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Pew survey finds less Jewish identity among younger people

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: Only 31 percent of Jewish adults across the United States are affiliated with a synagogue, according to a large-scale study "A Portrait Of Jewish Americans" being released this morning by Pew Research in Washington, D.C.

Pew only counted as synagogue members those who pay dues, but its researchers interviewed a much wider spectrum of adult Americans who call themselves Jewish.

Pew found that compared to the 1950s census -- the last U.S. Census that asked for religion data -- the number of Jews in the population has halved. Tying down a number for all U.S. Jews is complicated and depends on who you count as Jews, Pew said. It came up with 5.3 million adult religious and secular Jews.

In contrast, Brandeis University's Steinhardt Social Research Institute in Waltham, Mass., released a separate and new Jewish population studyon Sept. 30 that estimates 6.8 million U.S. adults and children (4.2 million adults) who identify themselves as Jewish. The Steinhardt study counts nearly 1 million more who don't identify themselves as Jewish but have what Steinhardt qualify as some Jewish roots and connections.

About the survey

It is time-consuming -- and therefore expensive and rare -- to randomly poll any statistically small group such as U.S. Jews. About 2 percent of the country is Jewish. When the Pew Research Center tried to survey that population recently, about 95 percent of the random calls had to be tossed, according to Alan Cooperman, Pew Research deputy director, because the people called were not Jewish. 

Pew surveyed 3,475 Jews last spring to present a 2013 snapshot.

Pew gathered a sample large enough to get shades of ideas from smaller Jewish groups such as Orthodox and Ultra Orthodox Jews and the larger Conservative and largest Reform Jewish movements. The work involved in finding enough Jews through random phone calls explains why we don't see polls of U.S. Pentecostal Assemblies of the World who are about 1.8 million, according to the Yearbook of American and Canadian Churches, or Episcopalians and U.S. Anglicans who number about 2 million. In comparison, there are about 68.2 million Roman Catholics and 16.1 million Southern Baptists in the United States.

Of those Pew pollsters interviewed 2,786 were Jews by religion and 689 said they were Jewish, but did not observe the faith of Abraham and Moses. No calls were made on the Sabbath. Calls were made to land lines and cell phones in every state and every county where there was a synagogue or another form of “Jewish life” evidenced in a vast data base at Brandais University in Waltham, Mass., Cooperman said.

The question of how to define a Jew added to the complexity. Those who identified themselves as Jews were counted. In addition, some opinions were collected from 1,190 people of Jewish background, with a Jewish parent or who were raised Jewish who no longer consider themselves Jewish or who have converted to other faiths.

A dozen rabbis, Jewish organization leaders and professors across the country advised Pew. Pew took up the project at the suggestion of Jane Eisner, editor in chief of The Jewish Daily Forward in New York after the Jewish Federation of North America, representing 156 federations nationwide, decided not to conduct a 2010 poll of U.S. Jews. In 1990 and 2000 the national federation had surveyed U.S. Jews and received considerable blow back, Cooperman said.

“The heart of the survey is about Jewish identity and is the first time Pew has done a purpose-built study on Jews,” said Alan Cooperman, Pew deputy director and former Washington Post editor and religion writer. These findings on Jewish Americans are part of a national survey of 3,475 Jews from every state and every county with a synagogue or other known expressions of Jewish life, conducted by the Pew Research Center. It’s the first survey of Jews nationwide in more than a dozen years. The last two in 1990 and 2000 were conducted under the Jewish Federation’s direction.

Cooperman presented its findings at the Religion Newswriters Association annual conference in Austin, Texas. Pew has extensively polled other smaller religious groups including Mormons and Muslims, and is well known for its study of the wide spectrum of American and their beliefs. 

With the recent closing and merger of several St. Louis area synagogues and very preliminary merger conversations this year between leaders of two of the region’s larger and historic Jewish Reform congregations -- Shaare Emeth, founded in 1867, and Temple Israel, founded in 1886 -- today’s findings about synagogue member should not surprise.

Synagogue membership matters in rearing the next generation, the Pew study shows. Nine out of 10 parents who are affiliated with a synagogue are raising their children Jewish. However, just 47 percent of parents who do not belong to a congregation, but consider themselves Jewish, are raising their children Jewish, the study showed.

That does not surprise Jewish educators.

“(Data) like this is important so that we can strengthen ourselves and let the world see what we are doing,” Tova Greenblatt, of Bais Yaakov High School in University City, said. Virtually all the parents of the 24 students enrolled in the school are Jews with strong faith commitment, she said. Most of its high school seniors are accepted into U.S. colleges but before entering these U.S. schools each spends one year living in Israel. There they attend a seminary on scholarship and study Bible, philosophy and Hebrew, Greenblatt said.

One reason for the decrease in synagogue membership nationwide may be found in the one in five Jewish adults who say they do not share the Jewish faith of their ancestors. They are considered non-religious or secular Jews. That may be the most dramatic finding of the Pew study.

Among those polled who were born before 1927 – the so-called “Greatest Generation” -- 93 percent were religious Jews or “Jews by religion” as Pew terms them. The numbers decline gradually until the Gen Xers (born between 1965 and 1980) when the number was 74 percent and Millennials (born after 1980), when the number reaches 68 percent.

