Define 'Jewish,' please

The telephone rings during dinner and a dispassionate voice invites you to participate in a survey probing the sex lives of modern Americans.

Who wants to answer such intimate questions?

"Surveys like this always tilt because of the kinds of people who are willing to discuss their private affairs with a stranger," said Rabbi Daniel Lapin, president of Toward Tradition.

"It may sound strange, but that's how I feel about Jewish surveys, right now. It's almost like sex. Some of the questions we face are so personal that there is a modest crowd -- including some very devout people -- who are going to tell that stranger on the telephone to take a hike. The whole subject is too personal."

So pity the researchers who conducted the long-delayed National Jewish Population Survey of 2000-2001, which is based on interviews with 4,500 Jews. Sponsors at the United Jewish Communities -- an umbrella covering 550 groups -- call it the most detailed statistical portrait of American Jews ever assembled. Critics say it's so limited and flawed that its 2 percent margin of error is meaningless.

Nevertheless, the initial results are being parsed by everyone from Washington politicos to Jewish educators, from community leaders to the faithful who will gather this weekend for Yom Kippur services that close the High Holy Days.

The usual family statistics are making news. This survey found 5.2 million U.S. Jews, down from 5.5 million in a controversial 1990 study. Since 1996, 47 percent of Jews who married chose a non-Jewish partner, up from 43 percent in 1990. This is crucial, since 96 percent of children with two Jewish parents are raised as Jews, as opposed to 33 percent in homes with one Jewish parent.

Meanwhile, the Jewish population keeps getting grayer and birth rates remain low.

These numbers raise painful questions. But so does the content of the survey itself, said Lapin, a national leader among cultural conservatives. The first thing researchers had to ask was, "Are you a Jew?" This is a loaded question, rooted in personal questions about family and faith.

The survey defined a Jew as someone whose "religion is Jewish, OR, whose religion is Jewish and something else, OR, who has no religion and has at least one Jewish parent or a Jewish upbringing, OR, who has a non-monotheistic religion, and has at least one Jewish parent or a Jewish upbringing."

The goal, said survey manager Lorraine Blass, was to cast a wide net of "communal definitions," not to reconcile divisive doctrinal issues about identity. "We don't claim our definitions are the only definitions for who is and who is not Jewish," she said.

But all definitions include some and exclude others, said research director Laurence Kotler-Berkowitz. This survey, for example, was clear to include Jewish Buddhists. But its "non-monotheistic religion" clause excluded two people who had converted from Judaism to Islam. The "whose religion is Jewish and something else" clause created another problem.

"We included people who said they were both Jewish and Catholic or Jewish and something else," he said. "But if they identified themselves as Jewish Christians or we found some evidence that they were Messianic Jews, then we excluded them from the study. We had to draw that line."

Amid the whirlwind of complications, researchers found some positive numbers, primarily among a core group of 4.3 million adults and children who are more connected to Jewish life. There are signs of new interest in Jewish education and religious ritual. Also, that rising intermarriage statistic may be stabilizing.

This is a good news, bad news situation, said Rabbi Ephraim Buchwald, founder of the National Jewish Outreach Program. While millions of marginalized Jews are becoming ever more assimilated into American culture, others appear to be making renewed efforts to practice their faith and pass it on to children.

"We do have our work cut out for us," he said. "Our grandparents prayed for a melting pot and what they got was a meltdown. ... But this is a pattern we see in Jewish history. There always seems to be a small number of Jews who rebuild the Jewish community, over and over. Someone has to actually practice the rituals and traditions of the faith. That is what lasts."