Counting What Matters: A Roundtable

Shawn Landres: I’d like this conversation to engage your thinking both as social scientists — speaking methodologically — and as advocates. For the first question, why is it important to count Jews? In 2010, who gains and what is gained by that counting and what has changed since 1971, 1990, or 2001?

Benjamin Phillips: One wants to know how many Jews there are and where they live. We want to have some sense of how this is changing over time, because it’s going to influence questions of resource allocation as well as questions of communal policy. However, counting Jews has become increasingly difficult and what is probably more important today is having a sense of what leads to what — that is, the connections between factors — because that will help shape communal policy. What factors are associated with raising Jewish children? With communal engagement?

Jack Ukeles: Steven M. Cohen and I spent five months trying to generate support for a national Jewish study in 2009. Because of the state of the economy, we were unsuccessful in getting support. I think the failure to have national data is a disaster for national Jewish policy making. Without quantitative and qualitative information about Jews and their behaviors and interests, there is no information to resolve debates. Everyone makes up the reality that suits their perspective. The lack of data has a paralytic impact on the policy process. With data, for example, we know where Jews live and where they’re moving and can plan accordingly — end of debate, end of paralysis.

Shawn Landres: Is there anything that’s different today — since the last population survey — that would change what we need to know, or whom we need to count?

Benjamin Phillips: Clearly, the sea change since 1970 has been intermarriage. Most Jewish population studies will differentiate between populations of Jews, people with some Jewish origin. Today, the question, “Who is a Jew?” has come to the fore — there’s greater diversity as a result of intermarriage.

Keren McGinity: Studies in the 1970s were done differently and yielded different answers. When surnames were used to identify Jews, only those with distinctive Jewish names were counted, missing all those Jews who had changed their names, whether for social mobility or marriage. Today, in addition to including Jews who do not have Jewish names, we’re also adding the perspective of those who aren’t necessarily Jewish or aren’t connected in any way to the Jewish community. For those who see Jews as being overrepresented or everywhere, determining that the numbers, relatively speaking, remain significantly small compared to other populations is relevant to understanding the larger American picture.

Jack Ukeles: The critical change affecting the way we do research in this field is the widespread use of cell phones. One can’t learn anything about young Jewish adults in the United States by surveying land lines, which is the way most, though not all, studies are still done. The second significant change is simply on the question of what does it mean to be Jewish. It used to be a fairly straightforward question: Are you Jewish, yes or no? Now, the boundaries of the Jewish community have become incredibly porous and one can get an array of complicated answers. People defeat any categories you set for them, so it’s increasingly unclear what it means when someone says, “I am Jewish.”

Shawn Landres: Beyond counting the number of Jews, assuming that we agree on who gets counted, which behaviors and attitudes count the most? Does it count more as a Jewish behavior to light Shabbat candles or to do tikkun olam in Africa with a non-Jewish agency?

Tobin Belzer: I think that hierarchical measures that designate some behaviors as more Jewish than others can be more harmful than revealing. Typically, such scales value religious observance above other ways of being Jewish. I prefer to ask: What makes being Jewish meaningful and how do people express that? Since most Jews today are not compelled to be Jewish by a sense of religious obligation, I’m interested in why and how people are choosing to be Jewish.

Keren McGinity: Like Tobin, I think it’s imperative to ask how someone is Jewish rather than how Jewish are they. This gives the respondent an opportunity to define how they’re Jewish — in terms of belief, behaviors, and attitudes. And it gives researchers innovative definitions and ideas. There’s also a gendered component to Shawn’s question. Most Jewish men are not lighting Shabbat candles; most, though, in my current study, express a commitment to social justice.

Benjamin Phillips: What one does Jewishly is important. If we reached the situation where no Jew in the U.S. did anything Jewish, then no matter how intensely they may feel Jewish, we’re not really going to have a functioning Jewish community. At the end of the day, there should be some behavioral footprint of Jewishness. The overall picture is relatively bleak, however. Yes, there are creative, different ways that young Jews are engaging with their Judaism, but at present, levels of engagement in these creative activities are very low.

Tobin Belzer: Studies today typically measure behavior, beliefs, values, attitudes; we look at culture and religious observance. We try to include a variety of measures. I think it’s important to focus on affiliation and observance along with exploring what matters to people and why.

