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A Clouded View of U.S. Jews

Religion: One study finds numbers falling; another finds growth. The results raise divisive questions.


For more than a decade, the American Jewish community has poured millions of dollars and thousands of hours into programs driven by a single fear--the prospect that the country's Jewish population is dwindling away.

Now, two conflicting population studies have set off a new debate over whether those programs are failing--or even aimed in the wrong direction.

Preliminary results released Tuesday from the most comprehensive survey ever conducted of America's Jewish residents--the $6-million, five-year National Jewish Population Survey--show that in the last decade the population dipped slightly, to 5.2 million. The results come just two weeks after another study found the population increasing to 6.7 million.

The difference involves not just issues of demographic technique, but also emotionally divisive questions of who should be properly considered Jewish and what the future holds for American Jewry.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday October 12, 2002 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 9 inches; 344 words Type of Material: Correction
Valley Beth Shalom--A story in Section A on Wednesday on two surveys of the Jewish population in America incorrectly reported that Valley Beth Shalom is in Van Nuys. It is in Encino.

That future "doesn't look too good," said Viv Klaff, a University of Delaware professor who was one of the directors of the latest population survey. The study's numbers show an aging population that has too few children to keep its numbers steady.

By contrast, "Jews are a growing, thriving, sustained and even powerful American subculture," insists Gary Tobin, president of the San Francisco-based Institute for Jewish & Community Research, which conducted the survey showing that the population is growing.

The study results involve emotional issues of identity and powerful practical ramifications.

On the practical level, the numbers are used to set the national Jewish agenda for years to come and influence spending priorities for the roughly $850 million raised in annual campaigns by Jewish federations throughout North America.

The emotional punch comes from the question of whom to count.

Virtually all American ethnic groups face similar issues of how to maintain a distinctive identity while assimilating into the broader American society. The debate over group survival is particularly emotional, however, for a people that has suffered a history of pogroms, peril and the horror of the Holocaust.

For centuries, Jewish religious tradition held that to be considered Jewish, a person had to be the child of a Jewish mother or had to have undergone a formal conversion. In more recent years, Judaism's Reform movement decided to count the offspring of Jewish fathers as Jews. But demographers employ a far wider definition.

The national survey, for instance, counted as Jewish those respondents who reported Judaism as their faith, along with those who considered themselves ethnic or cultural Jews: those who may have said they practiced no faith but were born of Jewish parents or who were raised Jewish.

Tobin, on the other hand, cast his net even wider. In addition to the 6.7 million Americans who reported Judaism as their primary faith or ethnic identification, he found another 6.6 million linked in some way to the Jewish people. They include those who practice Judaism as a secondary faith, those who have some Jewish ancestry but do not practice Judaism, and those married to a Jew.

"There is a huge potential for people to become Jews," Tobin said. "Jews are caught in this obsession with birthright and bloodline. But the experience of America is that religious identity is a matter of choice. It's time for the American Jewish community to change its psychology and think of who can come in instead of who's going out."

Tobin also criticizes the national survey on technical grounds. The study was an enormous undertaking involving 5 million calls made to households using random digit dialing to find 177,000 households that included 4,500 Jewish respondents.

But Tobin asserts that the survey method undercounts recent immigrants from Russia and Israel, along with younger Jews and those who live in the West.

He also said the national survey failed to include entire segments of the population, such as adopted children and the offspring of women more than 40 years old--thereby misstating the fertility rate. His own survey, based on 250 Jewish respondents gleaned from 10,000 households screened, found 18% more Jews than reported in earlier studies.

Officials of the United Jewish Communities, the umbrella organization that sponsored the population study, declined to respond to Tobin's critique, saying the survey "stands on its merits."

The dispute is a renewal of a 10-year-old debate over how best to ensure the long-term survival of the American Jewish population.

In 1990, the last national Jewish population survey found Jewish numbers to be stagnant, and 52% of Jews married in the preceding five years had wed non-Jews. That figure, although widely criticized since as inaccurate, caused the organized American Jewish community to mount an intensive campaign to strengthen Jewish identity through day schools, programs to Israel and other activities.

The survey inspired similar programs across the religious spectrum.

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