Two new reports released this week paint a new picture of the American Jewish community, suggesting it numbers more than 6 million — not the 5.2 million reported by the United Jewish Communities’ 2000-2001 study — and that the high rate of intermarriage is creating “two Jewries.”
“The gaps between the in-married and intermarried are so large and persistent that it seems we are developing into two distinct populations: the in-married and the intermarried,” wrote sociologist Steven M. Cohen.
“The former is far more engaged in Jewish life and is raising about three-quarters of the next generation of American Jews,” he observed. “In contrast, the latter segment is far less engaged and is responsible for raising only a quarter of today’s Jewish children under the age of 18. The identity chasm between in-married and intermarried is wide, which suggests the imagery of ‘Two Jewries.’”
Cohen, who wrote his analysis for the Steinhardt Foundation’s Jewish Life Network, concluded: “Intermarriage does indeed constitute the greatest single threat to Jewish continuity today.”
Ed Case, publisher of InterfaithFamily.com, an online resource for intermarried households exploring Jewish life, questioned Cohen’s conclusions, arguing that it is “uninformative” to lump together the behavior of the many interfaith families raising Jewish children with the roughly one-third who are raising their children in another faith.
In addition, he said, “Seeing intermarried families as a separate, inferior portion of our population, as Cohen does, leads to a dead end; Intermarried families, like anyone else, will not affiliate with a group that demeans them and offers little programming to welcome them.”
Asked about a 2005 Boston study that found that about 60 percent of children raised in intermarried households were being raised as Jews — about double the national average — Cohen said he disagreed with those who said this meant outreach is the panacea. He said the study did not explain the reason for the results, and that he believes the Jewish community needs to work on “many levels simultaneously” to keep Jews committed to Judaism. “Outreach is one of many mechanisms we need to apply,” he said. “Outreach advocates oversell the efficacy of outreach.”
The other study released this week dealt with the size of the American Jewish community and was conducted by the Steinhardt Social Research Institute and Brandeis University. It concluded that the UJC’s National Jewish Population Survey seven years ago was flawed because the size of the study was too small to get a reliable estimate of the number of Jews in the country.
“Their response rate was only 16 to 18 percent of the Jewish population,” said Leonard Saxe, one of the researchers of the Brandeis study. “That is low. The government used to have a standard of 70 percent; today it is more than 50 percent.”
Saxe said his study was based on the response of Jews who participated in about three dozen national surveys conducted by the federal government and large foundations at about the same time as the NJPS data was collected. “We used statistical methods to make sure we weighted them properly,” Saxe said. “We chose the best-done studies.”
He said their analysis found that the NJPS data undercounted liberal Jews and those who are Reform and Conservative.
“The fundamental problem is that to do a demographic population survey, you have to find out where the Jews are in the larger population,” Saxe said. He suggested that any future study rely on data collected by the government to identify the size of the population, its characteristics, where it is concentrated and its age.
“We can then spend time and money studying the nature and quality of Jewish life,” Saxe said.
His survey came up with a Jewish population in the U.S. of more than 6 million, although Saxe said the precise figure is difficult to determine. But if Americans of Jewish parentage are counted, the number rises to 7.5 million, he said.
Cohen, a professor of Jewish Social Policy at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in New York, said his study sheds new light on intermarriage.
“Some people believed the intermarriage problem would go away on its own. I think it is a critical problem that requires many responses in terms of Jewish education, Jewish association, Jewish proximity and encouraging conversions. We need to help Jews find each other as friends and neighbors, as partners and spouses. We have not put enough emphasis on building Jewish social networks as an explicit goal of our communal and educational policies. … I’m trying to raise attention to this very important issue.”
In his study, Cohen said the low levels of Jewish involvement among the children of intermarried couples stems in part from their low level of Jewish education, their parents’ low level of ritual practice and their tendency to live in areas with a relatively low Jewish density.
"The performance of any intentional behavior requires both motive and opportunity,” he wrote. “Jewish education and a strong Jewish home life provide the motivation for marrying a Jew. But the presence of friends, social networks, and a large local Jewish population provide the opportunity to act upon that motivation.”
Thus, Cohen found, that although Jewish education plays an important role in promoting in-marriage, an equally powerful if not more powerful influence is the proximity to other Jews.
“Who one happens to meet or know has as much to do with the chances of marrying a Jew as does one’s Jewish commitment and education,” he found. “Jews living in areas of high Jewish density … are more likely to marry Jews.
“Thus, Jews in Nassau County report lower intermarriage rates than those in Suffolk. … Zip codes may in fact be more predictive of in-marriage than Jewish education in that people still date and marry those they live near.”
Copy Editor Julie Wiener contributed to this report.