Jewish population in region rises: Results called a surprise

As the number of Jews in the United States is thought to be flat or falling, the Jewish community in Greater Boston is growing, fueled by an unexpectedly high percentage of children in mixed-faith households who are being raised in the Jewish faith, according to a new demographic study.

The study, the first attempt in a decade to quantify the region’s Jewish community, finds that about 210,000 people, or 7.2 percent of the Boston-area population, are Jewish, four times the percentage in the nation as a whole.

The study also found that 60 percent of children in the region’s interfaith families are being raised Jewish, a surprising result when the high rate of intermarriage has raised concern about the long-term viability of the American Jewish community.

The Steinhardt Social Research Institute at Brandeis University conducted the study, which is being released today.

Nationally, an estimated one-third of children in interfaith families are raised Jewish, and the higher rate in the Boston area may fuel debate about the effectiveness of outreach to interfaith couples.

“The Jewish community, because of history, has been very sensitive to its numbers; survival issues have always been important,” said Leonard Saxe, director of the Steinhardt Institute and principal investigator in the study. Saxe said it is not clear whether researchers are doing a better job finding Jews or if the absolute number of Jews is growing. Either way, he said, the Jewish community is now larger than had previously been thought.

“Since the mid-’90s, when a high level of intermarriage was reported, there’s been a lot of discussion about what that implied about the future.”

Jewish community leaders in Boston, who have aggressively endorsed outreach to interfaith families for decades, said the numbers vindicated their efforts.

For years, the Jewish community nationally has debated whether it is better to discourage intermarriage or to accept the phenomenon and embrace interfaith families, a discussion based in large part on the presumption that most children raised in interfaith families grow up to be non-Jews.

“It’s important to know that it is possible to achieve higher levels of affiliation among interfaith households,” said Barry Shrage, president of Combined Jewish Philanthropies of Greater Boston, which financed the study. “That’s an area where there is a huge amount of growth in the Jewish community, and if we can achieve higher levels of affiliation among those folks, it’s important for the future of the Jewish people.”

The study, the fifth once-a-decade examination of the local Jewish community since 1965, suggests that in interfaith couples where the woman is Jewish, children are far more likely to be raised as Jews than in couples where the man is Jewish. That result would parallel findings in other faiths, where women often participate more in congregational life and determine the religious upbringing of children.

Community leaders said the results reflect a decision by the Boston Jewish community, starting in the late 1970s, to welcome interfaith families.

“We can’t afford to lose all of those folks, and if we don’t want to lose them, we have to create a hospitable climate for them to enter,” said Rabbi Ronne Friedman, senior rabbi at Temple Israel in Boston, which, like many Reform congregations, has a substantial minority of interfaith families among its membership.

Combined Jewish Philanthropies spends about 1 percent of its annual budget on programs aimed at interfaith families, which is 10 times greater than the national average, according to Edmund C. Case, president and publisher of InterfaithFamily.com, a website based in Newton and funded by CJP. The programs include discussion series for intermarried couples, conversion programs, holiday crafts programs for children, and other educational initiatives.

“I’m convinced that Boston has the most extensive and most well-funded and most well-organized outreach to interfaith families in the country,” Case said.

Among the participants in such programs is Amy O’Donnell, 31, of Natick, a Jewish woman who, with her Catholic boyfriend, attended a series for interfaith couples before getting engaged. The couple, who retained their own faiths, now have three children and are raising them as Jews.

“The program allowed us to examine our situation very openly and honestly and figure out what we wanted,” O’Donnell said.

The study, which is to be posted today at cjp.org, suggests that several trends identified in 1995 may have reversed. The population of the local Jewish community, which appeared to have leveled off a decade ago, is now growing, and, in the Boston area, the westward migration of the Jewish community toward Interstate 495 has in recent years been less significant than the growth within more traditional areas such as Boston, Brookline, Cambridge, and Newton.

The study also shows that the Jewish population, like the general population, includes an increasingly diverse mix of family structures, with a large number of unmarried individuals, including cohabiting couples and singles.

And the Jewish community is highly educated. According to the study, 91 percent of local Jews age 25 and older have a college degree, and 27 percent have a doctorate or a master’s degree.

Jewish community leaders are heartened by another finding of the study: There is a relatively high level of engagement in Jewish life, as measured by membership in synagogues and involvement in traditional ritual practices.

The study found that nearly half of local Jewish adults belong to a synagogue or a less formal worshiping community; 42 percent of local Jews identify with the Reform movement, 33 percent with Conservative Judaism, and 5 percent with Orthodox Judaism.

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