The new study of the Boston Jewish community is hardly a media-friendly study. At the heart of it, there is a complex scale of Jewish engagement – one that divides Jewish Bostonians to five groups: the Minimally Involved (17% of Jews), who have relatively low Jewish engagement; the Familial (24%), who engage primarily through home-based and family related activities and behavior – such as a Passover Seder; the Affiliated Jews (26%), those engaging both through family and communal organizations; the Cultural Jews (18%), who engage, in addition to family, through cultural activities (such as listening to Jewish or Israeli music); and the Immersed (15%) – those exemplary Jews who engage through all dimensions.
The authors of this study try to make the case that “although the groups reflect different degrees of engagement with Jewish life, the categories make clear that dichotomies -engaged/not engaged and religious/not religious - are inadequate descriptors of contemporary Jewish behavior.” That is to say: the study avoids any judgmental scaling of Jewish behavior. It demonstrates how all Jews engage, rather than tell us which of them are more or less engaged. Even the “Minimally involved” Jew is still “involved.” He or she does not attend the Seder, only a few of them listen to Jewish music, and yet about a third of them have “attended a Jewish program.” So they are not completely unattached. They can still be lured towards more engagement.
Why this isn’t media friendly? Because it’s complicated. No wonder that the media coverage focused on the few areas from which clear headlines could be drawn:
Jews in Boston go to Israel in great numbers. Two-thirds of Greater Boston’s Jews have been to Israel at least once. One third have travelled to Israel multiple times. This is higher than most other US Jewish communities and higher than the recorded percentage of visitors in the 2005 study, ten years ago.
Jews in Boston do not affiliate with denominations. Ten years ago, Reform and Conservative Jews accounted for 74% of Boston Jews. Today, they are less than a half of Boston Jews (44%). The rising group is of Jews who have no denomination. Those “who are secular, culturally Jewish, or just Jewish.” Their number has increased from 17% to 45% of the Jewish population.
Both of these findings are of great significance. Travel to Israel is a sign of engagement. Affiliation is also a sign of engagement. When one goes up and the other one goes down, this means that the way Jews engage is changing. And contrary to common complaints, it is changing towards less Jewish religiosity and more Jewish peoplehood. A new JPPI study that was just released this week (of which I am an author) points to a similar trend: “A minority of both Jewish Americans and Israelis consider Religion to be the main component of Jewishness.” Jews around the world, according to our study, emphasize “nationality\peoplehood” as a major component of Jewishness, and also emphasize “taking care of Israel and other Jews” as an “essential” part of being Jewish.
But these discoveries aside, I’d like to dedicate a little space to understanding the engagement index that the Boston study invented. Its method is not really that complicated. 12 questions were asked: do you light Shabbat candles, do you go to synagogue, do you follow the news from Israel, do you volunteer for a Jewish cause, and more. The answers were then clustered by statistical tools – and the clustering process revealed five main groups of Jews. Each group has typical behavior. The names attached to the groups - Minimally Involved, Familial, Affiliated, Cultural, Immersed – were picked by the authors of the study (Brandeis University’s Maurice & Marilyn Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies and the Steinhardt Social Research Institute in collaboration with Combined Jewish Philanthropies, the local federation).
Every Jew, not only a Bostonian, can look at these groups and exercise self-examination: what type of Jew are you?
The “immersed Jews” are those for which religious “ritual behavior is normative.” More than half of them keep kosher at home. A majority light Shabbat candles and attend Shabbat services regularly. There is not one item on the list that less than half of them practice (the lowest is having a Kosher home – 53%). Many items all of them practice – Seder – 100%; Chanukah candles – 100%; High Holiday services – 99%; donated to Jewish cause – 97%. Almost all immersed Jews are Jews “by religion,” namely, Jews who say their religion is Judaism (rather than say they have no religion). Almost all of them are affiliated with a Jewish denomination (with the Orthodox overrepresented more than all other groups). Close to 30% of in-married Jews are “immersed”, but only 5% of intermarried Jews are immersed.
Cultural Jews don’t do religious ritual. Not one of them goes to 3 services or more every week. Only 4% keep Kosher at home. But they are highly engaged with Israel – 80% seek news from Israel often. 85% attend Jewish programs. And they do observe the main Jewish holidays – Seder, Chanukah, High Holidays. I was not surprised to learn that almost half of Boston’s “Israelis” (43%; 32% are immersed) are cultural Jews. Israeli secularism is in many ways similar to this type of cultural Judaism.
Affiliated Jews can also be called communal Jews. They practice the big Jewish holidays, affiliate with a synagogue, and donate to Jewish causes, but they are not engaged religiously and are not engaged beyond the synagogue\organization formulation. A little music, a little reading, a service with kosher food here and there. They are 35 to 64 years old. Jews with children who need to affiliate because they want Jewish education, or Bar Mitzvah, or just to give them a taste of Judaism.
Familial Jews do the family stuff. They attend the family Seder and light Chanukah candles. What else? Not much else. Still, about a third of them attend a Jewish program or donate to a Jewish cause. That is to say: they keep in touch. They do not try to distance themselves from the community. They can still be found and engaged. Who are they? Many are intermarried. Many are unaffiliated. More than forty percent of the so-called Jews of Multiple Religions (JMR) are familial Jews. Only 19% of the Jews by Religion (JBR) are familial.
The Minimally involved are, well, uninvolved. A third of them light Chanukah candles and that’s their most practiced Jewish activity. 32% have attended a Jewish program – which means that Jewish programs are able to reach even the highly disengaged. About a fifth of them have some engagement with Jewish\Israeli content. Who are they? Almost half of Boston’s Russian Jews (43%) are minimally engaged. That’s a group that needs attention. Most of them are Jews not by Religion (48% of JNR are minimally involved). A clear majority are unaffiliated with a religious denomination. 85% of them are intermarried. Hence, only 3% of them say it’s very important for them that their child will marry a Jew, and only 10% of them say it is very important for them their grandchildren will be Jewish.
Can you identify yourself among these groups? Here’s a one clue to help you make a decision: if you are reading this column it raises the chances – but does not make it a certainty - that you are a member of one of two of the groups mentioned above.
And a word about distancing from Israel:
Like many previous studies the Boston study clearly demonstrates that there is hardly such a thing as Jewish distancing from Israel. Distancing from Israel is distancing from Judaism and Jewish life. Take a look at this table that describes the lever of “emotional connection to Israel.” It is not a coincidence that “the strongest connections to Israel are found among the Immersed pattern group (70% very much) and the Cultural group (50% very much).” These two are linked: if one is engaged, one is connected to Israel. If one is distanced from Israel, one is disconnected from Jewish life. In other words: discussing distancing from Israel as if this was an isolated item impacted mostly by the policies and the politics of Israel always was and still is a useless exercise.