Shawn Landres: Diane, I’m thinking that if Gary Tobin were alive, he’d say we’re having the wrong conversation. Are we having a provincial conversation when we should be thinking about global Judaism and what it means to count Jews globally?

Diane Tobin: Methodological issues aside, it would be great if we counted the Jews globally. I understand that presents problems, but it is an important lens through which we should be seeing the world. Questions about behaviors create a paradigm that assumes judgment, and they generally don’t take into account the fluidity — or continuum — of behavior; what people do today they may see differently tomorrow or the next day.

Shawn Landres: To what extent do queer Jews, Jews of color, founders of and participants in emerging spiritual communities and entrepreneurial start-ups, really count as a significant segment of American Jewish life or global Jewish life, and how might researchers adequately capture their numbers and significance? Is this a new and demographically or politically significant phenomenon?

Jack Ukeles: Overall, right now, most Jews in the U.S. have a religion rather than no religion, identify their religion as Judaism, and identify with a denomination. Most Jews believe that being Jewish is very important; they identify with Israel. The proportions, though, are changing. Whereas 5 percent may have said they had no religion, now it might be 15 or 18 percent. We’re starting to get real numbers, particularly in younger groups, when we ask, “Are you in a multiracial household?” Numbers are going up for people who respond, “Yes, my religion is Judaism, but no, I don’t identify with a denomination.” The trend, the direction, is clear — even if we don’t know the numbers yet.

Benjamin Phillips: We’re seeing “the new entrepreneurial Jews” as more or less an elite phenomenon — highly motivated. We might put it that rather than counting them, we weigh them. Their importance as a phenomenon is probably going to be outsized compared to their actual numbers. The historical parallel is the explosion of creativity in new forms of Judaism in the ’60s and ’70s with the havurah movement. They did not change the face of American Judaism completely — we still have denominations and institutional synagogues — but they initiated an array of lasting innovative organizations.

Tobin Belzer: Small groups of highly educated young adults are creating communities outside of conventional Jewish organizations across the country. Other young adults are actively engaged with mainstream institutions. But it’s important to realize that Jewish engagement doesn’t necessarily correlate with a sense of belonging. Several years ago, I conducted a study1 about young adults who work in Jewish organizations. I looked at how their work experiences affected their Jewish identities. Most of the 48 young adults in the sample didn’t identify as members of the Jewish community, despite their employment in Jewish organizations. Like a lot of the independent minyanim participants, they described the Jewish community as monolithic and dysfunctional. Instead, they felt like part of a Jewish community made up of their social networks.

Diane Tobin: I work primarily with Jews who are considered on the fringe, which is a pretty significant group and maybe even larger than Jews that are in the “core.” They want to be part of the Jewish people.

Keren McGinity: My research also focuses on the so-called fringe because I study intermarried families, some of whom are actually more Jewishly engaged than in-married Jews. If those who aren’t Jewish were more welcomed, they might be more connected to a Jewish community.

Shawn Landres: Tobin, are young, non-institutional, and entrepreneurial Jews any more welcoming than mainstream Jews?

Tobin Belzer: From my ethnographic study of an independent minyan in San Francisco, I learned that some are primarily a part of the community to get their own needs met and others are more focused on creating a community that is inclusive and welcoming; a tension exists.

Shawn Landres: Asking about who counts also raises questions of representation and power. Last year, somebody said to me, “If you cannot speak unconditionally in support of Israel, you should not be speaking as a Jew.” Peter Beinart’s piece on young American Jews choosing liberalism over Zionism in the New York Review of Books — and some of the responses to his essay — made it clear that there are some opinion gaps between Jews who are the children of in-marriage and Jews who are not, between Jews who are affiliated with Orthodoxy in its various flavors and Jews who are not. How do we parse this in terms of advancing American Jewish public policy? In other words, who speaks for the Jews and who are the Jews they speak for?

Benjamin Phillips: The people who say they support Israel unconditionally vary, not surprisingly, depending on the government that is in power. If we go back to the American Jewish Committee survey during Yitzhak Rabin’s last term as prime minister, we’ll see a lot less support among the Orthodox group for Israel right or wrong, and we’ll see higher rates of support among non-Orthodox Jews for Israel right or wrong. Now the specific question in terms of intermarriage is very difficult to pin down, in part because we’re only looking at people who are currently intermarried and we know that people who are currently intermarried have much less Jewish education. This is really an epiphenomenon of the lack of education; it’s not necessarily that intermarriage or having intermarried parents, per se, would impact one’s views of Israel.

