An upcoming Pew Center survey of Israeli religious attitudes may facilitate closer understanding between Israeli and Diaspora Jews, Alan Cooperman, the organization’s director of religion research, told The Jerusalem Post on Thursday.
The initial announcement of the new survey, made by philanthropist Joseph Neubauer at the annual conference of Tel Aviv University’s Institute for National Security Studies in January, came close on the heels of the release of Pew’s Portrait of Jewish Americans.
Due to its findings indicating a lowering of communal affiliation and rising intermarriage, the Pew study was the catalyst for major introspection among those involved in Jewish institutional life.
According to the October study, which surveyed almost 3,500 Jews between February and June, there has been a generational diminution in identification as a “Jew by religion.” This development echoes broader trends within American religious life, the study asserted.
Jewish identity in the US is undergoing a significant shift, Pew found, with one in five Jews identifying as having no religion. Moreover, the report found, “among Jewish respondents who have gotten married since 2000, nearly six-in-ten have a non-Jewish spouse.”
Discussing the impact that the report had on Jewish organizations, many of which have begun to reassess the effectiveness of their programming following its release, Neubauer, who funded the American study, said that given that “Jewish philanthropy shrank and synagogue rolls shrank,” it is important to quantify how successful existing programs really are.
“Clearly there is much more work to be done,” he said, remarking that the study will “enable many Jewish organizations to determine how they are achieving their stated goals. I hope the new study will inform debate and decision-making.”
Cooperman, whose department produced the survey, told the Post that it is important for people to understand that Pew does not “have a dog in the fight” and that “our goal is not to promote policies.”
“It’s not our role, in a sense, to preserve the Jewish people, certainly [we are not ] also in any way opposed to it, but we are not an advocacy group,” he said. “We are providing the information. And so if the information causes a good discussion, that’s great; but we don’t actually set out to cause a ruckus, so to speak.”
Asked about the Israeli survey unveiled by Neubauer, Cooperman said that while he would prefer not to go into too many details in advance so as not to harm its prospects of evoking fresh and unrehearsed replies, he could state that he and his team are currently “working to devise the questionnaire [and] to figure out the survey methodology.”
Israeli and American Jews live widely divergent lives, and “it’s difficult because, as you can imagine.
there are a lot of categories that have developed that are different in the two countries,” Cooperman added.
From the different cultural assumptions inherent in each community, to the differing meanings of secularism in each country, to the various denominational lenses through which US and Israeli Jews view their identities, each community comes at the world in a totally different way, he explained.
“It’s not a simple matter to make a survey that is comparable, but that is what we are going to try to do, to the extent possible. The broad goal of the survey in the US, if I had to summarize it in a phrase, [was to explore the question] what does it mean to be a Jew in the United States today? And I would say similarly the broad goal, or at least one of the broad goals, of the survey in Israel is [to explore the question] what does it mean to be a Jew in Israel today?” Cooperman believes that such information would be valuable in allowing Israeli and American Jews to understand one another.
Explaining why it is necessary for an outside body to come to Israel and conduct polls when there are “a lot of excellent surveys done in Israel,” he explained that he views Pew as providing added value that would not be available through an Israeli pollster.
“In a certain sense you don’t need the Pew Research Center to come in and do a survey on, say, politics and political views in Israel. The strategic advantage, the comparative advantage, that we bring in a project like this is the cross-national, cross-cultural comparisons. So, to the extent possible, we want to do a survey that allows Americans to see how American Jews compare with Israeli Jews in various ways and allows Israeli Jews to see how American Jews compare with Israeli Jews; to allow both sides to see themselves and the other.”
The Netanyahu administration has made bolstering Jewish identity in the Diaspora an important policy goal, earmarking NIS 1b. a year for programs intended to promote Jewish peoplehood. Following the announcement of the government’s policy, Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman announced his own plan to funnel hundreds of millions of dollars into Jewish education abroad and to bring 3.5 million Jews on aliya in the next decade.
Israel’s newfound emphasis on the Diaspora has prompted experts such as Jonathan Sarna, a professor of American Jewish history at Brandeis University, to call for Israel to “develop true experts on American Jewish life, who can properly interpret American Jewry to the public.”