Why do Jews flock together?


Most readers of the Jewish Light are Jewish, as I am. I am guessing that most of your friends are Jewish. Am I wrong? I would be willing to bet the house that I am right. 

I reflected on my own experience. My gut told me that most of the people my wife and I count as friends are Jews. As one test of this assumption, I decided to do an analysis of our address book, to see what percentage of the friends and acquaintances (excluding relatives) listed were Jewish as far as we knew. I determined that two-thirds of the names were members of the tribe.

I had to ask myself why. After all, in my youth, I attended public schools where Jews were in the minority. As an undergraduate, I attended Loyola College in Baltimore, a Jesuit school where only a handful of Jews other than my twin brother were in my class. I went on to graduate school at Syracuse University, a very diverse, secular university. 

And then I spent half a century until my retirement in 2019 as a faculty member in the political science department at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. 

When I first arrived at UMSL, roughly a third of my 20-person department was Jewish, including the guy who hired me. By the time I left, I was the only Jew in the department. Along the way, I developed good relationships with many fine non-Jewish colleagues, but few with whom I socialized. When it came to fraternizing, whether at lunch or dinner or on other occasions, my associates inside and outside the department were almost entirely Jewish. My co-author on several books also was Jewish. 

And so it went. My wife, too. She worked in the Special School District. It didn’t really matter. We were very Jew-centric. 

Some of our closest friends were people we met initially as fellow parents of young children, who happened to be Jewish. We were not very active in our temple, so that would not explain the Jewish character of our friendship circle. When we moved from University City to Clayton, most of our neighbors were not Jewish, yet we gravitated toward the ones who were. 

One of the few exceptions to this pattern is a weekly breakfast group I belong to that consists of one other Jew, two Catholics and one agnostic. The only one my wife and I regularly socialize with is the Jewish member of the group.  

J. Martin Rochester

Is this because of implicit bias, because subconsciously I have wanted to limit my strong associations to fellow Jews? I dunno. I doubt it. At least, I have never consciously considered this in entering into friendships. Rising antisemitism notwithstanding, I have never sensed any antipathy toward me as a Jew on the part of colleagues or other acquaintances I have come into contact with that might account for my failure to develop closer ties with folks of other religions.

So I am left with explaining this puzzle simply as some instinctive attraction to other lantzmen. Perhaps it is no more than the old adage that “birds of a feather flock together,” what some researchers call the homophily principle: “Similarity breeds connection.”

Still, I have a sneaking suspicion that such strong connectivity has been especially powerful among Jews. 

However, it is possible this is now at risk. 

In 1997, Alan Dershowitz wrote “The Vanishing American Jew: In Search of Jewish Identity for the Next Century,” raising questions about whether American Jews could survive their own success as greater security and affluence were accompanied by the threat of extinction through assimilation.

A recent Pew Research Center study (“10 Key Findings About Jewish Americans,” May 11) found, in examining the approximately 7.5 million Americans who are Jewish, that:

• “Like the overall U.S. population, Jews appear to be growing more racially and ethnically diverse.”

• “U.S. Jews are less religious than American adults overall.” 

• “Among Jewish respondents who got married since the beginning of 2010, 61% have a non-Jewish spouse.”

The survey did not look deeply into friendship-formation patterns. It is interesting to speculate whether, as Jews become more racially and ethnically diverse and less religious, and as intermarriage increases, this will weaken tribal bonds among Jews. 

I greatly value my non-Jewish friends and welcome others who would befriend me. That said, I am convinced something would be lost if that certain feeling of Yiddishkeit were to dissipate, even if I cannot quite put my finger on it. 

J. Martin Rochester, Curators’ Distinguished Teaching Professor of Political Science Emeritus at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, is the author of 10 books on international and American politics. Rochester has written a monthly Jewish Light column since 2014.