Who Are American Jews?

by Leonard Saxe

As Jewish traditions go, conducting a decennial National Jewish Population Study under the auspices of the federation movement has a very short history, and it was broken when the Jewish Federations of North America decided not to support a 2010 study. For researchers, the absence of support for a study reflects the weakened state of the national Jewish polity and a lack of commitment to using systematic data. For leaders of the federation movement, the decision reflects frustration with what they perceive as quarrelsome researchers who can’t agree on whether American Jewry is flourishing or withering.

More than 60 of these researchers and policy professionals gathered last week at Brandeis University for an extraordinarily open and productive discussion of how to study American Jewry. Hosted by the Steinhardt Social Research Institute and co-sponsored by several other academic and research organizations, support for the conference came from private philanthropies.

Communal leaders’ perceptions notwithstanding, conflicts between scholars are not simply clashes of strong egos but reflect principled disagreements. There was broad concurrence on the need for a national study of American Jewry, but spirited discussion of how to address substantive and methodological challenges. The conference did not yield agreement on these issues, but it did foster dialogue among researchers and between researchers and policymakers. Progress was made.

A simple summary would not do justice to the richness of the debate. Participants agreed that defining who is a Jew is no simple matter; it requires understanding how an individual constructs “Jewishness.” American Jews live in families and communities and that context, as well as the influences of contemporary culture, needs to be appreciated. The Jews of the United States are not a homogenous group, neither by background nor in how they enact their Jewish identities.

Elements of the discussion might have seemed like a cacophony of theoretical challenges and arguments about arcane statistical procedures. “Is Judaism a religion in the same way as Christianity or Islam? And, what does it mean to be a secular or ethnic Jew?” “How does one combine and compare survey data over time? And, do some studies mislead by ignoring sample error and bias?” And, perhaps most importantly, “how do we simultaneously provide nuanced analysis of contemporary Jewry, while also providing digestible information for policymakers?”

Substantively, presenters painted contrasting pictures of the American Jewish community. Although there seemed to be agreement that the bleak portrait of U.S. Jewry assimilating into oblivion was exaggerated, not all accepted my own group’s assessment that Jewish identification is on the increase and that 6.4 million Americans claim Jewish identity or are children whose parents are raising them as Jews. Our approach includes complex methods for synthesizing data from dozens of surveys and for conducting national panel studies, but other approaches are possible.

The key, of course, is not the estimate of the number of U.S. Jews, but to understand the character of Jewish life. The religious and ethnic identity of American Jews is evolving and capturing a picture of this moving stream, though difficult, has profound implications for how we direct communal educational and cultural resources.

The differing assessments by conference participants mirror the contours of the American Jewish landscape. There are problematic trends apparent in the community, but there are also powerful indicators of communal growth. We have a large elderly population, and it is not clear whether younger Jews are as numerous or committed as their elders. Our central institutions, from the federation movement to the various denominations to other traditional pillars of the community, are suffering losses in membership and funding.

At the same time, there are positive developments. Although there is concern about whether younger Jews will be engaged in Jewish life, there has been an explosion in the availability and quality of Jewish education. While intermarriage remains a central concern, we are increasingly successful in engaging intermarried families. And, alongside the decline of some traditional organizations, start-up Jewish organizations are growing exponentially. Emblematic of these trends is the documented success of Birthright Israel, which has not yet celebrated its bar mitzvah year, but has already engaged hundreds of thousands of young Jews and its waiting lists include additional tens of thousands.

The Brandeis conference illustrated that debate is not inimical to progress and that dealing with disagreement is essential. Debate reflects serious engagement with important issues that, much as policymakers seek simplicity, don’t have easy answers. Researchers have an obligation to clarify – not obfuscate – but they need partners. That the central organization of the community has rejected information gathering because it fears disagreement reflects poorly on all of us. A national study of American Jewry is needed and we have the tools to collect reliable and valid data. There will be disagreements, but they will reflect the complexity of the problem.

Israeli cognitive psychologist and Nobel Prize laureate Daniel Kahneman, in a recent New York Times article, “The Surety of Fools,” analyzes our need for cognitive consistency. He suggests that many are overconfident because we favor what we see over data and we seek confirmation of our beliefs, even in the face of contrary evidence. Failing to engage with social scientists who study American Jewry because our leaders seek consistency where none exists serves our community poorly.

Jewish tradition, long before the NJPS, allowed for vigorous debate, as long as it was an argument “for the sake of heaven.” An argument for the sake of heaven is based on wanting to find the truth, not to promote an individual. Our gathering was a model of what can be accomplished when thoughtful people work together toward common goals. Policymakers and communal leaders need to be part of this discussion.

Leonard Saxe is director of the Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies at Brandeis University.

This article first appeared in The Jewish Daily Forward; reprinted with permission.