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Looking Beyond Labels

The most common way to speak about American Jews is to use the denominational brand names — Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, etc. But the usefulness of these terms is increasingly debatable, as suggested by analysis of recently released data from the National Jewish Population Survey 2000-01.

The proportion of American Jews who said they were “Just Jewish” or who otherwise declined to choose a denominational preference doubled from 13% in 1990 to 25% in 2000-2001. Moreover, these percentages refer only to those who identified themselves as Jews by religion and don’t include other Jewishly connected but religiously agnostic people. The proportion of Jews who do not identify with any denomination is therefore significantly larger. The increasing numbers of Jews declining to state a denominational preference is indicative of a larger and growing disconnect between the conventional, largely organization-oriented language for describing American Jewry and what’s really going on in the lives of individual Jews.

When most people use terms such as “Orthodox,” “Conservative” and “Reform” to describe themselves, they have in mind a scale of religious observance ranging from high or strong (Orthodox) to low or weak (Reform), rather than a particular institutional affiliation or an ideological position about Judaism and modernity. One respondent explained, “I used to be Orthodox, but now I don’t do anything, so I must be Reform.” (Or did he mean “reformed”?) A cartoon in a recent issue of The New Yorker may have captured the prevailing sentiment among American Jews regarding religious affiliation. In it, three people are standing chatting together. “I don’t belong to an organized religion,” one explains to the others.“My religious beliefs are way too disorganized.”

It makes sense to invoke denomination for describing synagogues that affiliate with denominational movements and rabbis who are trained at denominational seminaries. But denomination falls short in characterizing the varieties of individual Jews and the nature of their connections to Jewishness and to Judaism.

We could consider membership in a synagogue a sign of more serious denominational affiliation (since, after all, most synagogues are themselves affiliated with a denominational movement). Looking at this variable, the label “Orthodox” appears to be the most descriptive: Among people who say they’re Orthodox, the vast majority (85%) report being members of synagogues. Among people who name other denominations, however, the proportions belonging to synagogues are dramatically lower: 58% of those who identify as Conservative, 42% of those who say they’re Reform, 52% of those identifying with other denominations (including Reconstructionist), and 11% of those who claim no denomination.

So if denominational identity is often quite tenuous, what then is going on in the inner religious lives of American Jews? There are some hints. First, a majority of American Jews of all stripes appear connected to spirituality. The NJPS asked, “Other than attending religious services, do you ever pray using your own words?” The proportions answering “yes” range from 82% of those who defined themselves as Orthodox to 60% of those who claim no denominational identity.

There was a similar pattern of responses to the NJPS question about whether it is important to have “a rich spiritual life.” The figures ranged from 92% who answered affirmatively among the Orthodox-identified to 60% among those with no denomination. Read this as evidence of spiritual seeking among American Jews, however reluctant they may be to join an organized movement.

To focus on denominational identity obscures the far more complex bases on which American Jews actually construct their identities. The NJPS included a series of questions about individuals’ personal connections to Jewishness, which when analyzed revealed three general orientations or aspects of being Jewish. First, being Jewish means doing things (like attending synagogue, observing Jewish law, being part of a Jewish community, celebrating Jewish holidays and giving one’s children a Jewish education). Second, being Jewish involves living out some basic values (for instance, making the world a better place, leading a moral and ethical life, having a rich spiritual life). Third, Jewishness involves awareness about the historic and collective experience of the Jewish people (remembering the Holocaust, caring about Israel, learning about Jewish history and culture, and countering antisemitism).

The importance that American Jews attribute to each of these areas varies both across and within denominational lines. It is noteworthy, however, that the sense of Jewishness as a kind of consciousness of a common peoplehood was the most widely shared among Jews of all stripes, whatever we choose to call them.

Unfortunately, our data can only take us so far. But the survey does offer some hints as to the deeper currents that flow in our American Jewish psyches. The old-style denominational language is past its prime, and a new way of seeing is only beginning to emerge.

Bethamie Horowitz, a social psychologist, is research director for the Mandel Foundation and was a member of the National Technical Advisory Committee of the National Jewish Population Survey 2000-01.


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