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Survey of U.S. Jews roils local experts

Although a major new survey shows an increase in America’s Jewish population, it is creating concerns for many in the organized Jewish community, given findings of a “substantial” rise in intermarriage and a decline in religious identity.

The Pew Research Center survey of American Jews, released last week, put the Jewish population at 6.7 million — compared to surveys conducted a decade ago that tallied 5.2 million Jews.

Initial reactions to the report, however, focused on a 60 percent intermarriage rate among Jews who have gotten married since 2000, and the 22 percent of respondents who describe themselves as having no religion.

“I’d say there will be difficult times in the future,” said Ira Sheskin, who authored the 2012 “MetroWest Jewish Population Update Study” for the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ.

“The chance that the Jewish population is going to grow becomes more and more slim,” said Sheskin, chair of the Department of Geography and Regional Studies at the University of Miami. “I don’t see a tremendous growth in the number of Jews in the country in the future. Birthrates are low. We have an inordinate number of elderly. We don’t have a lot of conversion in, and we have quite a bit of opting out.

“The 6.5 to 6.8 million Americans who are Jewish are not doing much except saying they are Jewish on a questionnaire.”

Others say such conclusions are unnecessarily downbeat.

“We found an extra million Jews since the last time we counted — and we found it a great disaster!” quipped Paul Golin, associate executive director of the Jewish Outreach Institute in New York. His organization tries to integrate unaffiliated and intermarried families into the Jewish community.

“The question people are asking is: What kind of Jews are they? It’s one of the most divisive questions you could ask,” said Golin. “The panic I see being expressed is because the Jews they are finding are not like the Jews who run the Jewish community. They don’t find resonance in the same things, so what do we do about it?”

And yet many planners say that the study’s findings on assimilation and intermarriage — especially about children raised in intermarried families — demand attention. Among Jewish parents who are married to a Jewish spouse, 96 percent say they are raising their children Jewish by religion, and just 1 percent say they are not raising their children Jewish. By contrast, among Jews married to non-Jews, just 20 percent say they are raising their children Jewish by religion, and 37 percent say their children are not being raised Jewish at all.

Max Kleinman, executive vice president of the GMW federation, viewed the report as one “with some good news and some news that was a surprise that was not good.”

“It reflects the long-term trend in greater assimilation, particularly among the young in the Jewish community,” said Kleinman. “There is an increase in intermarriage and the fact that most intermarried couples don’t raise their children as Jews. These issues have accelerated in terms of their seriousness. ”

On the positive side, he noted there is “a significant increase in the number of Jews and a significant increase in the number who have gone to Israel,” said Kleinman. “What this tells me is we need to accelerate our efforts and invest even more of our resources in the years ahead to engaging Jews using approaches that we know will work.”

Kleinman cited PJ Library, a program that furnishes free Jewish books for children between the age of six months and eight years, and Birthright Israel, which provides free trips to Israel for Jews between the ages of 18 and 26.

Jonathan Woocher, a South Orange resident and former CEO of the Jewish Education Service of North America, focused on the study’s positive findings on education. According to the survey, 50 percent of Jewish parents say they have a child enrolled in a Jewish day school, formal Jewish educational program, or in other kinds of Jewish youth programs, such as Jewish day care, youth groups, day camps, or sleep-away camps.

“It is remarkable to me that in 2013, after several centuries of totally free Jewish life in America, as many families as do continue to send their children to get Jewish educations and pay to do it,” said Woocher.

Woocher, who is about to launch a new foundation as part of the Lippman Kanfer Foundation for Living Torah, was also pleased to note the presence of alternative programs such as Jewish clubs in secular private high schools, “which bring out young people we otherwise would have written off.”

“Our challenge is to translate the reservoir of positive feelings toward Jewishness among many who are otherwise disconnected from Jewish life to find ways for them to engage Jewishly that fit their approach,” said Woocher.

For some, the survey vindicated Orthodoxy; one Orthodox blogger said the survey confirmed a “depressing outlook for the future of any continuation of Jewish affiliation outside of Orthodoxy.”

Of the 3,475 people interviewed, researchers found 35 percent consider themselves Reform, 18 percent Conservative, and 10 percent Orthodox. Reconstructionist and Jewish Renewal make up 6 percent combined, but 30 percent of American Jews do not identify with any denomination.

However, “[a]lthough Orthodox Jews constitute the smallest of the three major denominational movements, they are much younger on average and tend to have much larger families than the overall Jewish population,” said the survey.

But Alan Brill, an Orthodox rabbi who holds the Cooperman/Ross Endowed Chair of Jewish-Christian Studies at Seton Hall University, cautions against Orthodox “triumphalism.”

“The losses from Orthodoxy are several times larger than the gains,” Brill wrote in his blog. “The survey finds that approximately one-quarter of people who were raised Orthodox have since become Conservative or Reform Jews, just 7 percent of Jews raised in the Reform movement have become Conservative or Orthodox, and just 4 percent of those raised in Conservative Judaism have become Orthodox.”

Golin said he was struck that, when asked what being Jewish means in America today, 73 percent of respondents said “remembering the Holocaust.” (That compared to 43 percent who said it means “caring about Israel.”)

“The insider community has been saying for years, ‘We need to move away from that kind of doom and gloom sadness and move to the joyous celebration of Judaism,’” said Golin.

He also noted a finding that “roughly seven-in-10 Jews (72 percent) say gays and lesbians face a lot of discrimination in American society, and an equal number say there is lot of discrimination against Muslims. More than six-in-10 (64 percent) say blacks face a lot of discrimination. By comparison, 43 percent say Jews face a lot of discrimination.”

Golin said those findings reflect that “a people with a historic right to feel persecuted are recognizing there are people in our country much more persecuted than us. That is a really powerful thing.”

However interpreted, the study — the largest in a decade — is expected to shape Jewish agendas for the foreseeable future.

“I think the study is really important and it really should be taken seriously, said David Mallach, managing director of the Commission on Jewish People at UJA-Federation of New York.

Mallach, a Maplewood resident, is a former director of the Community Relations Committee of MetroWest. “It is the most comprehensive and thoughtful data we have had in an awful long time,” he told NJJN. “Hopefully it will be incorporated into funding decisions and planning decisions for federations, synagogues, and religious institutions.

“It is really good stuff, even if it is uncomfortable.”

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