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Pew survey of Jewish Americans

Pew survey of Jewish Americans

The recently-published Pew survey of Jewish Americans is creating quite a stir in the United States, with academics and community leaders embroiled in passionate debate about how best to interpret the findings.

In early November in Jerusalem, Jonathan Boyd participated in a panel discussion with three leading social scientists of American Jewry to offer an outside perspective on the results. Sharing a platform with Professors Steven M. Cohen (HUC-JIR), Len Saxe (Brandeis) and Bethamie Horowitz (NYU), he argued that the data convey a rather bleak picture of contemporary American Jewry.

"It is clear from the data that intermarriage has become increasingly common among American Jews over the past few decades,” argued Boyd, “and that, as a general rule, intermarried couples are less able to pass on a strong Jewish identity to their children than endogamous ones.” He continued: “The data also show that Jews who self-identify as Orthodox have a much higher fertility rate than non-Orthodox Jews, and consistently score higher on key variables including proportions of close friends who are Jewish, involvement in Jewish educational programmes, and being part of a Jewish community.”

Some of the other panellists disagreed with Boyd’s assessment. Notably, Len Saxe argued: “Rather than painting a bleak portrait of American Jewry, the Pew Survey describes high levels of Jewish identification, although many of those who identify as Jewish are not highly engaged in Jewish life and with formal Jewish organizations… Intermarriage and the encounter with a dominant non-Jewish culture has, no doubt, reduced the ranks of those who identify as Jewish, but the loss in Jewish identification is far less than had been thought. Whether or not these trends will be sustained is impossible to predict, but the current levels of identification and engagement suggest a host of opportunities.”

Irrespective of the different interpretations that exist, Boyd argued that the findings should not be used as a demoralising force, but rather as a spur to action. "In the same way as the 1990 National Jewish Population Survey served as a wake-up call to Jews in America and throughout the world, the Pew study should similarly prompt an urgent rethink among community planners. It is time to ask again whether or not our interventions are working, how they need to be tweaked or changed, and whether new initiatives need to be established to empower a new generation."

To read the survey, click here.

Pew survey of Jewish Americans - 05 Nov 2013