Combined Jewish Philanthropies just released its 2015 Greater Boston Jewish Community Study. This latest iteration of the report once again presents a diverse demographic engaging with Judaism and Israel in myriad ways. Produced with research by the Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies and the Steinhardt Social Research Institute at Brandeis University, detailed statistics about Boston Jewry underscore a cohesive narrative of a growing and evolving community.
Nearly a quarter-million strong, Boston is home to the fourth-largest Jewish community in the country. Key findings suggest the 190,600 adults and 57,400 children comprising Greater Boston’s Jewish community are setting new trends and laying new markers in Jewish life. Boston’s Jews are returning to more urban settings and continuing to add to its ethnic diversity. More than half of Boston’s Jewish households now reside in Boston, Brookline, Newton, Cambridge, Somerville and surrounding towns. Eight percent of the adults in the community are Israeli, 7 percent are Russian-born and Russian speaking and another 7 percent identify themselves as members of the LGBTQ community. Also, the rate of intermarriage has held steady over the years at 53 percent. Within those interfaith households, 57 percent of children are being raised exclusively Jewish.
Reading through the various categories and typologies of the report’s 90-plus pages brings to mind Mordecai Kaplan’s three classic indicators of identifying with Judaism and the Jewish community: Behaving, Believing and Belonging. Kaplan, who was the founder of Reconstructionist Judaism, emphasized that the main way to identify as a Jew is through belonging. That existential sense of feeling connected to other Jews and even to Jews throughout our history is the first step toward believing and behaving as a Jew.
In many ways, CJP’s survey emulates Kaplan’s 20th-century gauges of Jewish engagement through the five distinct categories it has constructed to house the survey’s findings: “Minimally Involved,” “Familial,” “Affiliated,” “Cultural” and “Immersed.” At 26 percent, the Affiliated category is the largest grouping, with the Immersed at the smallest end at 15 percent.
With its distinct characteristics, each category contributes to a complete picture of Boston Jewry. Minimally Involved adults “tend to have lower attachments to the Jewish community, both locally and worldwide, and to Israel, than Jews with other behavior patterns.” Those whose “Jewish engagement fits the Cultural engagement pattern tend to participate in Jewish life through personal activities rather than institutional connections.” Those who fall in the Familial engagement classification “incorporate Judaism into their lives through home- and family-based rituals that do not involve institutional participation or commitment.”
The Affiliated “are more strongly tied to Jewish institutions, particularly synagogues, than are Cultural Jews. About two-thirds of Affiliated Jews belong to synagogues, compared to 30 percent of those in the Cultural pattern.” Not surprisingly, 90 percent in the Immersed group belong to a synagogue and have been to Israel. Four out of five respondents noted that Judaism and Jewish practice are central in their lives. Their ties to worldwide and local Jewry, as well as to Israel, are strong.
Bearing in mind the survey’s distinct categories, CJP’s executive vice president, Gil Preuss, says one of the biggest highlights of the survey is that, “We are diverse in how we engage in the Jewish community, whether it’s through synagogues, cultural programming or primarily through practices at home, such as a Passover seder or lighting Hanukkah candles.” He further notes, “The role that Judaism plays in the lives of various members of the community is very different.”
That difference may account for the drop in those who affiliate with Judaism’s Reform and Conservative denominations. The 2005 survey found that 74 percent of Boston’s Jews identified as Reform or Conservative. Ten years later that number now hovers at 44 percent. Preuss says the phenomenon of not committing to a particular denomination is occurring across all religious groups in the United States. “Fewer people see themselves as one denomination,” he says. “There has been a very big shift from denominational identity. Large Jewish communities have seen very similar patterns.” To Preuss’ point, the study indicates that nearly one-quarter of synagogue members belong to an “alternative congregational structure, such as an independent minyan, Chabad or some other non-synagogue organization that offers religious services.”
Leading the trend of post-denominational identification are Boston’s Jewish young adults between the ages of 18 and 34. This group comprises 22 percent of the Jewish community. Preuss explains these young people are not seeking to join a particular movement within Judaism, but “are looking for community, to connect to other people. They’re looking for a spiritual home. They want a place where they feel comfortable. It’s a community that is both growing up in a different context, but also fairly connected to community. [For example], 74 percent have been to Israel, 80 percent have attended a Jewish program and 30 percent belong to a synagogue. The narrative of young adults and how we connect to them is not simple. We need to take a step back and see how we can most effectively engage them with each other and with the Jewish community.”
Writing for JewishBoston.com, community study co-chair Cindy Janower is worried that less than one-third of those in the Affiliated category “feel connected to the local Jewish community, to Israel or to the worldwide Jewish community. Said differently, members of the group affiliate, yet they don’t feel connected. Similarly, I am concerned that ‘Minimally Involved’ and ‘Familial Jews,’ together representing 41 percent of the community, see little meaning in being Jewish, and few view Judaism as important.”
At the same time, Janower thinks certain findings “speak positively of the level and diversity of Jewish engagement in Boston.” She writes: “I find it compelling that 66 percent of Jewish adults in Boston have traveled to Israel at least once and that 82 percent of Jewish adults feel an emotional connection to Israel. More Boston Jews attended a seder last year (82 percent) than nationally (70 percent, according to the Pew Research Center), and 60 percent attended at least one Jewish program. Coming out of the 2005 strategic plan, our community committed itself to welcoming interfaith families, and indeed this study confirms that those efforts have paid off, with more interfaith families joining synagogues today than in 2005.”
Preuss concurs. “Jonathan Sarna has suggested that the combination of intermarriage, plus the fact that 57 percent of all intermarried households are raising their children Jewishly, would result in an increase in population,” he says. “The other part that is important is that we’ve been successful in engaging interfaith households within the Jewish community. They are increasingly a part of Jewish life in the Jewish community.”
As for next steps, Preuss hopes to commission a fuller study that compares the findings of the 2015 study to other American-Jewish communities. He observes that, “compared to some of these other cities, on average we’re wealthier, more highly educated. And compared to national data we appear to be more engaged. This primary study is a snapshot in time. We have not yet explored differences compared to national data.”
For Janower, the survey still leaves several unanswered questions: “How does this survey suggest our community agenda should evolve? What role should CJP play in the effort?” She ends with a clarion call for all segments of the Jewish community to “wrestle with us so we can move forward faster together.”