Pew studying Israeli Jewry

Research center follows up on report that made waves over attitudes, behaviors in American Jewish community.

Pro-Israel supporter in New York City (photo credit: REUTERS/Carlo Allegri)
Pro-Israel supporter in New York City
(photo credit: REUTERS/Carlo Allegri)
The Pew Research Center is working on a comprehensive survey of Israeli Jewry to be completed in the fall, philanthropist Joseph Neubauer announced on Tuesday.
Speaking at the annual conference of Tel Aviv University’s Institute for National Security Studies, Neubauer, who funded the center’s massive survey of US Jews last year, stated that the new survey will focus on “religious behavior, Jewish attitudes toward the United States, and Middle East peace among Israeli citizens.”
“Lobbying, tradition, and politics perpetuate programs, but almost none has ceased to exist and all [the] new ones ask for more philanthropic money,” Neubauer explained. Given that “Jewish philanthropy shrank and synagogue rolls shrank,” it is important to be 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 new study will inform debate and decision making.”
The Pew Report, as it has come to be known in Jewish institutional circles, has had a massive impact on communal dialogue since its release last October. Its quantification of trends such as the almost 60 percent intermarriage rate among millennials and the one-fifth of US Jews who consider themselves as having “no religion,” caused a wholesale reevaluation of programming and funding priorities among full-time Jewish professionals.
The report took center stage at the Jewish Federations of North America’s General Assembly in Jerusalem in November, with Boston Federation chief Barry Shrage summing up the feelings of many critics of organized Jewry when he said that “the Pew study says that we are doing very badly on many things.”
Commenting on the upcoming Israeli report, Neubauer said that, “Old attitudes about the US and its relation to Israel can’t be taken for granted” nor can “attitudes of what and who is a Jew” be presumed.
Prof. Sergio DellaPergola, a Jewish demographer at the Hebrew University’s A. Harman Institute of Contemporary Jewry, expanded on Neubauer’s comments by explaining that, while the Jewish- gentile dichotomy may still persist in Jewish law, it may no longer be the case “in terms of sociology or demography.”
By the “basic core definition” there are 5.7 million Jews who identify as Jews by religion or by some other non-religious criterion who say “Judaism is my exclusive identity,” he said, adding that there are more than 12 million Americans who are eligible to move to Israel as Jews under Israel’s Law of Return.
Aside form the core Jewish community, he said, there is a periphery, an “enlarged Jewish population” that includes family members that are not Jewish and those with “relations with Jews.”
There is “no more sharp distinction, but it is fluid,” he averred.
According to Cameron Brown, a Neubauer research fellow at the INSS who also spoke at the gathering, the problem facing American Jewry is that “he communal center of American Jewry,” which he defined as a group composed of Jews who identify themselves in religious terms but are not Orthodox, “is shrinking and so with it the potential pool for pro-Israel activists is likewise shrinking.”
Calling this group the mainstay of American Jewish pro-Israel advocacy, Brown asserted that its decline can be linked both to its aging population and inability to reproduce at replacement levels.
“As was previously discussed, there are growing levels of intermarriage but there are other problems as well. One of the key ones is that the population is getting older, but the birthrate and the level of replacement is too low to be sustainable over the long term,” he said.
Brown critiqued current efforts aimed at “shoring up this communal center.”
The researcher cited the government’s recently announced strategic diaspora initiative, which aims to invest some $1.5 billion in Diaspora projects over the next two decades, as an example of misplaced focus. The projects being mulled over in the deliberations of the initiative’s participants are similar to those being discussed at last year’s General Assembly, he said.
Such concepts as “subsidies for Jewish preschool, better targeting and follow-up for Birthright alumni and creating new frameworks for volunteering in a Jewish framework” are “all good ideas” that should be pursued, he said, but “ it is time to be honest and admit that these are not going to solve the problem.”
“It is time for us to look beyond this communal center, first by looking at those of Jewish background and Jewish affinity and, second, for looking at the ultra-Orthodox,” he said. “We are not suggesting that we should stop these programs to shore up the communal center, far from it. What we are suggesting is that we expand the focus both in terms of our energy and our budget, so that we look beyond just the communal center.”
The moderate “Lithuanian” branch of the ultra-Orthodox community, he explained, is remarkably similar in its support of Israel in many respects to the modern Orthodox.
Reacting to Brown’s comments, Rabbi Avi Shafran of the Agudath Israel of America organization, a haredi communal organization, told The Jerusalem Post that the researcher “is perceptive and has a good grasp of the Jewish world and its likely future.”
Shafran had previously told the Post that he believed that his organization was not invited to participate in the initiative, “because the Israeli government knows that the Orthodox community can be relied upon to send its sons and daughters to study, and often to live afterward, in Israel, and that aliya from the Orthodox community hasn’t faltered over the years.”
The only ultra-Orthodox community represented at the initial planning summit of the strategic initiative last year was from the Chabad organization, which differs in some key respects from other haredi groups.
In response to Brown’s comments, a representative of the Jerusalem and Diaspora Affairs Ministry said that, “There are two primary goals of the Diaspora initiative: bolstering Jewish identity and strengthening ties between Israel and Jews living in the Diaspora.”
“The organizations and entities we will partner with need to have the ability to further these goals. That said, we do not rule out working with other groups who can also further these goals in an effective and efficient manner,” the representative said.
“All segments of the Jewish people are welcome at the table and the joint initiative is open to input from all who are concerned with the Jewish future,” a spokesman for the initiative added.