Steve Lipman’s “Passover Seder Losing Steam As Key Marker Of Affiliation” (April 9) quoted me as doubting the “drop in seder attendance is as dramatic as indicated.” Unfortunately he didn’t recount the basis for my doubts.
Here’s one example that just considers national survey data. Lipman quotes figures that suggest that in the 1990s seder attendance stood at about 90 percent and now has fallen to 70 percent, according to the 2013 Pew survey.
The figure of 90 percent is grossly exaggerated. It derives the 1990 CJF National Jewish Population Survey that reported seder attendance to be 86 percent among entirely Jewish households. But a closer look indicates that the figure of 86 percent is the total of those who always, usually and sometimes attend a seder. Sidney Goldstein’s analysis of the 1990 data showed that only 62 percent always or usually attended and he wrote in 1992 that even back then seder attendance on a national level was lower than had been thought (“Profile of American Jewry,” American Jewish Yearbook, 1992, p. 135).
How does the 1990 survey compare to the 2013 Pew study? We don’t know, because Pew asked a different question.
It asked, “Did you attend a seder last year?” Seventy percent answered affirmatively. A survey that asked the same question in 1988 found that 79 percent did so (“Content or Continuity: The 1989 National Survey of American Jews” by Steven M. Cohen).
So, yes, there has been a decline, but more likely from 79 percent to 70 percent (an 11 percent fall) not from 90 percent to 70 percent (a 22 percent fall) as figures quoted in the article suggest.
Is this difference worth quibbling over? Yes, because when it comes to making important decisions about how to address declining participation in Jewish life we are not served by exaggerating the magnitude of the problem.
Exaggerated estimates of disaffiliation exacerbate pessimism and hopelessness at just the moment we need to summon new energy to revitalize Judaism in America.
The writer is author of “Creating Lively Passover Seders” and many other publications about Passover.