Pew-positive: Looking on the survey’s bright side

In the beginning the Pew Research Center published a major study of Jewish Americans. Now the study’s analysis was unformed and void, and Jewish commentators and leaders hovered over the face of it, offering pronouncements and interpretations. And they were dark, perhaps none darker than that of Jack Wertheimer, a professor of American Jewish history at the Conservative movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary, who told The New York Times that it was “a very grim portrait of the health of the American Jewish population in terms of their Jewish identification.”

Jewish media (including JTA) focused on the “soaring” intermarriage and assimilation rates, the large numbers of Jews with “no religion” and the apparent failure of the numerous costly efforts to engage young American Jews in Jewish life. And there was evening and there was morning and a bunch more evenings and mornings, and the Jews said, “Lighten up.” Call them the Pew-positives, perhaps, but in the past few days a glass-half-full round of commentary has emerged, those saying that perhaps Pew’s findings — and, as a result the prognosis for American Jewry — are not so bad after all.

New Mt. Sinai Cemetery advertisement

J.J. Goldberg, a columnist for (and former editor of) the Forward, questioned comparisons of the Pew survey’s findings to those from the much-maligned National Jewish Population Survey 2000-01. Because that year’s NJPS excluded people with “weak Jewish connections,” it offered, according to Goldberg, a “falsely upbeat picture of Jewish commitment and practice.” Comparing Pew’s larger sampling of less connected Jews to NJPS’s more Jewishly identified pool creates a misleading narrative of decline, he argued.

Also writing in the Forward this week, Bethamie Horowitz, who herself directed a 1991 Jewish population study for New York, suggested the Pew findings actually offer a narrative of “the surprising persistence and durability of Jewishness in America.” Horowitz pointed to the large numbers of respondents (94 percent) who say they are proud to be Jewish, a stark contrast to previous generations that longed to pass for gentile. “What’s changed over the course of the past century is that being Jewish is no longer viewed as a stigmatized condition,” she wrote, attributing this “positive shift” to the “successful incorporation — assimilation — of Jews” into the American mainstream. In addition, she noted, with Jewish expression “no longer limited to traditional Jewish outlets,” the Pew study overlooked the many ways people now access Jewish content and experiences, whether from Jewish studies classes at universities or material in books, film and online.

Meanwhile, Sarah Bunin Benor, a professor of contemporary Jewish studies at the Reform movement’s Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, argued in the Los Angeles Jewish Journal that the Pew study “finds a vibrant Jewish community.” Instead of “bemoaning or even debating the numbers, an alternative response to the survey would be to marvel at the fact that so many Jews still marry other Jews,” she wrote. “We live in an age of acceptance: Not only are Christians willing to marry Jews, many (an estimated 800,000) feel so connected to Jews or Judaism that they tell a phone interviewer that they are Jewish, even if neither of their parents is Jewish.” The study also belies the “conventional wisdom” that “Jewish organizations are no longer touching most Jews,” she wrote, noting that 58 percent of Jews report attending Jewish religious services at least a few times a year and 67 percent participating in “some kind of formal Jewish education,” including increased numbers who have attended day school.

Of course commentator Shmuel Rosner had another theory about Pew interpretation: “the Pew study has enough material for everyone to be able to reaffirm their previous beliefs.”

Julie Wiener Julie Wiener is a features writer for JTA. Previously, she was the associate editor of The New York Jewish Week, where she wrote about education, food and assorted other topics along with intermarriage.