Article Library / 2015

2014-2015 Annual Assessment

JPPI focused attention this year upon the “Jewish middle” in the American Jewish community. As discussed in the chapter “Jewish Identity and Identification in America Today,” multivariate analysis of the 2013 Pew study10 reveals that expressions of Jewish identity cluster into three groups. One displays social interactions that are sharply differentiated and stand apart from the social interactions of general American society, while another is so well integrated into American culture and society that it is barely identifiable as specifically Jewish. Those interactions that are readily identifiable as Jewish in an American context are mainly religious but also have to do with one’s friendships, Israel, and belonging to and being active in Jewish social and communal organizations.

In the middle we find expressions of Jewish identity that attempt to balance and articulate between Jewish social interactions and general American ones. These include responsibility toward Jewish communities around the world, a strong sense of belonging to the Jewish people, emotional attachment to Israel, and the belief that being part of the Jewish community is essential to being Jewish. Religious practice does not constitute a large part of their Jewishness; this middle segment practices the “Jewish civil religion.” Jews identified with the Conservative movement are strongly associated with these middle expressions of Jewish identity.

From a policy perspective, the maintenance of the Jewish middle is desirable because it constitutes the “glue” that holds together the two poles of the highly committed (mostly Orthodox) and the highly assimilated and intermarried, whose Jewish values are indistinguishable from general American ones. Secondly, contemporary Jewish policy influence depends upon two factors: Jewish identification and having the financial, status, and professional resources to affect outcomes. The latter depends upon integration into the general society. Thus it is desirable to have a balance between Jewish identity and integration into American life. The policy challenge is that this middle is shrinking.11

This middle is shrinking not only because of intermarriage and assimilation, but also because of the failure create Jewish families and to bear and raise Jewish children. Jewish educational interventions (day school, summer camp, post Bar Mitzvah supplementary school, Israel trips), and the creation of opportunities for young Jews to create friendships and romantic attachments with other young Jews has an extremely powerful effect on the propensity of the (non-Orthodox) young to marry Jewish and raise Jewish children.

Results from the JPPI expert panel underscored many of these points. All respondents answered in the affirmative, albeit with differing qualifications, that those self-identifying as “partially Jewish” should be counted as part of the Jewish community, and the fact that perhaps up to one million people do so should be regarded as a net positive. Relatedly, the fact that many members of the Russian immigration identify as fully or partially Jewish is also both positive and potentially sustainable in the next generation, although the majority feel that this will require some active measures of engagement to realize.

Balancing this positive assessment, the large majority felt that Israeli legislative initiatives emphasizing or privileging the Jewish character of the state has had some negative effects on Jewish identity in the Diaspora (e.g., “[Such legislation] as reported in the mainstream U.S. and Jewish press strengthens the narrative of undemocratic Israel, deservedly or not. That narrative has legs…so the discussion of the proposed law does indeed cause some damage.”)

The panel was evenly split on whether there had been any change in this dimension over the past year, and even its direction if so. On balance, the JPPI gauge for this dimension records a change for the negative because of the shrinking of the Jewish middle, the growth of Jews of no religion and of those who are partially Jewish with weak Jewish commitments and affiliations present serious challenges for Jewish identity in America.

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