Friday, March 21, 2008

More Jewish Numbers

It is a good bet that there won’t be a 2010 National Jewish Population Survey along the lines of the previous decennial NJPS studies that generated much attention and argument. It is as good a bet that our fixation with numbers games will not abate anytime soon. Demography is now in the Jewish blood. What did NJPS in is its extraordinary high cost and methodological impediments that have sharply reduced the appetite for another big-time project. In place of NJPS, we will get surrogate demography, attempts to cobble together bits and pieces of research and data from a number of sources to produce what will be identified as a reliable picture of American Jewish life. Along with the numbers, we will get more controversy.

We now have an additional and significant contribution to the quantitative study of American Jewry, this from outside of the flock, as it comes from the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, the sponsor of the U.S. Religious Landscape Survey. I believe that this is the most extensive and ambitious privately funded study of religion in America. More than 35,000 participants were interviewed by phone, including a cohort that was reached by cell phone. A first report on religious affiliation was released several weeks ago; there will be two additional reports in the coming months, one dealing with religious practices and beliefs and the other with social and political views.

I am curious to know how much Pew has spent on the project, whether it was above or below the high cost for the obviously much narrower scope of NJPS 2000-01, an undertaking that broke the budget and serves as an enduring case study of the ineptitude of the American Jewish bureaucracy. Whatever the cost, hooray for Pew. Inevitably and appropriately, there will be critics and there are methodological issues that merit examination.

We are told in an appendix to the Pew report that “statistical results” were “weighted to correct known demographic discrepancies.” This is always a curious matter because the implication is that statistics are being manipulated to conform with what researchers believe to be the truth before they undertake the research. Another question mark is the employment of random digital dialing to reach participants. The reported response rate was 24%, a statistic that Pew claims is adequate. I wonder about this and also wonder whether, in fact, the response rate was lower.

Yet, what emerges is of enormous value, particularly because the central thesis is that religious affiliation in the U.S. is “very diversified” and “extremely fluid,” with persons switching their affiliation at an unprecedented rate, moving from one religious group to another or abandoning affiliation altogether. In a word, religious identity is going the way of social class, geographic location, employment and other social indicators where there is a great deal of movement.

The pattern discerned by Pew confirms the point that I have made repeatedly over the past twenty years that American Jewish affiliation is increasingly a membership arrangement, with people free to join or leave. This has been true for white ethnic groups for a very long while and it is increasingly true of religious groups.

By relying on self-reporting by respondents of their religious identity rather than on more complex and difficult to pin down aspects of religiosity, Pew avoided the pitfalls that have plagued American Jewish demography, such issues as intermarriage, non-Jews living in Jewish households and whether or how to count persons born Jewish who say they are no longer Jewish or have no affiliation. Our research has resulted in serial arguments about core Jews and semantics. Pew adheres to a simplified sociological approach. A Catholic is someone who says he/she is Catholic and a Jew is someone who says he/she is Jewish.

One problem with Pew’s Jewish statistics is that there were only 682 self-reporting Jews in the survey, which is about 15% of the number who were interviewed in the last NJPS. Accordingly, the margin of error is quite high. Still, Pew’s estimate of 3.8 million Jewish adults (age 18+) is close to the NJPS figure of 4.1 million. It is possible that in the intervening six or seven years there has been a further decline in the number of adult Jews resulting from 1) the aging of our population, 2) low fertility and 3) the ongoing disaffiliation from Judaism.

According to Pew, 10% of Jewish adults are Orthodox, a statistic that is somewhat higher than what emerges from other studies. In view of exceedingly high Orthodox fertility, it is likely that if all age groups are calculated, Orthodoxy now constitutes in excess of 12% of all American Jews.

The greatest controversy so far regarding the Pew data concerns the finding that 15% of those now self-identifying as Jewish are converts. This is an astonishingly high figure as it is more than unlikely that 600,000 adults who report themselves as Jewish are converts and the statistic is far above what NJPS and others have reported. A possible explanation is that Pew’s approach to conversion differs from that employed by NJPS and Jewish demographers. Whereas we regard conversion as occurring after some religious process and ritual, Pew’s reliance on self-reporting probably means that any person not born Jewish – let’s say someone in a Jewish household who now identifies as Jewish – is counted as such, irrespective of whether there was a formal religious procedure.

Pew points to a continuing process of Jewish population attrition, an assessment that will be challenged by the increasingly dominant group of demographers who claim population gains because of intermarriage and even other developments away from traditional Judaism. According to Pew, 51% of American Jews are 50 or older. The implications of this need not be spelled out. Also, 72% of Jewish adults say that there are no children under the age of 18 living at home.

The handwriting is on the wall.