Article Library / 2015

2014-2015 Annual Assessment

We can enhance our sense of what the “middle” is by looking at a computer-generated mapping of respondent answers to the survey questions at the heart of the 2013 Pew report. The Pew data map shows that there is a spectrum of Jewish identity expressions. They range from those sharply differentiated, those that stand apart from the attitudes and behaviors characteristic of the general American society to those that are very well integrated into American culture and society, and which are barely identifiable as specifically Jewish. In the American context, those interactions that stand apart from the general American society and that are readily identifiable as Jewish are mainly religious (Shabbat, kashrut); however, they are not exclusively so. Important patterns of social interaction exclusively or identifiably Jewish have to do with one’s friendship circles (if they are they entirely or mostly Jewish); Israel (repeated visits), and belonging to and being active in Jewish social and communal organizations (not only synagogues). At the other side of the spectrum we find identity expressions respondents identified as Jewish but which realize general American or modern values such as justice and equality, tolerance, and even “intellectual curiosity.”

The map (figure 1) of Pew questionnaire responses, gives a sense of how the spectrum is constructed. In the lower right hand corner of the map we find those identity expressions most identifiable as Jewish, and which are distinct from the mainstream of general modern or American life. These include, first and foremost, religious observances such as kashrut (v.48), refraining from handling money on Shabbat (v.49), fasting on Yom Kippur (v.51) and lighting Sabbath candles (v.47). However, many of its practices are not religious, such as visits to Israel (v.39), predominantly Jewish friendship circles (v.37), and membership is non-religious Jewish organizations (v.46). The map’s middle shows the next division, which attempts to balance and articulate between identifiable Jewish social interactions and general American ones. Hence, it tends to include discourses and practices that “fit,” or at least aren’t in blatant contradiction, with the general society. These include an emphasis on community, especially in terms of feelings and attitudes. In this part of the map we find a feeling of special responsibility toward Jews around the world (v.35), a strong sense of belonging to the Jewish people (v.34), an emotional attachment to Israel, and the belief that being part of the Jewish community is an essential part of being Jewish (v.30). Those represented by the maps midsection (along with President Obama) participate in Passover Seders (v.50). However, religious practice does not constitute a very large part of their Jewishness. It is this middle division that practices the “Jewish civil religion” we wrote about in the 2013-2014 Annual Assessment.

The final division, on the map’s left side, comprises Jewish practices and interactions that can be thought of as synonymous with those of general American society. That is, they fit well into general American life and they don’t have anything blatantly or identifiably Jewish about them. They include working for justice and equality in society (v.26), leading an ethical and moral life (v.23), having a good sense of humor (v.25), and being intellectually curious (v.27). It also includes remembering the Holocaust (v.22). The Holocaust in American life has been constructed as an event of universal significance, whose main message is directed against intolerance and racism. Again, these content variables constitute a spectrum. The computer program, though, has also drawn lines dividing the space into the regions described above.

How do these types of Jewish identity expressions relate to actual American Jews? Do certain kinds of Jews favor specific kinds of Jewish identity expressions? Not surprisingly, such relationships do exist. Figure 2 represents the map together with certain background characteristics of the American Jewish population. Thus, in the lower right hand part of the map we find the Orthodox denomination. That is, there is a high (unsurprising) correlation between Jews who identified as Orthodox and having mainly Jewish friends, visiting Israel, fasting on Yom Kippur, observing the Sabbath etc. According to this map, Orthodox Jews are not only more religious; they are more “Jewish” in general. In the map’s midsection, where there is strong identification with the Jewish people and the Jewish community, we find the Conservative denomination, and what Pew has dubbed “Jews by Religion.” Conservative Jews and Jews by Religion are not very religious in terms of practice but are very committed to Jewish “sacred ethnicity” and community. (This is entirely in accord with our analysis from last year.) Finally, on the left side of the map, together with those Jewish interactions least identifiable as Jewish and the most identifiable as modern or American, we find intermarried Jews (Jews who are married to Jews are located on the right side of the map near the Orthodox), the Reform denomination, “partially Jewish,” and “Jews not by Religion.”

This organization of American Jewish life into three divisions vis-a-vis the relationship of Jewish social practices and interactions to mainstream American life has the advantage of being intuitive. This classification reflects common notions concerning the Orthodox that they are not only “more religious,” they are “more Jewish.” “More Jewish” means that their practices and social interactions (including, as indicated non-religious Jewish practices) are more differentiated from those of the American mainstream, and that these constitute a large, if not the major, part of their social life. The middle grouping, for the most part of Conservative Jews and “Jews by Religion,” is then “less Jewish” in the sense that their practices and social interactions are more balanced between differentiated Jewish ones and general American ones. Finally, the third grouping (Reform, intermarried, “partially Jewish”) is the “least Jewish of all.” Its Jewish practices are barely differentiated and are well integrated into mainstream American practices and interactions. Obviously, this in no way suggests that Reform temples, youth groups, summer camps, and other organizations do not embody deep and meaningful particularistic Jewish expressions and outreach endeavors.

Conservative Jews are also, in a substantive sense, “in the middle.” They participate evenly and in a moderately high fashion in all social interactions and expressions of Jewish identity. Thus, the Orthodox score the highest in regard to exclusively Jewish social interactions and expressions of identity. They also score the highest in regard to communal expressions of Jewish identity (the blue variables). Yet, despite the fact that they also identify the universalistic expressions of Jewish identity (sense of humor, work for justice and equality) as Jewish, they are far from scoring the highest in regard to these. They score the lowest in regard to sense of humor and are only number four in regard to the struggle for justice and equality. The more liberal-universalist groups score high in regard to the universalist expressions of Jewish identity but score low in regard to the exclusive expressions of Jewish identity and the communal ones. Conservative Jews, in contrast to both of these groups, score next to highest across the board, in regard to almost all variables.

It is important to add that these characterizations of the various contents of Jewish identity in America are external descriptions. They are not at all judgmental nor are they meant to describe how the respondents themselves think about such categories as “Jewish” or “American.” They certainly do not imply that the respondents understand that there is a tension or conflict between such categories. Nor do they imply (as some social scientists thought 40 or 50 years ago) that only the more “Jewish” identity expressions have survivability. In fact, as seen below, the Pew and other recent data show that the identity expressions that fit in easily with modern American culture and life have a high correlation with Jewish pride, and population groups associated with them are increasingly identifying Jewishly (though without a high degree of Jewish commitments and affiliations).