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American Jews See Population, Birthrate Drop

Intermarriage keeps climbing, although at a slower pace, a new survey finds. The data were compiled to help preserve the faith.

September 11, 2003|Larry B. Stammer | Times Staff Writer

The Jewish population in the United States declined 5% in the last decade to about 5.2 million and the rate of intermarriage continued to climb, but at a slower pace, a new nationwide survey has found.

The study by United Jewish Communities found contradictions in American Jewish life: an increase in the number of children enrolled in Jewish day schools and adults participating in Jewish education, yet "significant segments" of Jews on the margins of religious or community involvement. For example, only 46% of Jews are synagogue members and only 28% light Sabbath candles.

Those mixed findings, the study sponsors said, should influence how the 156 Jewish Federations in the UJC across the country spend upward of $850 million a year to preserve and strengthen Jewish cultural and religious identity in America.

"I think we're going to be taking a much more critical look at what types of initiatives that prove to be successful and what are the types that need fine tuning or change," said Lorraine Blass, project manager of the $6-million study.

The study's credibility became an issue last October after part of its findings on population was released and then withdrawn because some field data were not factored into the 5.2-million population estimate. At the same time, another study by a San Francisco-based group -- using a broader definition of who was Jewish -- placed the population at 6.7 million. But after reevaluating its methodology and findings, UJC said Wednesday that it stood by the 5.2-million figure.

In a telephone interview from New York, Blass said the survey was "meticulously examined."

It found that the Jewish population is graying faster than the U.S. population in general, with a median age of 42, (five years older than 10 years ago) compared with 37 for the country as a whole. Children under age 17 account for 20% of the Jewish population and those over age 65 account for 19% of the total Jewish population.

Compared with the overall U.S. population, Jews tend to marry later and, on average, have fewer children. American Jewish fertility rates are below population replacement levels.

A key finding involved the extent of intermarriage, a sensitive issue for Jewish leaders concerned about assimilation and loss of identity. The latest study found that 47% of Jews who married since 1996 entered into mixed marriages, and that two-thirds of the children of all intermarried parents were not being reared as Jewish.

Only 13% of Jews who married before 1970 took a non-Jewish spouse, according to Laurence Kotler-Berkowitz, research director of the poll. He said the intermarriage rate had increased threefold to 38% by the mid-1980s. "Since then, the rate of increase has slowed down," he said. It had held steady at 43% during the 10-year period between 1985 and 1995.

Ten years ago, the same poll reported intermarriage at 52%, but that is now believed to be an inflated figure based on a methodology that has been dropped.

Intermarriage was more frequent in Western states, including California, where 42% of currently married Jews have non-Jewish spouses, compared with 25% in the more traditional Northeast, the study found. Jews in the West were also generally less observant and less involved in Jewish activities than those in the East.

John Fishel, president of the Jewish Federation of Los Angeles, said Wednesday: "This study once gain very loudly trumpets that we need to step back. We need to look at our priorities. We need to reassess what those priorities may be, based on what we would like the Jewish community to be 10 or 15 years from now."

Nonetheless, Rabbi Robert Wexler, president of the University of Judaism in Los Angeles, looked on the positive side.

Compared to other ethnic groups that came to the U.S. in large numbers in the early years of the 20th century, Jews have been less likely to intermarry, in part because to be a Jew can mean an ethnic or religious identity, or both, he said. "Here is this tenacious holding on to an aspect of their ethnic identity," Wexler said.

The study found that 63% of all American Jews say they have "emotional attachments" to Israel but that only about one out of three Jews have visited Israel. About 40% give to Jewish causes other than local Jewish federations, and 62% give to non-Jewish causes.

Looking at religious affiliation, the report said that 46% of Jewish adults are members of synagogues, but it offered no comparisons to past years because survey methodologies changed. Of those, 39% belong to Reform synagogues, 33% Conservative, 21% Orthodox, 3% Reconstructionist and 4% other.

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(Begin Text of Infobox)

Jewish Americans by the numbers

Here are the key numerical findings of the National Jewish Population Survey 2000-2001 released Wednesday by United Jewish Communities:

Demographics

Total Jewish population in America: ...5.2 million

Number of Jewish households in America:... 2.9 million

Regional distribution of Jewish population:

Northeast:... 43%

Midwest: ...13%

South:...23%

West: ...22%

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