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Jewish World Review April 25, 2000 / 20 Nissan, 5760

Jonathan Tobin

Jonathan Tobin
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What Questions Did We Ask?

This week, we conducted our own Jewish population surveys -- The news that a new Jewish population survey is almost ready to be launched did not exactly register on the Richter scale of Jewish news. But whether you are waiting by the phone or are completely indifferent to the news, the fact is, if you are Jewish, the United Jewish Communities wants to know who you are.

According to the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, in contrast to the famous 1990 National Jewish Population Study, the new study, which will attempt to survey 5,000 American Jews, will focus more on issues that relate to what leads us to identify as Jews rather than on social-service needs.

After years of preparation, there is still a controversy about which questions will be asked. And one can almost take it for granted that, like those of its predecessor, the results generated by this survey will be endlessly argued about for years after its completion.

Indeed, the bickering among scholars and journalists about the accuracy of the famous 52-percent figure for intermarriage generated by the 1990 study is still continuing. Many interested observers and scholars think the 52-percent number was exaggerated. Some of them think the actual figure is closer to 40 percent or lower.

But whether or not you are one of the lucky 5,000 who will be grilled for a half-hour about your level of Jewish education, observance, philanthropy and interests, all of us will have a stake in the outcome.

Most of the leaders and professionals reacted to the famous 52-percent intermarriage figure produced in 1990 as if they had been subjected to electroshock therapy. They realized that if they didn’t take this trend seriously, they could wake up one morning without a Jewish community to serve or lead.

The result of this shock therapy was largely beneficial. Jewish groups began paying more attention to those things that were linked to Jewish-identity formation, such as education and observance.

The new survey will help determine the answers to questions such as whether more money should be allocated to day schools or whether Jewish organizations will be focused more on intermarried and nonaffiliated Jews than on the core affiliated community. Though voluntary groups such as Jewish federations are ill-equipped to make these sorts of choices, there is little doubt that, increasingly, we will have to choose.

Though enrollment in Jewish day schools continued to soar in the last decade, it is abundantly clear that there is, as yet, no critical mass of funds or organized support within the community for making these schools affordable to middle-class parents.

At the same time, it is equally clear that there is a critical mass of support for Jewish activities and outreach designed for intermarried couples.

Key players in the Jewish world clearly believe that they — and not the day-school movement — represent the future of the organized community.

But, despite the intense efforts that various forces within the Jewish world have spent on trying to influence the questions that the survey will ask, we really don’t have to wait until next year (or whenever it is that the results will be published).

This week, we gathered at seders with our families to celebrate Passover — which other surveys tell us remains the most widely observed Jewish ritual of the year — is was a great opportunity to conduct our own population surveys. Here are some questions whose results we can ponder in the months to come: Did our non-Jewish friends and family members feel comfortable about participating in the primarily Jewish nature of the event? Was that part of your seder de-emphasized?

How much of the Haggadah did your family actually read? All of it? Some of it? Did you resume your seder after the festive meal?

How many of the synagogue Hebrew-school graduates in the family remembered enough of their lessons to be able to actually recite the Four Questions in Hebrew — or did you settle for English?

What were the main topics of conversation around the seder table? Did you and your family discuss the Exodus? Were other topics of Jewish interest brought up?

Did the participants mull over the topics that many of our major Jewish defense organizations think are of vital national interest, such as the need for more gun control and hate-crimes legislation? Were there any recalcitrant conservatives who either didn’t support these issues or thought they weren’t really Jewish issues?

Did Israel or the peace process come up?

Did anyone mention or suggest prayers about the plight of the 13 Jews awaiting trial in Iran on trumped-up charges of espionage?

Taking all of these factors together, can you say that the Jewish identity of your family is stronger or weaker than it was 10 years ago?

The answers to these and the many other possible questions in our unscientific surveys will not only tell us a lot about who we are as a community; even more to the point, they will speak eloquently about what kind of a Jewish community we wish to live in.

As we looked around the table this year and greeted our Jewish, as well as non-Jewish, friends and relations, we had an opportunity to glimpse a little bit of the Jewish future. The quality of the food aside, were you happy with the result?

Have we become inclusive enough in our approach to people who feel disenfranchised or abandoned by the organized community? Or have we dumbed down American Judaism so much that we are solely defined by our determination to be inclusive?

American Jewry stands at a crossroads today, just as much as it did 10 years ago. The decisions we make — such as whether or not we have the courage to create a Jewish-education safety net that will ensure that every Jewish child gets a quality Jewish education and/or an educational trip to Israel as a young adult — will largely determine the composition of our family seders in the decades to come.

Unless we draw the right conclusions from all of these questions, we won’t have to wait for the answers.

JWR contributor Jonathan S. Tobin is executive editor of the Philadelphia Jewish Exponent. Let him know what you think by clicking here.

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© 2000, Jonathan Tobin