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2019 Annual Assessment


The gauge remains unchanged from last year
Studies published during the past year in the United States, Israel and in other Jewish communities can enhance our understanding of the status of contemporary Jewish identity. JPPI published an extensive study on Israeli Jewry, and major research was also published on the Jewish community in the Washington DC area and on the Jewish community in Canada.
JPPI’s study of Israeli Jews enhances the insights presented in the Pew Research Center’s 2016 study. It shows that most Jews in Israel (55 percent) identify with the Jewish national symbols and values as well as traditional Jewish symbols and/or religion. As the researchers (Shmuel Rosner and Prof. Camille Fuchs) describe it, most Israeli Jews say Kiddush on Friday night and also hang out Israeli flags on Yom Ha-Atzma’ut (Independence Day). The study finds that most Israeli Jews identify with both identity dimensions and suggests that this is a strong identification. Data from the extensive survey carried out as part of the research confirm this. Eighty-eight percent of Israeli Jews rank “their feeling as Jews” with a score of at least 7 out of 10. Eighty-seven percent reported that their Jewishness is important or very important to them.

This relatively high national-traditional identity has implications on the third dimension of identity, the civil-political dimension. Israeli-Jews identify “Israeli-ness” itself with “Jewish-ness.”

The study also elucidated the dynamics of Jewish identity in Israel. It indicates that the main identity changes are in the direction of less religious practice. Accordingly, religious Jews are becoming traditional or secular-somewhat-traditional. Traditional Jews are becoming secular, and so on. This process seems to have an impact on the values of Israel’s secular population, a large portion of which observes a high level of traditional practices (Seder night, b’nei mitzvah, and the like).

Studies on American Jews tell a different story. Intermarriage with non-Jews is the norm today. Among non-Ultra-Orthodox Jews in America (aged 25-54), 58 percent of those married are married to non-Jews. Only about half of the offspring of such couples are raised as Jews.

It might be that the long-term impact of these trends will be reduced somewhat in light of other factors. Research indicates that young American Jews tend to give their Jewish identity a cultural interpretation rather than ethnic or religious. This kind of interpretation allows for a Jewishness whose borders are open to the non-Jewish world. Concomitantly, those who are active in Jewish leadership report that new, “post-denominational” synagogues (that is, those that don’t belong to any recognized religious movement) attract “borderland” Jews (Jews who are only partly affiliated), although these claims are not, at this point, backed up by research. One way or the other, it is doubtful that exciting developments in culture, literature, research and religion among American Jews can offset the trends in the spheres of demography and identity.

One factor with a long-term influence on these trends is the growing number of Orthodox Jews, particularly the Ultra-Orthodox, in the United States. While the average birth rate among non-Orthodox Jewish women is 1.4 children (far less than the replacement rate), the average birth rate among Modern Orthodox women is more than 3 children, and more than 5 children for Ultra-Orthodox women. Accordingly, in some Jewish communities in America the Ultra-Orthodox already constitute a considerable percentage of the younger age cohorts. The Ultra-Orthodox have a strong Jewish identity and a high rate of retention (that is, there is almost no intermarriage or assimilation among them). These statistics led JPPI to devote its 2019 Annual Dialogue to a discussion of ways to ensure greater Ultra-Orthodox participation in Jewish community life and the general American society, in public service and politics. This is due to a concern that the new demographic may erode the influence of the Jewish community in America.

In other English-speaking Diaspora communities, the intermarriage rate is significantly lower than in the United States. According to a survey Canada’s Jewish population published this year, the rate is some 23 percent there and is not higher in younger age groups. Therefore, the researchers find that the Canadian community has a “highly resilient Jewish identity.” In Australia, too, the intermarriage rate is significantly lower than in the United States (15-24.9 percent), but it is higher among the younger the age cohort.

A rise in anti-Semitism has had an impact the world over on public expressions of mutual responsibility, which strengthens Jewish identity. However, at the same time and particularly in Europe, displays of anti-Semitism are more prevalent in people’s daily lives and undermine the sense of security. The response by most Jews in France, Denmark, and Sweden to this situation was to lower their Jewish profile and to avoid wearing identifying clothing or carry items that would identify them as Jews in the public sphere. This gradual withdrawal from daily routine and, on occasion, from the Jewish community, may have a negative long-term impact on Jewish identity.

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