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Religious Stability & Ethnic Decline Emerging Patterns of Jewish Identity in USA

American Jews are experiencing declines in almost all forms of Ethnic identity, even as they seem to be maintaining levels of Religious identity. At the same time, those who are members of synagogues and Jewish Community Centers score highest on all measures of Jewish religious and ethnic identity. These are the key findings to emerge from a nationwide social scientific survey of American Jews conducted by Hebrew University Professor Steven M. Cohen for the Florence G. Heller - Jewish Community Centers Association Research Center.

The 1997 National Survey of American Jews relies on data collected from a mail-back questionnaire fielded by the Washington office of Market Facts, Inc. among a demographically balanced sample of American Jews. The survey asked dozens of questions on Jewish identity, many drawn from years of in-depth interviews with American Jews. These, in turn, were combined to eleven multi-item measures of Jewish identity, some of which were classified as Religious, and the others were labeled Ethnic. To examine how Jewish identity is changing, the analysis focuses on how younger adult Jews differ from their elders. The study assumes that the ways in which younger Jews differ from their elders today point to the ways in which American Jews of the future will differ from Jews of the present.

The three religious measures were: religious commitment, faith in God, and ritual observance. The eight Jewish ethnicity measures were: Jewish peoplehood, tribalism, felt marginality, commitment to in-marriage, Israel attachment, Jewish friendship, institutional attachment, and social justice as a Jewish value.

Truth be told, I'm not happy with the term "ethnic," Professor Cohen commented. Im using it to refer to all forms of Jewish attachment aside from the purely religious. I suppose words like "Jewish peoplehood" or "community connection" also come close to the phenomenon I'm measuring.

The Study results indicate that younger Jews are just as religiously committed, G-d-oriented, and ritually observant as their elders. Yet younger Jews are considerably less ethnically identified than their elders, pointing to a decline in Jewish ethnicity in the United States. They are...

However, membership in synagogues and Jewish Community Centers are associated with higher levels of involvement of both the religious and ethnic variety. Members of synagogues and members of JCCs are both more religiously and more ethnically committed than those who do not belong to Centers. JCC members score particularly high with respect to commitment to Jewish peoplehood, attachment to Israel, and attachment to local Jewish institutions.

Most surprising is that within synagogues, it is the JCC members who are more pious, more ritually observant, and more religiously committed, Cohen remarked. Either the JCC strengthens religious involvement, or the religiously involved tend to express themselves by joining Centers.

In light of the fraying of the Jewish community, the role of the JCC is important. There is a real need for increased Jewish community building and for JCCs, synagogues, federations, and other institutions to work together, said Allan Finkelstein, Executive Vice President of the JCCA.

Among the other findings, 26% said that religion was very important in their lives, as contrasted with 47% who said that being Jewish was very important in their lives. To Professor Cohen, these and similar findings suggested that the ethnic component, though weakening, was still stronger than the religious dimension in American Jewish identity.

Almost a third said the don't really feel competent praying in synagogue and as many said, most synagogue services are not interesting to me.

With respect to a long list of items related to being a good Jew, 48% thought it essential to give one's children a Jewish education, and just 7% thought as much about personally studying in Jewish texts. Just 24% thought it essential for a good Jew to belong to a synagogue.

The vast majority believed that there is a G-d (56% definitely yes plus 27% probably yes ), and most (52%) believe it essential for a good Jew to believe in G-d. The sample split almost evenly on whether they believed that Jews are G-d's Chosen People.

Almost all affirmed such peoplehood-oriented statements as, I am proud to be a Jew (96% agreed). Similar large numbers concurred, Jews are my people, the people of my ancestors (94% agreed), and Jews have had an especially rich history, one with special meaning for our lives today (94%). But just 37% felt close to other Jews to a great extent, marked a noted decline from earlier studies. Other findings point to a weakening commitment to Jewish peoplehood. A razor-thin majority (52%) could say, I look at the entire Jewish community as my extended family. Only a quarter (25%) felt that they can count more on my Jewish friends than on my non-Jewish friends. The sample split almost evenly on the question of whether they have a special responsibility to take care of Jews in need around the world. Just 3% thought that having mostly Jewish friends was essential to being a good Jew.

Regarding weak opposition to intermarriage, just 60% agreed with the rather innocuous statement that Jews should marry Jews. A plurality even rejected the idea that in-marriages tend to have fewer difficulties than intermarriages. Just 27% would oppose their child's prospective marriage to a non-Jew, consistent with other studies.

The study also documented relative weak attachment to Israel. A bare majority (52%) agreed that Israel is critical to sustaining American Jewish life. Just a third said that Israel was extremely important to their sense of being Jewish. Just over a quarter (27%) were at least very attached to Israel, a decline from previous studies. Only 18% regard visiting Israel at least once during their lives as essential to being a good Jew, and only 8% could say that they felt close to Israelis to a great extent, also a decline from previous studies.

Professor Arnold Eisen of Stanford University, who has been working with Cohen on a related qualitative study of American Jewry, was startled by the results related to Israel. As familiar as I believe I am with American Jews, I was shocked at what I regard as the low levels of attachment to Israel. They are both part of and consistent with the declining levels of Jewish ethnicity demonstrated in this study.

This is an important study, noted Professor Charles Liebman of Bar-Ilan University. It documents the ongoing Americanization of American Jewry. Cohen's analysis points to the extensive ways in which American Jews are re-defining their group identity in more religious terms, in ways comparable with American Protestantism. At the same time, American Jews are departing from ethnic and particularistic understanding that has been shared by Jews throughout history, and that is still shared among Jews around the world, including, of course, Israel.

The study was released along with written comments by Dr. Jonathan Woocher, Executive Vice President of JESNA, Samuel Norich, General Manager of the Forward Association Inc., Dr. Barry Chazan, Professor at Hebrew University, and Allan Finkelstein of the JCC Association. Professor Cohen will be available following the press conference to answer questions regarding the Study, or for personal interviews. Please call (212)532-4949, ext. 217 to schedule an appointment. The 1997 National Survey of American Jews was sponsored by the Florence G. Heller - Jewish Community Centers Association Research Center.

JCC Association of North America is the leadership network of, and central agency for the Jewish Community Center Movement, which is comprised of more than 275 JCCs, YM-YWHAs and camps in the United States and Canada, which annually serve more than one million members and an additional million non-member users. JCC Association offers a wide range of services and resources to strengthen the capacity of its affiliates to provide educational, cultural, social, Jewish identity-building and recreational programs to enhance the lives of North American Jews.


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