number of children born to Orthodox Jews (4.1), representing twice the overall Jewish average (1.9), suggesting that Orthodoxy’s share of the Jewish population will continue to grow.
Commentators expressed reservations concerning the methodology and research design. Generating a debate, for example, over how the Orthodox community should be presented and evaluated in this study. Criticism was offered in connection with the failure to distinguish the religious differences among various Orthodox constituencies, i.e. Modern, Ultra-Orthodox, Hassidic, etc.
Much of the skepticism stemmed from the views and practices of Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox Jews surveyed, indicating, for instance, that a small but telling percentage have Christmas trees at home or that more than one-third of ultra-Orthodox Jews believe one is not considered a Jew if he or she works on Shabbat.
Further criticism on this topic was registered around the “serious under-reporting of Orthodox strength.” Specific reference has been made to the Chabad-Lubavitch movement “whose members don’t always consider themselves Orthodox, though they meet the study’s definitions.”
Alan Cooperman, Associate Director of Research at Pew, explained that “how respondents self-identify, religiously, in surveys seldom, if ever, lines up exactly with what their religious leaders or others might wish or expect.” Indeed, as Cooperman noted, people can differ on how they hear or interpret survey questions, and there is a certain degree of what researchers call “noise,” or randomness, in such studies.
The Pew Study in many ways confirmed the findings of the 2012 New York Jewish Community Study. The signs of erosion of American Jewish identity from within are too strong to ignore. “They translate to less connection to Jewish practice and observance among younger Jews; less attachment to synagogues, and establishment Jewish organizations, including federations; and more tolerance and acceptance for marrying outside the faith.”
Revisiting the Findings:
The key results of this Pew Study continue to have a profound impact on the community and in turn have produced various earmarked studies on some of the specific manifestations of these findings. National initiatives, community programs, and institutional-based policies today are all drawing upon the Pew data in helping to shape the communal response to the challenges and possibilities afforded by this study.
So, what did we learn?
- The decline in Jewish religious affiliation
- The high rates of intermarriage
- The importance of “belonging to the Jewish people” (75%)
- As the most urban constituency within this nation with 96% of America’s Jews residing in cities or their suburbs.
- The deep emotional attachment to Israel (75%)
- Educational attainment of American Jewry as represented by the academic achievements (58% with college degrees, 28% with graduate level credentials).
Although some of these findings, in particular religious affiliation patterns and intermarriage rates, represented no surprises to Jewish leaders, they nonetheless pose significant challenges to the primary institutions of the community, namely synagogues and federations.
Yet, two other outcomes might be seen as intriguing, “belonging to the Jewish people” (75%) and the “deep emotional attachment to Israel” (69%). How might the Jewish community build off of these “positives” in order to galvanize communal involvement? To some degree, since the posting of these findings, one might wonder whether these two propositions have lost some of their potency, as the deepening divide among Jews around Israel may further undermine this sense of Jewish unity and attachment.
To this writer, three specific outcomes hold special significance:
- The Study noted a particular concern over prejudice and hate. Some 15% of the respondents reported experiencing some form of anti-Semitism. 43% believe that Jews in general face discrimination.
- 56% of the respondents identified their Jewish identity as being connected to their commitment to “social justice.”
- The significant “pride” that American Jews express in connection with “being Jewish,” with some 94% embracing this notion.
Drawing upon these particular results, one cannot help be curious if Jewish institutions have been able or willing to act on these propositions. How responsive has the community been to the uncertainties that Jews are feeling today about the state of intergroup relations and the growing presence of hate and prejudice within our society? Is it possible to turn the attention being given to social justice into a gateway for broader Jewish involvement? How might one build upon the notion of pride as an entry point for deeper Jewish learning and civic participation?
Some Additional Reflections:
What is not reflected in this report, and may not be evident in most of the current community population studies, is the growing presence of non-traditional forms of Jewish engagement, whether one is referencing on-line social media expressions or the presence of start-up boutique models of Jewish activism. Will any new survey be able to classify, document and measure these new organizational forms? Are these alternative modalities engaging unaffiliated audiences or are they drawing from existing mainstream participants? How can one measure the impact of these alternative forms of Jewish expression?
As the very adjective “Jewish” is open to debate, how might future studies determine who is to be a part of the American Jewish landscape?
A year ago, writing on these pages, Rabbi Hayim Herring joined me in offering the following observation:
“We understand Jewish identity formation as an evolving, idiosyncratic construct, drawing upon aspects of a Jewish historical narrative that integrates global issues with personal values and theology.”
There is the possibility of a follow up Pew study. One would imagine that the findings drawn from any new research would confirm much of the data evident in this report, possibly enlarging upon and clarifying particular elements, while rectifying some of the methodological criticisms offered in connection with this earlier work.
There is always the question of the value of such inquiries. The Jewish community maybe the most studied subculture in America, with its array of population studies, program evaluations, and financial analysis. Such reports are generally descriptive, reporting on the state of the communal enterprise or any of its specific practices. The essential question is whether such reports fundamentally alter communal polices and institutional practice?
Dr. Steven Windmueller is the Rabbi Alfred Gottschalk Emeritus Professor of Jewish Communal Service at the Jack H. Skirball Campus of HUC-JIR, Los Angeles. Many of his writings can be found on his website, www.thewindreport.com.