Each time the seasons change, we’re reminded of the comforting timelessness of the Jewish calendar. How each autumn brings the high holy days, with their spirit of introspection and reconciliation. How the spring brings the inspiring uplift of Passover.
And every 10 years, the panic and hysteria of another Jewish population survey.
The important takeaway from the new Pew survey is that it introduces some new methods of locating and counting Jews. This may produce a more accurate reading than we’ve had in the past, both of the overall number and of the quality of Jewish life. But it also makes it dangerous to compare its findings with those of past surveys.
Above all, it vindicates a thesis championed by the late sociologist Gary Tobin. He argued that calling up a random stranger and asking right off the bat about their religion is a sure way to get a false reading. Many people regard the matter as private. That will be especially true of Jews, who will frequently wonder who wants to know and why and quickly clam up. (Remember, the one expression of Judaism that they value above all others is remembering the Holocaust. Why would they rush to out themselves to a stranger?)
The result will be an underestimate of the total American Jewish population. Tobin’s argument was that the 5.5 million counted in 1990 and especially the 5.2 million counted in 2001 were way too low.
(It should be recalled here that the 2001 survey cautioned its readers that its counting methods were different from 1990, so nobody should infer a decline in population, but of course nobody paid attention. The 2001 survey also withdrew the 1990 intermarriage rate of 52% as a mistake, but nobody paid attention to that either.)
Tobin claimed that if you start by asking about less charged topics and then bringing the conversation around to religion, you establish a certain trust and then Jewish respondents are more likely to acknowledge that they’re Jewish rather than saying no and hanging up. He tested his theory and came up with a figure of about 6.7 million Jews, give or take a few hundred thousand. Many readers came away thinking that he had produced a larger population total by using a broader definition of Jewish, but that actually had nothing to do with it.
Well, the Pew folks say they started off by asking respondents about the quality of life in their neighborhoods and then came around to bringing up religion, and sure enough, they ended up with a total of 6.7 million.
One consequence of finding Jews who weren’t identified in previous population surveys, it seems to me, is that you’re going to have more Jews in your sample whose sense of their own Jewish identity is more tenuous. As a result, you’re going to have more people who are intermarried, more children of intermarriage who consider themselves Jewish and fewer people who belong to a synagogue or fast on Yom Kippur.
The striking thing isn’t that they don’t identify with Judaism as a religion. What’s striking is that they still want to call themselves Jewish when you give them a chance — that is, when you conduct the survey in a way that makes them comfortable (which should be rule one in any survey, I’d think). What’s amazing is that 94% of those 6.7 million Jews are proud of being Jewish, 80% say it’s an important part of their lives and 75% have a strong sense of belonging to the Jewish people.
All the other questions — do they go to synagogue, send their kids to Jewish education programs, support Israel and all the other things that the community leadership wants them to do — should be directed at the community as much as at the respondents.
It’s funny that the community’s most committed core, the most observant and the most identified with Israel, tend to be more conservative than the rest. What that means is that the people who are naturally looked to as leaders tend to espouse social values that most of their putative followers find distasteful — and yet they expect to be followed.
Where else does a community of interest or belief start the discussion by telling its flock they’re bunch of idiots?
Jonathan Jeremy “J.J.” Goldberg is editor-at-large of the Forward, where he served as editor in chief for seven years (2000-2007).