The Changing Tribe: Survey finds that American Jews are losing the ethnic ties that bind

In what is being called a “dramatic departure” from historic American Jewish behavior and values, a new study of U.S. Jews has found that a growing number no longer thinks it is important to have mostly Jewish friends, marry Jews, have an attachment to Israel or ensure the welfare of other Jews.

The study by sociologist Steven M. Cohen of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem warned that as Jews identify less and less as a group, they are withdrawing from “philanthropy, [Jewish] organizations, peoplehood, Israel and Jewish-gentile interactions.”

“Ethnic attachments of all sorts seem to be in decline,” he said, “while the religious dimensions seem to be holding their own.”

Cohen arrived at his conclusion by comparing responses from two age groups, 25-34 and 55-64, in his most recent survey for the Jewish Community Centers Association. Although he said he does not necessarily agree with all of the statistics in the study, the results when compared with a similar 1988 survey indicate a decline in ethnic attachments.

For instance, only 49 percent of the younger group believed it important that Jews inmarry, compared with 73 percent of older Jews. Only 36 percent of younger Jews said most of their close friends are Jewish, compared with 60 percent of older Jews. And only 29 percent of younger Jews said they had an attachment to Israel, compared with 46 percent of older Jews.

In addition, on the question of tribalism, 25 percent of younger Jews said they could relate easier to Jews, compared with 39 percent of older Jews.

“We long have known that intermarriage has been going up, but not that the number of Jewish friends has gone down,” Cohen said Monday at a Manhattan press conference announcing the study. “It indicates that Jews are moving geographically further apart, that they are dispersed occupationally and are less likely to need or want Jews as friends. They are also less likely to need organizations that pull them to places to be with Jewish friends.”

Those changes are best summed up, said Cohen, by the comments of a student who said: “I don’t need to be with other Jews to practice my religion.”

That attitude is fostered by a decline in anti-Semitism and the growing acceptance of Jews in America, he pointed out.

Cohen said that a large majority of the 1,005 Jews who answered his survey agreed that they were proud to be Jewish and had a permanent bond to the Jewish people. But he said it appeared that as the balance of Jewish passions shift “from the more ethnic sphere of organizations, politics and philanthropy towards the more religious sphere of family-based ritual and synagogue involvement, then Israel activism [as part of the ethnic sphere] becomes less critical.”

Just 20 percent of the respondents said it was essential for a good Jew to support Israel. Only 18 percent thought it important to visit Israel even once. About one-third said Israel was of little importance to them.

The survey found that intermarried Jews scored lower than the inmarried not only on questions pertaining to religious involvement but to an even greater extent on those relating to ethnic involvement (friends, Israel, tribalism).

Another significant finding was that the American Jews’ long association with social justice today “holds less sway over the American Jewish consciousness than it once did.” Just 9 percent believed it essential to work for social justice causes, compared with 14 percent in 1988, and 41 percent said it was desirable, 5 percent drop. Similarly, to be a “liberal on political issues” was seen as essential by 3 percent and desirable by 18 percent, compared with 6 percent and 21 percent, respectively, in 1988).

In response to the survey, Jonathan Woocher, executive vice president of Jewish Education Services of North America, suggested that “tribalistic” sentiments may today be perceived as an “ethnic chauvinism that is out of place in the contemporary American social cultural milieu in which most Jews live. … Increasing numbers do not see a need or feel a desire to translate their sense of Jewish rootedness into acts or attitudes of self-segregation.

“Judaism has been recast countless times in our history, and if American Jews are doing it once again, perhaps this is a sign of their vitality, not their imminent disappearance.”

Woocher added that the behavior of American Jews that once flowed from being an “endangered, semi-excluded minority will now have to be reframed as components of a process of … community-building that 21st century American Jews can enthusiastically embrace.”

The executive vice president of the Jewish Community Centers Association, Allan Finkelstein, said Cohen’s survey also demonstrated that one’s affiliation with any Jewish institution — be it a synagogue or a Jewish community center — is “associated with far higher levels of commitment to Jewish community and Jewish connection. … We also know that more affiliation is associated with more commitment.”

As a result, Finkelstein said, the “major institutions of Jewish life need to work in partnership. … Instead of seeing ourselves in competition, we need to understand that more involvement in one institution often means more involvement in another agency.”

Meanwhile, another study released this week and conducted by Cohen supported the notion that Jewish identity grows from exposure to organized religious activity geared to the young — such as a youth group’s spirited shabbaton or a summer camp’s communal Friday night in the woods.

The Young Judaea Continuity Survey, which was commissioned by Hadassah, the Jewish women’s group that sponsors the Zionist-oriented youth movement, found an inmarriage rate of 95 percent among 603 Young Judaea alumni. The alumni, who were contacted in July in a random sampling of 6,000 U.S. names, are men and women who attended affiliated clubs, camps, conventions or Israel or university programs.

The rate of inmarriage significantly surpasses the 77 percent of a demographically similar group of 1,005 respondents in the 1997 National Survey of American Jews.

When asked whether they believe Jews should marry other Jews, 82 percent of Young Judaea alumni answered yes, compared to 60 percent of the comparative group.

Perhaps even more striking, the 1998 Young Judaea survey, which was conducted by Cohen in conjunction with Alan Ganapol of marketQUEST, found that among Young Judaea alumni younger than 40, the intermarriage rate is 9 percent, compared to 52 percent of recently married Jews in the 1990 National Jewish Population Study.

According to the study, Young Judaea alumni are also more likely to adhere to Jewish ritual practices, be involved with synagogues and enjoy a close relationship to Israel than the general Jewish population.

Also, succeeding expectations, almost two-thirds of the female respondents belong to Hadassah. But in line with overall Hadassah patterns, membership is lower among younger women.


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