Survey Finds Slight Rise in Jews’ Intermarrying
By LAURIE GOODSTEIN
Published: September 11, 2003
New York Times
Along-anticipated study on American Jews has found that while the number of Jews who marry non-Jews rose only slightly in the last decade, two-thirds of the children of interfaith couples are not being raised as Jews.
The National Jewish Population Survey, released yesterday, is regarded by many Jewish groups as an important gauge of whether they are succeeding in passing on Jewish religious and ethnic identity from one generation to the next.
The report presents a picture of growing polarization between the “affiliated” Jews who are fueling the revival of Jewish spiritual and community life, and the “unaffiliated” Jews who are neither particularly involved nor observant.
The study revealed the dichotomy most clearly in Jewish education. Although a record 29 percent of Jewish children attend full-time Jewish day schools or yeshivas, enrollment fell in the synagogue Sunday schools and in afternoon Hebrew schools that provided previous generations with religious training.
For Jewish groups, the survey also raised alarms about the 22 percent of Jews who live in the West. It found that Jews there were far less likely to attend services, marry other Jews or celebrate Jewish holidays than Jews in other parts of the country, especially the Northeast.
“The study simply says to me, Don’t let up, keep at it,” said Stephen H. Hoffman, president and chief executive of United Jewish Communities, which sponsored the $6 million survey. “There are positive signs that we are making some inroads, but we have our work cut out for us.”
The survey also found that the Jewish population in the United States as a whole fell and grew older in the last 10 years. According to the survey, 5.2 million Jews live in the United States, a drop of 300,000 from 1990, despite a wave of Jewish immigrants from the former Soviet Union.
Jews tend to marry later, and have more education and a lower birthrate than the rest of Americans. Jewish women have fewer than two children each, too few to replace the Jewish population, the study found.
Ten years ago, the Jewish Population Survey galvanized many Jewish leaders with the finding that 52 percent of American Jews in the 1980’s had married outside the faith.
The authors of the report released yesterday now say that number was inflated because it included people who said they were not raised as Jews. They said a more accurate intermarriage rate would be 38 percent from 1980 to 1984, and 43 percent for 1985 to 1990. The rate remained the same until 1995, then rose to 47 percent by 2001.
“The rate of increase in intermarriage has clearly slowed,” said Laurence Kotler-Berkowitz, the survey’s research director.
Before 1970, Mr. Kotler-Berkowitz said, only 13 percent of Jews married non-Jews. The total number of Jewish adults now intermarried is 31 percent, he said.
Thirty-three percent of the children of intermarried couples are being raised as Jews, compared with 96 percent of children of Jewish couples.
Harvey Blitz, president of the Orthodox Union, said of the survey results, “You can look at it as saying, things didn’t get worse, but the truth is that the 1990 survey caused such a tremendous hue and outcry over how terrible the numbers were that this study showing a continuation of existing trends is not a positive result at all.”
The survey, sponsored by United Jewish Communities, the umbrella group of Jewish federations across the country, was released after questions about missing and incomplete data last year forced the researchers to submit the results to outside experts for investigation.
Bernard J. Shapiro, the former principal of McGill University who led the investigation, said in a preamble to the report that the experts found the results reliable. The study, conducted from August 2000 to August 2001, surveyed 4,523 American Jews who had been found by random phone calls to more than 1.3 million numbers. The margin of error was plus or minus two percentage points.
Among the thorniest issues, said Lorraine Blass, the project manager, was how to define who is a Jew. The survey included people who either said their religion was Jewish or who had at least one Jewish parent or a Jewish upbringing and had not converted to another monotheistic religion, like Christianity.
Orthodox Jews had complained that they were undercounted in the 1990 survey, partly because researchers phoned households on the Sabbath, when observant Jews do not answer their phones. The pollsters did not make that mistake this time.
They found that of the 46 percent of Jewish adults who belong to synagogues, 39 percent belong to a Reform synagogue, 33 percent were Conservative, 21 percent were Orthodox, 3 percent were Reconstructionist, and 4 percent were other.
The findings suggest that Jewish organizations face a challenge as the Jewish population ages. The median age of American Jews is 42, up from 37 a decade ago. The median for all Americans is 35. Older Jews are more likely to contribute to Jewish causes and to say that they feel “emotionally attached to Israel.”
Jewish leaders said yesterday that they were encouraged by the large number of children attending day schools compared with previous generations. As adults, these children are more likely than those who receive less Jewish education to observe religious customs, to marry other Jews and to raise Jewish children. Most of the rise in day school attendance is among Conservative and Reform Jews, not the Orthodox, who have long sent their children to yeshivas, Jewish leaders said.
Rabbi Jerome Epstein, executive vice president of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, said that while his movement had lost members since the last survey, he saw hope in signs that affiliated Jews were increasingly involved.
“What I see is true growth in terms of commitment, which is really what we’re in business for,” Rabbi Epstein said.