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The number of Jews who identify with a religion other than Judaism has more than doubled in the last decade, marking a growing split between Jewish ethnicity and religion.
A new portrait of American Jewish religious identification conducted by three leading sociologists reveals that 1.4 million Jews say that they are Jewish by dint of parentage or ethnicity but align themselves with another faith community. In 1990, 625,000 Jews identified themselves that way.
An additional 1.4 million Jews -- another quarter of the population -- say they are secular or have no religion at all, leaving just 51 percent of American Jews to say they are Jewish by religion.
"It portends a kind of split between the two facets of identity that historically were always unified," said Egon Mayer, who authored the American Jewish Identity Survey with Barry Kosmin and Ariela Keysar.
"That makes it very problematic for federations, educational and recreational institutions which have always assumed an interconnectedness between people's religious and ethnic identification. This split is a very serious challenge to how you keep a group cohesive," said Mayer, who also directs the Center for Jewish Studies at the City University of New York's Graduate Center.
The close look at Jewry is a subset of a larger study released this week by the Graduate Center. The American Religious Identity Survey, which examines religious identification among Americans from atheists to Catholics to Wiccans, interviewed 50,000 randomly selected adult respondents between February and June.
Respondents who said they are Jewish or have a Jewish background were asked another roughly 20 multi-part questions meant to probe their religious identity. The questions were designed to mirror those asked on the 1990 National Jewish Population Study, so they could be directly compared.
The new study found that even as a growing number of Jews identify with other religions, an unprecedented number of American households contain at least one Jew.
The 1990 NJPS found 3.2 million households with at least one Jewish member. According to the new survey, 550,000 more households said they contain at least one Jewish member, for a total of 3.7 million.
The new study also found that the number of Americans who say they are Jewish either by religion or upbringing has remained stable at 5.5 million for more than a decade and that Jews are, as earlier studies have also indicated, far more inclined toward atheism and secularism than Americans in general.
Brandeis University's Sylvia Barack Fishman, another leading sociologist of American Jewry, criticized the Graduate Center's study for presenting what she called an incomplete and misleading picture.
To understand Jewish religious identification today, she said, you have to distinguish between those who are involved with, or who are an adult child of, an intermarriage from those in a union between Jews.
"It's not useful to throw the whole Jewish population into a blender," Fishman said. "That doesn't tell us anything."
Without breaking out the populations, "we have no context for understanding these statistics," she said. "The impact of a two-faith household means something totally different than it would if they are the children of a two-Jew household.
"The American Jewish community is not monolithic. We have many different subgroups," Fishman said. "The intensity and vibrancy of those subgroups differs very much from one to the next. In order for this study to be useful, we need the information about those different subgroups."
Mayer and his colleagues debuted their findings shortly before the United Jewish Communities convention, the General Assembly, which is scheduled to begin next week. They intend their study to rival the long-awaited National Jewish Population Study 2000, whose first results were supposed to be unveiled at the GA but whose release has been postponed until the summer.
When the 1990 NJPS revealed that just over half of Jews who had most recently wed had married non-Jews, it rocked the organized Jewish community and led to a rapid and dramatic shift in Jewish funding and priority-setting.
The new information released by Mayer, Kosmin and Keysar found that 33 percent of those identifying as Jewish are married to someone who is not, compared with the parallel figure of 28 percent in the 1990 National Jewish Population Study.
But their new report does not look at the rate of intermarriage today or compare it to the 52 percent rate of 1990. Mayer says they asked the relevant questions and are still analyzing that data.
On that question, "we are still holding our breath," said Steven Bayme, national director of the American Jewish Committee's Department of Contemporary Jewish Life.
What the American Religious Identification Survey 2001, as well as its subset looking just at the Jewish community, showed is that Americans in general are very religious. Jews, however, are not.
When asked if their outlook is "secular, somewhat secular, religious or somewhat religious," 42 percent of Jews who say they are Jewish by religion described themselves as secular or somewhat secular. Of those of Jewish heritage or background, it jumped to 72 percent.
That's in sharp contrast to American adults nationally, just 15 percent of whom described their outlook the same way.
And when asked in the new study if God exists, just 4 percent of adults nationally said no. Among Jews, though, 14 percent of Jews by religion said no, and 25 percent of those with a Jewish background said no.
"The findings of this survey suggest that the time is long overdue when those Jews who do not identify with the main religious streams of Judaism can be dismissed as if their numbers were insignificant or vestigial with the label 'just Jewish,' " said Felix Posen, the London-based philanthropist who underwrote the study of Jewish religious identification with a donation in an amount that Mayer declined to specify.
Posen is a major benefactor of Jewish secularist endeavors, including the tiny American movement of Jewish secular humanists, and secularist educational endeavors in Israel.
Mayer, also the founding director of the Jewish Outreach Institute, urged communal leaders to interpret his new study's findings as having positive potential.
"I can understand how people can look at these numbers and lament. But you don't see very clearly through tears," he said.
"I'm resolutely determined to find potential. If one wants to continue to thrive in a free and open society, we have to look at the ways in which this highly diverse and greatly secular population could be included under the large umbrella of the Jewish community."