Thursday, October 11, 2012

Unaffiliated Jews Seek Jewish Expression

A press release issued yesterday by Workmen's Circle/Arbeter Ring presents some surprising results challenging general beliefs about unaffiliated Jews.

"This group, according to the survey, makes up 16% of Jews in the United States, or about 1 million of the 6 million Jews in the country. These individuals say that being Jewish is very important in their lives and that they actively seek Jewish expression and engagement outside of a synagogue."

Here in Westchester County, the 140+ members of the Westchester Jewish Council offer countless opportunities for Jewish engagement, many of which are listed on our Community Calendar and some of which are highlighted in our bi-weekly newsletter.

If you are looking for way to connect, consider registering for one of the classes being offered by WAJE (Westchester Jewish Adult Education).  From an introduction to Judaism's essentials, to an in-depth study of Torah, Talmud, Ecclesiastes or Job, their courses range from one shot deals to ten week classes.

If you are looking for an evening of music and camaraderie, join us on Saturday, November 17th for A Night of Music and Joy, presented jointly by Kol Hazzanim and the Westchester Jewish Council with grant support from UJA-Federation of New York/Westchester.  The talented Cantors of Westchester will share their rhythm and soul in a program that ranges from traditional to contemporary, Jewish to secular, and rock to rap.

For our member synagogues and organizations, we'd like to know:  what programs or events have you sponsored recently that attracted a large percentage of unaffiliated Jews?  Please leave a comment!

[ETA:  We're so trendy!  Tablet Magazine just published their own piece on this topic.  Read it here.]

The press release, in its entirety, can be read here.

One million unaffiliated Jews are Jewishly engaged
~Workmen’s Circle supported poll reveals intriguing data~


NEW YORK. For years there seemed to be two choices in Jewish life: a person was either an observant Jew or a cultural Jew, the type whose Jewish engagement begins and ends with watching Woody Allen movies and noshing on corned beef and rye sandwiches. But a national poll conducted by a team led by Professor Steven M. Cohen for the Workmen’s Circle/Arbeter Ring, a national Jewish cultural, educational and activist organization, reveals that many Jews today fit into another category, that of the engaged and congregationally unaffiliated.

This group, according to the survey, makes up 16% of Jews in the United States, or about 1 million of the 6 million Jews in the country. These individuals say that being Jewish is very important in their lives and that they actively seek Jewish expression and engagement outside of a synagogue. 

These characteristics put them in marked contrast to other categories of non-Orthodox Jews in this extensive studythe engaged and congregationally affiliated, the congregationally affiliated but unengaged (those who join synagogues but rarely attend), and the unengaged and congregationally unaffiliated. 

While the engaged and congregationally unaffiliated are not synagogue members — they typically attend religious services only once or twice a year on average — they still show numerous signs of Jewish engagement. They also tend to be attached to Israel and demonstrate noticeably strong commitments to economic justice and social equality. 

They are also exceptional in their progressive political views. Of note, nearly twice as many of the engaged and congregationally unaffiliated Jews compared to others see economic justice issues as important "to a great extent," identify as pro-labor to a great extent, and see the current federal tax system as unfair. 

Furthermore, these individuals tend not to describe themselves as religious, secular, or anti-religious. Rather, they typically identify themselves as cultural Jews and see their Jewish identity as more fluid than others have in previous generations.  They frequently self-define as “spiritual.” 

Indeed, these Jews are part of a larger national trend, as portrayed in a recent study from the Pew Research Center. According to Pew, one in five Americans do not identify as part of any specific religious denomination. However, many in this group still see themselves as spiritual and say they pray and believe in God. 

“Numbering a million, these Jews represent an opportunity for engagement. Their interests and their distinctiveness make them candidates for a deeper involvement in Jewish life, while their social profile explains some of their tendencies to distance themselves from conventional religious life,” said Cohen. 

Who are the engaged and unaffiliated?

·        As many as 40% are under the age of 35. 

·        They are more concentrated in the western region of the United States, where a third of them live, as compared with just over a fifth of other American Jews. The west is known for low rates of Jewish communal affiliation, while the eastern United States is known for its relatively high rates.

·        Just under half (49%) of the engaged and unaffiliated are married, slightly less than in other Jewish groups. Some18% of them are intermarried and 22% are married to other Jews. They are less likely to have children than other groups.

·        Almost half earn under $50,000.

·        They most often (51%) identify as liberals — more often than any other group in the survey.

How do they engage Jewishly?

·        Most (55%) report that at least half their friends are Jewish. This is somewhat less than among the congregationally affiliated — whether active or not — but substantially more than among those who are unengaged and congregationally unaffiliated.

·        Nearly 3 in 5 fast on Yom Kippur, not that far behind the congregationally affiliated (3 in 4) and substantially ahead of the unengaged and congregationally unaffiliated (1 in 3).

·        Almost half (46%) “at least sometimes” have a special Friday night meal with family and friends.

·        40% say religion is “very important” in their lives.

·        More than any other non-Orthodox group in this study, 56% see themselves as very attached to Israel.

“As this poll demonstrates, there is a real need for a Jewish home for those who do not seek a congregational affiliation. As we in the Workmen's Circle continue updating our learning centers, summer camp and more, we are aiming to provide such a home for the one million Jews who consider themselves engaged but are not synagogue members,” said Madelon Braun, the president of the Workmen’s Circle.

“We are seeing a shift in how American Jews define being Jewish. In the past, those who saw themselves as cultural Jews had a very passive approach to Jewish life. But today they are engaged with Jewish values and look to be part of a Jewish community, although often outside of a congregation. We look forward to creating a community that welcomes this emerging group,” said Ann Toback, national director of the Workmen’s Circle. 

Background on the poll

The poll was commissioned by the Workmen’s Circle / Arbeter Ring. The first part of the poll was released on May 31, 2012.

Principal investigators were Professor Steven M. Cohen of the Berman Jewish-Policy Archive @ NYU Wagner ( ), and Professor Samuel J. Abrams of Sarah Lawrence College and Stanford University.

The Washington office of IPSOS, under the direction of Dr. Alan Roschwalb, fielded the survey April 19 - May 3, 2012. Respondents included 1,000 American Jews, by Internet, who had previously agreed to participate in social research conducted by IPSOS. The results were weighted to reflect the American Jewish population with respect to age, gender, regional distribution, educational attainment, marital status, intermarriage status, and Jewish parentage (none, one, two parents). 

The survey questions can be found here:

About the Workmen’s Circle

The Workmen’s Circle/Arbeter Ring was founded in 1900 by Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe who sought to promote values of social and economic justice through a Jewish lens.
Today, the Workmen’s Circle is creating a cultural and progressive Jewish learning movement through the development of a national network of Workmen’s Circle Learning Centers. The WC Learning Centers will be family-oriented complementary schools that will feature a curriculum that is rooted in celebrating Jewish cultural heritage alongside the expression of social ideals in activism.

These WC Learning Centers will serve to build communities of activists through their programs.

The Workmen’s Circle/Arbeter Ring is a 501(c) (3) nonprofit organization that does not support or oppose candidates for political office.

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