“That does not surprise me,” Jewish Federation of St. Louis president and CEO Andrew Rehfeld said Monday. “A study like this forces us to consider reality. All our planning is based on Jewish interests, preference, needs, their income and education.”

Rehfeld likes an old story about a stranger one night coming upon a man stooped over and searching for a lost ring under a street light. The stranger asks the searcher where he lost the ring. The man points to the shadows several feet away. The befuddled stranger asks why the man is not searching there.

“He says: ‘Because the light is better here.’ Rehfeld said. Without data on the on the needs of the Jewish community Jewish plans may be misdirected, he said.

Growing number of 'nones'

The statistics on Jewish religious affiliation mirror the general population. Jews who said that they have no religion is about 2 percent higher overall than the general response of no religious affiliation in polls. Last year 20 percent of Americans answered “none” to the Pew pollsters’ question about their religion. Like the broader public, “nones” are growing in younger generation of Jews.

Still many secular American Jews relate culturally, often with relish, to the Jewish community and generally are proud to consider themselves Jewish. These secular Jews are welcomed as “family” by most of the Jewish community; with 62 percent U.S. Jews polled saying that being Jewish is mainly a matter of ancestry and culture. Orthodox Jews would be the general exception to that.

Beyond synagogue walls the home-centered Jewish traditions thrive. Fully 70 percent of U.S. Jews said they participated in a Seder -- the Passover dinner -- the previous spring. More than half of Jews said they fasted for all or part of the high holy day of Yom Kippur in 2012.

“The heart of the survey is about Jewish identity and is the first time Pew has done a purpose-built study on Jews,” Cooperman said.

In this area, the St. Louis Jewish Federation expects to begin a regional sample study next spring with its finding out in two years.

Some Jewish St. Louisans believe drops in affiliation to St. Louis synagogues are more due to deaths and to former members who are now shut-ins or retired in other parts of the country, Congregation Shaare Emeth Senior Rabbi James M. Bennett said in an interview.

Youth directors at area Jewish community organization and some Jewish parents point their children to universities with large Jewish enrollment or strong campus Jewish Hillel Centers in part because they want Jewish grandchildren. The study underlines why. Jews marrying non-Jews has risen substantially over the past five years, Pew found. Nearly six out of 10 Jews who married since 2005 have a non-Jewish spouse. That’s up from the 1980s when four in 10 American Jews married a non-Jew. It’s a dramatic change from years before 1970s when only 17 percent married a non-Jew. Jewish children whose parents had mixed marriages are even more likely to marry a non-Jew, the study showed.

Switching denominations

The Pew Survey found movement from more rigorously challenging denominations within Judaism toward less strict or more flexible denominations. One out of four U.S. Jews raised as Orthodox is now either Conservative or Reform. About 30 percent of those raised Conservative are now Reform. Reform Jews have the highest retention rates of the major Jewish denominations, but 28 percent of respondents who identified as Reform no longer consider themselves religious. There is scant switching from Reform to Conservative.

To paint its portrait of today’s U.S. Jews, Pew pollsters went beyond religion questions. Pew asked about Jews affinity for Israel.

The majority in the polling sample believes that the Jewish settlements on Israel west bank of the Jordan River are harmful to Israel’s national security. Forty percent of those polled said that God gave Israel to the Jewish people. And 60 percent are either “very attached” or “somewhat attached” to Israel. Forty-three percent of all Jews have visited Israel, Pew found. That will be no surprise to youth directors in St. Louis congregations. At Shaare Emeth Congregation, for example, high school students are encouraged to go to Israel on sponsored trips for an in-depth educational exploration. 

“It’s expensive and some parents wait until their children are in college and go with Birthright,” Rabbi Bennett said before the study’s release. The philanthropic Birthright foundation offers most American Jews of college age full scholarships for 10-day to two-week trips to Israel.

On political matters, Pew’s polls found that the majority of Jews vote Democratic. However the Orthodox Jews mostly vote Republican.

Jews strongly support higher education. More than 58 percent of Jewish adults polled are college graduates, twice as high as the general American public. And 29 percent have graduate degrees, which is nearly three times as high as the general public.

Jewish community fund drives sometimes have to work extra hard to convince donors that there are needy Jews, the local Jewish Federation’s Rehfeld said. Many Americans and some Jews hold the stereotype that all Jews are prosperous. Pew’s report found one-fifth of Jews polled have annual household incomes less than $30,000, most of them over 65 or under 30. On the other end of the spectrum one-quarter polled said that they live in households with an income more than $150,000.

‘We all have a lot of assumptions based on our experiences but this study will be more scientific,” Bennett said. He cautions that readers need to consider that “St. Louis and most of the Midwest is not as extreme as both coasts.”

Coincidentally, Monday was the deadline for agencies to present proposals and bids to the Jewish Federation of St. Louis to study St. Louis region’s Jewish community. Slated to start next year the study is due out by late 2014, Rehfeld said.

“Determining what the needs of our community without fully knowing the community today is difficult,” he said.

Surveys can help energize congregations to bypass being defensive and “start the right kind of conversations to focus on Jewish community needs.” Bennett said. “It can help (find ways) to deepen Jewish life.”

Patricia Rice is a freelance writer based in St. Louis who has covered religion for many years. She also writes about cultural issues, including opera.

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