Most Jews' self-concept culture-based, study says

June 30, 1991|By Los Angeles Times

The largest-ever survey of the U.S. Jewish population show that most American Jews see themselves primarily as a cultural group, rather than as an ethnic or religious group.

And fewer than 10 percent of U.S. Jews say that they prefer Orthodox Judaism, despite impressions that there has been a significant resurgence of traditionalist beliefs, said sociologists who released the report this month.

"We are tapping a dynamic change -- what has been called the desacralization of Judaism," said Barry Kosmin, research director for the Council of Jewish Federations and the survey's principal researcher.

"I was surprised that religious identification didn't come up higher, but 'culture' embraces more and you don't have to believe in Judaism to belong," Mr. Kosmin said.

A total of 2,441 interviews were conducted last year, giving the best picture yet of the 8.2 million Jews in America, Mr. Kosmin said. The survey results will be used by the nearly 200 metropolitan Jewish federations in North America to assist their planning for community needs.

The study projects that 5.5 million Americans are "core Jews," those who have not abandoned their Jewish heritage through conversion or intermarriage. Three-fourths of the core group say they practice their religion.

The survey report allowed respondents to pick more than one answer to the question about "what it means to be a Jew in America," and many did. But slightly under half of the "core Jews" considered "religious group" to be part of their identity; about 60 percent picked "ethnic group" and about 75 percent included "cultural group."

When asked which branch of Judaism they preferred, 41.4 percent of the respondents named the liberal Reform movement, 40.4 percent picked the moderate Conservative wing and 6.8 percent named the religiously strict Orthodox contingent, the study showed.

Another 3.2 percent answered "traditional," which sociologist BrucePhillips of Hebrew Union College in Los Angeles said could mean either Orthodox or Conservative practice. (Another 8.2 percent responded "just Jewish" or gave other answers.)

The new survey confirms the results of polls in the 1980s $H showing that Orthodox Judaism embraced only about 10 percent of American Jewry, said Mr. Phillips, who was one of many technical advisers on the national survey.

"Whenever I present those findings to a lay audience, I have been challenged," he said.

"The Jewish community tends to overestimate their numbers because Orthodox Jews tend to be more visible and are geographically concentrated," Mr. Phillips said.

Both Mr. Phillips and Mr. Kosmin also noted that bearded, black-hatted Hasidic rabbis and Torah-studying young professionals are often articulate spokesman who have been able to attract news media attention -- adding to the image of a resurgent Orthodoxy.

Orthodoxy did slightly better and Reform slightly worse when the survey asked about synagogue membership. Orthodox Judaism claims 16 percent of U.S. Jewish households, but Reform (35 percent) and Conservative (43 percent) synagogues still attract nearly eight of every 10 religious Jews.

But the study said that shifts from one branch to another are predominantly toward the Reform side. "Nearly 90 percent of those now Orthodox were raised as such, thus indicating any movement toward Orthodoxy is relatively small," said the report.

"There is a flow from right to left, as it were, and that has been a historic trend for 200 years among Jews," Mr. Kosmin added.

In other survey findings, 79 percent of Jews perceive anti-Semitism to be a serious problem in the United States today, although only 5 percent say that they have personally experienced discrimination in the work force.

Th survey also found that converts to Judaism were estimated to be about 185,000 -- slightly less than the 210,000 estimated to have left the faith to join another religion.

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