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A review of Pew, and other studies of American Jews

There really is good news in there, and we have lots of ways we're dealing with the rest

A few weeks ago, the Pew Research Center issued what has become, for our community, one of the most discussed and debated studies in recent years, "A Portrait of Jewish Americans."

The report has spawned literally hundreds of commentaries and countless debates in the short time since its release. What it offers, as its name suggests, is a portrait, or perhaps a snapshot, of where we are at, of what our strengths and concerns are, and - when viewed against other studies - how we are changing.

Let's begin with the good news. The Pew study estimates the American Jewish population at 6.6 million - 5.3 million adults and 1.3 million children being raised at least partly Jewish. The 2013 Brandeis Study estimated 6.8 million. Both suggest that, as many thought, the 2000 National Jewish Population Study projection of 5.2 million was way off.

So the American Jewish community is larger than some thought and still is the largest Jewish community in the world. In Israel, there are 6 million Jews. So our Israeli brothers and sisters will have to wait another decade or two before they become the single largest Jewish community.

The major thrust of Pew, however, affirms what previous studies concluded: the Jewish connection for Jews in America is weakening. About one in five identifies as a cultural/ancestral Jew, not a Jew by religion - what the study and press call "nones." This phenomenon isn't restricted to the Jewish community. Americans overall are becoming more secular. Of course, what is a Jew…?

Differences between religious and non-religious Jews are predictable. The latter identify less with formal expressions of Judaism and Jewish communal life, and are more prone to intermarriage and not raising their kids Jewishly.

They also tend to be an ever-growing cohort among the younger generation - giving rise to fears about the future of the Jewish community.

Regarding intermarriage:

  • Among non-Orthodox Jews, Pew says the rate rises to 69% among Jews without denomination. Overall, it is 58%, up from 45% in 1990 and 17% in 1970.
  • 45% of intermarried Jews are raising their children as Jews or partially Jewish, compared with 96% of in-married Jews.

As for attitudes toward Israel, 69% feel attached or very attached. The report notes that this level has remained constant with prior studies.

How does the Pew study compare to our Chicago Federation's 2010 population study?  In short, there are serious differences:

  • Fewer Jews would be classified as "nones," closer to 7% in Chicago rather than 22%.
  • Intermarriage: 37% locally, 44% in Pew. Also, a higher proportion of Chicago-area intermarried families - 49% - are raising their kids exclusively Jewish.
  • In Chicago, 77% identify strongly with Israel. 41% are very emotionally attached, versus 30% nationally. And 50% of Chicago's Jews have traveled there, as opposed to 43% nationally.

We also show higher synagogue affiliation among respondents - 36% v. 31% nationally. Nevertheless, affiliation has declined greatly. In 1980, it was more than 50%.

Both studies find strong identification with the Holocaust - 81% in Chicago, 71% nationally.

The Pew data, like Chicago's, clearly demonstrate that philanthropy is one of the most popular ways for Jews to express their Jewishness. 56% said they made a donation to a Jewish cause in 2012. In Chicago, the number was 67%. These indicators of giving are markedly different than the overall American population. Jewish philanthropy, in itself, is a very positive way of reinforcing Jewish identity. And in that area, JUF is uniquely positioned to attain maximum impact.

With all these studies, it is easy to think the worst and bemoan the present and future. What is clear is that social norms in America strongly influence all communities here, including the Jews. And, notwithstanding the work of this Federation and our agencies and schools and synagogues, the strongest predictor of Jewish behavior in young adults is the behavior of their parents.

How to influence parental behavior is a great challenge. This Federation's emphasis on early childhood programs; after-school education; Jewish day school; Jewish camp, local and away; travel programs to Israel like Ta'am Yisrael, Birthright Israel and Masa; Hillel; teen education programs like Voices, Diller Teen Fellows, and Write On for Israel; and other efforts do make a difference in the behavior of those children when they become young adults and parents.

So while the Pew study is seen as foreboding by some, we see it more as a challenge, and an affirmation of the direction we, as a Federation and a community, are taking.

Peter Friedman is Senior Planning Advisor for the Jewish United Fund/Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago.

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