Jewish Journal

Style and Substance

by Rob Eshman

Posted on Sep. 18, 2003 at 8:00 pm

What can the 2003 National Jewish Population Survey (NJPS) tell us that The New York Times wedding announcements can't?

I read both this weekend, pretty much one after the other, and I can tell you that the nuptial notices make up in pretty portraits what they lack in hard data.

As for the NJPS, it makes up in hard data what it lacks in sober analysis.

I'm not the first to point out that the usual dire headlines that accompanied the survey's release are overripe. "Where have all the Jewish people gone?" read one news release. "Jewish Population Declining" screamed a newspaper headline. Even comedian Bill Maher chimed in on his HBO show: With fewer Jews, he asked, "Who will write all those sitcoms about Latino and African American families?"

The survey, funded for $6 million by the federation umbrella group United Jewish Communities, reported that the nation's population of 5.2 million Jews represented a decline of 2 percent from the 1990 survey, which reported 5.5 million Jews.

But critics have pointed out that the survey's numbers are well within the margin of error. Beyond that, barring direct evidence of a decline, the NJPS actually states in its methodological appendix that, "many researchers believe that the methodologies of survey research may yield undercounts of the Jewish population." That decline you've been reading about all week? It may in fact be a slight rise.

As for intermarriage, the survey reported a national intermarriage rate among all married couples involving a Jew at 43 percent. Hardly shocking, as any weekend reading of Times wedding announcements would seem to indicate. This week, for instance, I saw that Dana Sacher, daughter of Susan and Joel Sacher of Springfield, N.J., married John Thomas Rollins, a son of Claire and Paul Rollins of Venice, Fla. A Methodist minister officiated, the paper reported, while Michele Lazerow of the Martha's Vineyard Hebrew Center in Tisbury, Mass., "took part in the service."

There were similar nuptials listed, and, taking a hazardous guess, I'd say The Times intermarriage rate for Sunday, Sept. 14, 2003, may be close to the 43 percent the NJPS reported.

That number, by the way, is down from the 52 percent rate reported in the 1990 survey. You remember how the OVER-HALF-OF-ALL-JEWS-INTERMARRY! statistic became an article of faith among rabbis and Jewish professionals predicting the imminent end of the Jewish people. It was the number that launched a thousand outreach programs, many of them worthwhile, and, as other numbers in the survey demonstrate, remarkably effective at deepening levels of Jewish education.

But it turns out the number itself was wrong. The new survey acknowledges that in their zeal to be as inclusive as possible, researchers counted as intermarried people who no longer considered themselves Jews. This time they defined intermarriage as "the marriage of someone who is Jewish to someone who is non-Jewish at the time of the survey."

The result of this stroke of brilliant reasoning is a reduction in the rate of intermarriage in as many as 39 communities to 26 percent or lower.

Taking this into consideration, those dire headlines should instead be downright inspiring. At a time when Jews can move unhindered up and down and across the social ladder and marry anyone they want, many still place a premium on retaining their attachment to Judaism.

Among those who do intermarry, the survey found that one-third of their children are being raised Jewish; that their children were three times more likely to marry non-Jews themselves; that by the common measures of Jewish life (synagogue affiliation, JCC membership, charitable contribution, home rituals) intermarried couples were much less Jewish.

But once again, don't think for a second these numbers tell the whole story, or even the most important part of it. Jewish life is not a snapshot, it's a movie. People's feelings about their religion change depending, among other things, on how others within the faith treat them. Not surprisingly, the survey shows the number of Reform and Reconstructionist Jews increasing, while the number of Conservative Jews declining. Guess which denomination is more welcoming to intermarried couples?

If this survey - and those handsome faces in the wedding announcements - do nothing else, they should encourage us to redefine intermarriage not as an onus, but as an opportunity.

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