More people than ever before say that being Jewish "is very important" to them, according to a recent survey by the American Jewish Committee.
Sixty-one percent of respondents in the organization’s annual survey of American Jewish opinion, which covers topics from international affairs to religious identity, said it was "very important" to them, and another 28 percent said it was "fairly important." Ten percent of this year’s respondents said that being Jewish was "not very important" in their own lives.
While the 61 percent in the "very important" category seemed to mark a notable increase over the 55 percent of respondents last year who said the same thing, the survey’s director downplayed its significance. "It’s hard to tell if this is simply a blip on the chart. We had in the past a high of 59 percent in 2000 and a low of 48 percent in 2001," who said that being Jewish was very important to them, said David Singer, AJC’s director of research. "If it keeps up over a couple of years then it may be something significant."
Noting that the survey began a day after Rosh HaShanah, Singer joked that "maybe the minds of American Jews were a little more concentrated on their Jewishness than usual." The survey was conducted between Sept. 25 and Oct. 16 by Synovate, the Arlington Heights, Ill.-based market research firm formerly known as Market Facts.
Over the 10 years that the AJC has conducted the annual survey the percentage of respondents who say that being Jewish is not important in their own lives has ranged consistently between 8 and 12 percent, Singer said.
The percentage of respondents who say they belong to a synagogue has been similarly consistent, this year 53 percent, down slightly from last year’s 57 percent, a difference that is "statistically insignificant," said Singer.
When asked how close they feel to Israel, 37 percent said "very close," 39 percent said "fairly close," while 16 percent said "fairly distant" and just 6 percent said "very distant." Two percent of respondents weren’t sure.
About three-quarters of respondents agreed with the statement, "Caring about Israel is a very important part of my being a Jew."
These figures "hardly speak of an American Jewry in decline," said Singer. "There’s so much talk about young people and alienation, but it’s not as if you have substantial percentages who say they have nothing to do with Israel."
The findings are based on responses from 958 people Synovate interviewed by phone. Respondents came from a pool of people who identified themselves as Jews during previous Synovate studies on a range of topics.
The importance of this survey is that it is a "pulse-taking," said Singer.
Smaller-scale studies like the AJC’s have become even more important in light of the uncertainty surrounding the National Jewish Population Studies, which were conducted in 1970, 1990 and 2000 by the organization now known as United Jewish Communities.
Those massive studies, which produced reams of data about American Jewry, require years of planning and millions of dollars. The last one was mired in months of controversy about methodology and lost data, and the head of UJC said at the time that he wasn’t certain if the organization would mount another one.
Now at the point where planning would ordinarily begin, Glenn Rosenkrantz, a spokesperson for UJC said "it’s uncertain at this time" if the organization will oversee another NJPS. Through cost cutting and layoffs over the last few years, UJC has "basically gutted their demography staff," said Lawrence Grossman, editor of the American Jewish Yearbook, which is also published by the American Jewish Committee.
Virtually no one who worked on the NJPS 2000-01 is still on UJC’s staff.
But Rabbi Louis Feldstein, associate vice president for research and analysis at UJC, is hosting a meeting on Monday for a handful of the country’s top demographers who have conducted population studies for various local Jewish communities around the country.
The goal is to try and standardize the studies from one community to another, so that information can be compared, said Arnold Dashefsky, director of the North American Jewish Data Bank, the repository of NJPS findings. It is housed at the University of Connecticut, where Dashefsky is a professor of sociology and director of Jewish studies.
When asked if local Jewish community population studies could be put together, in some way, to substitute for a National Jewish Population Study, Dashefsky said that such an effort would produce a lot of useful information.
"The three largest aggregations of American Jews (New York, Los Angeles and Southeast Florida) represent half of the population," he said. "The 10 largest communities represent 70 percent of American Jewry. So you could say a lot about the urban metropolitan population, but that’s not where everybody lives or is going to live.
"It’s a tradeoff," he said. "It depends on how much time and money you have to get the sample you want" in any study.
The AJC itself will soon be publishing new demographic information about American Jewry, when it puts out the next American Jewish Yearbook in late December.
A popular section with statistics about Jewish populations all over the country that it included in the yearbook was essentially frozen in time because UJC and its predecessor organizations historically provided the AJC with the information, but then stopped updating it a few years ago.
"This article got the most play" out of all of what has been in the yearbook. "People around the country would look to see if their communities were shrinking or growing" compared to others, said Grossman.
So for a few years he repeated the last figures UJC gave him. "But after a while it becomes dishonest" to continue that, Grossman said. So this year he commissioned an article from Dashefsky and his colleague Ira Sheskin, a professor at the University of Miami who has directed many of the country’s local Jewish community studies. Their article, which is an updated analysis of the American Jewish population, includes detailed tables of every community, Grossman said.
It will show, for instance, that the fastest-growing Jewish communities are Boynton Beach, West Palm Beach and South Palm Beach, Fla.; San Francisco; Atlanta; Northern Virginia; San Diego; and the Washington, D.C.-area of Maryland.
The fastest-shrinking Jewish communities in the country are Detroit, Miami and Minneapolis, Grossman said.
The American Jewish Yearbook article will also provide a new total population figure for American Jewry: 6.4 million.
The estimate is based on adding up the populations shown in the various local community studies, and is more than 20 percent larger than the 5.2 million Jews estimated in this country in the last NJPS.
"It’s very controversial," said Grossman.