Tobin Belzer: Power and money definitely have an influence on “who speaks for the Jewish people.”

Jack Ukeles: Our data suggest that there’s a very high correlation between intermarriage and distancing from Israel. When we array different measures of Jewish connection among the intermarried, Israel is lower than some others. With the increase in intermarriage, particularly among the under 40s, this is very troubling. The Jewish community, by circling the wagons on Israel (though the reaction may be justified), has alienated young Jews.

Diane Tobin: While so many focus on the political aspects of Israel, when we focus on other aspects — travel, culture, language, technology — young people are warmer to the country.

Jack Ukeles: Young people also feel more confident speaking about political nuance if they’ve spent time in Israel. While that may lead to criticism of right-wing or more nationalist government decisions, the commitment to other aspects of Israeli life is in fact deepened.

Keren McGinity: Another as yet unseen group are gentile women who marry Jewish men and develop a strong affinity for and support of Israel. Among the women of this group that I’ve interviewed, some see their first trip to Israel as an identificational turning point or the culmination of a process of becoming Jews-by-Choice.

Shawn Landres: When we talk about counting Jews, or which Jews count, who counts more when it comes to influencing the decision-making process — lay leaders or professionals?

Benjamin Phillips: Increasingly, it’s neither; the community is to a very large extent driven by the mega-philanthropists.

Jack Ukeles: Within the organized community, there has been a shift in the nature of the lay leadership, and the foundations themselves have become highly professionalized. Thirty or 40 years ago, many if not all of the lay leaders were happy to write a check, come to meetings, and leave operations in the hands of professionals. Increasingly, we’re seeing an entrepreneurial or managerial class who want to interact with the results of the organization; there is less patience with process, less patience with meetings, and less willingness to leave the important decisions in the hands of the professionals.

Shawn Landres: Looking forward, what questions are we not asking right now that we should be, about American Jews and Jewish life? What new knowledge do we need that we don’t currently have?

Diane Tobin: Facebook and other social media make global connections so easy. We should be exploring how this impacts the kinds of ways in which people identify Jewishly.

Keren McGinity: I am particularly interested in the relationship between gender and Jewish identity, communal engagement, and affiliation. We need to better understand how American gender influences Jewish gender in order to make being Jewish an equal opportunity and the responsibility of both sexes.

Tobin Belzer: Why do non-Orthodox Jews choose to do Jewish rituals, affiliate Jewishly, and express their Jewish identities? I am interested in people who are deliberately choosing to be Jewish. Answering this question could help discern what is meaningful to young people in a way that would have policy implications.

Jack Ukeles: I am interested in the question, what would make Judaism and Jewish life more meaningful to you? I think that we need to struggle with the issue of meaning and engagement. Parenthetically, Tobin, lots of Orthodox Jews, and I’m one of them, believe we’re Jews-by-Choice. I am interested in the question of meaning because we live in an open society; not everyone who was born or raised Jewish is going to choose to self-identify as Jewish. There are people who will find their meaning elsewhere, but for people who would like to find meaning in their lives through Jewish life and Judaism, it is important that we have a better understanding of what would make that happen.

Benjamin Phillips: What I want as a researcher is to follow people over time. Looking at American Jewish Committee studies going back 20 years, overall attitudes to Israel among American Jews haven’t changed, but younger adults are consistently less attached than older adults. Do people simply get more attached to Israel as they age — that’s the argument of my colleagues — or is there a genuine diminution of attachment to Israel, which is Steven Cohen’s argument? We cannot resolve this until we are able to follow a group of people year after year after year and know what they think. We don’t know how people change over their lives, how they identify differently as they get older. This isn’t just a call for longitudinal quantitative research but for longitudinal qualitative research: what being Jewish means now and how it shifts.

Tobin Belzer: It’s important to acknowledge that how people identify and engage shifts: Research needs to focus on Jewishness as a non-linear process.

Shawn Landres: Sometimes, I turn the iPod up, sometimes down. Jewish involvement is always multidimensional: Some things are up and some things are down, but they don’t go up and down at the same rates or at the same times.

Diane Tobin: I think it is important for us to realize that for Judaism to be part of the marketplace of world religions, we must be more flexible in our ability to accept people and recognize them as Jews.


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