Survey: Religious identity strong but ethnic ties wane

NEW YORK — American Jews feel solidly connected to their religion, but less so to the ethnic aspect of Jewishness — their sense of peoplehood.

That is the central finding of a Jewish Community Centers Association study released this month.

It may seem self-evident, but another major finding of the study is that those who are active in one Jewish organization are likely to be involved in others as well — that any engagement in Jewish life spurs more.

Sociologist Steven Cohen, a professor at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, analyzed the findings of a mailed questionnaire that was completed in mid-1997 by 1,005 Jewish adults between the ages of 25 and 65 who were randomly selected by a Washington research firm.

Cohen found that the youngest respondents are as religiously oriented as the oldest.

More than half of all those surveyed scored high on measures of ritual observance, as did about one-third of respondents when it came to feelings of religious commitment and faith in God.

But marked declines among younger Jewish adults became obvious when they were asked about the strength of their ethnic ties, such as attachment to Israel and whether most of their close friends are Jewish.

The findings also show that "identity can be formed by intensive Jewish education" in any form, Cohen noted.

That conclusion is borne out in a separate study, also released this month, that Cohen conducted for Young Judaea, the Zionist youth movement of Hadassah.

In his survey of Young Judaea alumni, Cohen compared their responses to those in the JCCA study.

Young Judaea alumni are inherently more likely to be highly engaged with Jewish life than is the statistically average Jew who responded to the JCCA survey.

They generally come from Conservative homes in which a sufficiently strong Zionist bent prompts them to seek out an ideology-based youth group.

Among the findings of the telephone survey of 603 alumni of Young Judaea programs:

*Sixty-one percent regularly engage in Jewish learning, compared to just 27 percent of those in the general population as measured in the JCCA study.

*Fifty-nine percent light Shabbat candles, as opposed to 24 percent in the general population.

*Seventy-nine percent of the youth movement's alumni belong to a synagogue, compared to less than 50 percent in the general population.

The JCCA analysis focuses more intensively on measures of ethnic identification. Among its findings:

*Nearly half of respondents between 55 and 65 feel a significant sense of attachment to Israel, but less than one-third of those 35 to 54 do.

*About 60 percent of those in the oldest age group said most of their friends are Jewish, but just one-third of those aged 35 to 44 said the same.

The idea of Jewish ethnicity, when expressed in terms of peoplehood, family, history and victimization, garnered widespread endorsement from respondents overall. But more particular expressions of Jewish ethnicity were found to be decidedly less popular.

When asked if "Jews have a permanent bond," for example, more than 75 percent said "yes."

But when asked if they feel a special responsibility to take care of Jews in need around the world, 39 percent said "no" and 47 percent said "yes."

In contrast, the Young Judaea alumni evinced a much stronger sense of Jewishness. About 93 percent said they felt a special responsibility to take care of Jews in need.

They also demonstrated higher levels of community involvement and Jewish philanthropy, greater commitment to Jewish education for their children and a tendency to have close Jewish friends.

When it comes to marriage, Young Judaea alumni are much more likely to marry other Jews. In this study, 95 percent of married alumni did, compared to the JCCA study in which 77 percent of respondents married Jews.

Sixty percent of the JCCA respondents, compared to 82 percent of the Young Judaea alumni, agreed with the statement, "Jews should marry Jews."