Study: More Jews in US than previously believed; Spanish ‘Crypto-Jews’ boost Israel’s image abroad (2009)


‘New study finds more Jews in the United States than previously thought’

The Jewish Daily Forward; December 22, 2010

There are more Jews in the United States than widely thought — 20 percent more.

That’s the major finding in a new study conducted by the Steinhardt Social Research Institute at Brandeis University, which says that there are now 6.5 million Jews in America, 1 million more than the last time a major count was attempted.

The findings are a rebuke to the most recent National Jewish Population Survey, conducted in 2000-2001, which indicated a negative trend line for the Jewish population, with a loss of nearly 300,000 Jews during the previous decade.

Leonard Saxe, the Klutznick professor of contemporary Jewish Studies at Brandeis and the lead researcher of the recent study, had criticized the 2000-2001 survey, saying it failed to capture a true picture of Jewish demography due to a variety of methodological errors and that it served as what Saxe called a “self-fulfilling prophecy” for a community primed to believe that its numbers were in decline.

Saxe set out to offer what he believes is a more accurate picture. Because the Jewish Federations of North America had decided not to fund another large-scale National Jewish Population Survey for 2010, Saxe searched for cheaper alternatives that would not involve mounting a multi-million-dollar Jewish head count.

Saxe and his Brandeis researchers gathered more than 150 nationwide surveys conducted by government agencies and national polling organizations over the past decade that asked about religious identity, and then synthesized the data. After reconciling the various surveys so their findings could be grouped together, Saxe’s team drew on the responses of 400,000 people to arrive at his estimate for the Jewish population.

Saxe presented the findings at this year’s Association for Jewish Studies conference in Boston in mid-December.

“This is really a brilliant step forward,” said Bethamie Horowitz, a socio-psychologist and researcher at New York University. “No one study is the perfect measure but if you have many studies, you can get an increasingly accurate range in which the estimate falls.”

Horowitz also said that the study met with the approval of demographers outside the field of those studying Jewish population and was seen to be “scientifically on very solid ground.”

Another part of Saxe’s study tried to deal with the question of what constitutes Jewish identity. The shifting definition of what being Jewish means makes counting Jews difficult. While some see Jewishness as a religious identity, others see it as a cultural or ethnic designation and might, for example, not answer “Jewish” to a researcher inquiring about their religion.

Saxe hired a polling firm, Knowledge Network, which questioned a sample of 1,400 Jews. Using this data, researchers concluded that of their estimated 6.5 million Jews, 5.5 million see themselves as Jews “by religion,” while 1 million more call themselves Jews for other reasons.

Saxe’s results present a paradox. While the findings show a higher number of Jews than previously thought, Saxe found that engagement in Jewish life has decreased. Even among those who identify as Jewish “by religion,” he found a majority do not belong to synagogues, do not participate in Jewish life cycle events or have not visited Israel — all indicators, according to Saxe, of engagement in the Jewish community.

“It’s as if there are more people willing to call themselves Red Sox fans, but fewer people actually attending the games,” Saxe said.

Saxe believes the Jewish community can draw a lesson from the new research.

“We have to stop worrying about whether the community will exist,” Saxe said. “Instead we should worry about the content, about how we make communal life meaningful for the many Jews who are out there.”

The above article can be found here: http://www.forward.com/articles/134138/


‘Crypto-Jews help boost Israel’s image abroad’

The Jewish Daily Forward; May 27, 2009

BARCELONA — On the top floor of this city’s Jewish community center, a group whose ancestors were cut off from the Jewish people more than 500 years ago are receiving tips and training to become pro-Israel advocates in the 21st century.

“We can use cyberspace to circumvent the traditional media,” Raanan Gissin, a former Israeli government spokesman, tells them.

His voice rises with excitement as he outlines the potential for coordinated pro-Israel messaging through blogs and Web sites.

Listening intently, scribbling notes and asking questions is a gathering of what might appear to be an unlikely band of foot soldiers for Israel advocacy: the descendants of Jews who converted in Spain and Portugal in the Middle Ages, during the Inquisition.

They have traveled from small towns and cities across the Iberian Peninsula to Barcelona for a three-day conference to learn more about their Jewish roots. Amid talks on Jewish history, theology and identity these people — known as Marranos or Anusim, Hebrew for “the forced” — also learned how they could be voices for Israel in their communities.

Anti-Israel sentiment runs particularly high in Spain, where the mass media tend toward highly critical reporting of Israel and public opinion surveys suggest hostile attitudes toward Jews and Israel. Several top Israeli military commanders are being charged by Spain’s high court for possible war crimes for their authorization of the bombing of a Gaza apartment bloc in 2002 that killed a top Hamas commander and 14 civilians.

Spain is one of the most difficult countries in terms of Israel’s image, and the Anusim see and feel it on a daily basis,” said Michael Freund, chairman of Shavei Israel, which organized the seminar.

Shavei Yisrael reaches out to so-called “lost Jews” around the world who seek to know more about their heritage.

“Many of them have expressed a desire to do something about it, to speak out about it, to speak on Israel’s behalf,” Freund said.

“I think the potential is vast for Israel and the Jewish people because the Anusim — because of their personal background and historical connection with the Jewish people — feel an affinity towards Israel, and they are perfectly positioned as citizens of Spain and Portugal to serve as unofficial ambassadors,” he said. “I think it’s time for the State of Israel to realize that and to make use of the goodwill that exists here.”

Several of the 60 people attending the conference already have become involved. Some recounted fear facing anti-Israeli sentiment in their hometowns.

A middle-aged doctor from Barcelona who preferred not to have his name used said he was threatened by a local Muslim in response to articles he wrote under a pseudonym defending Israel.

Israel is considered a criminal state, and people are always looking to see how they can further frame Israel,” he said. “I fear officials in Israel do not view Europe importantly enough and that’s a mistake. We have to change the mentality here.”

In recent years, Spain’s centuries-old anti-Semitism based on religious dogma has taken a new form in anti-Israeli sentiment, he said.

Einat Kranz-Nieger, the deputy chief of mission at the Israeli Embassy in Madrid, outlined some of the major themes Israel is trying to transmit internationally: Its commitment to the Israeli-Palestinian peace effort, improving Palestinians’ security and standard of living, and the global and regional threat posed by Iran.

[For the record, Israel has consistently derailed peace efforts with the Palestinians; deliberately destroyed Palestinian security and living standards; and assiduously lied about Iran’s nuclear energy program — 800]

In a tense moment in the discussion, several participants raised the potential risks they face in speaking out for Israel and asked whether Israel would assist them if needed. They did not receive a clear answer.

Seminar organizers said their comments underscore the sensitivity of those seeking some sort of return to Judaism, whether through official conversion or a connection with local Jews.

“People feel they live in a gray zone; they are not officially Jews,” said Rabbi Eliyahu Birnbaum of Shavei Yisrael. “But some are identifying themselves as Jews in very non-Jewish communities.”

Estimates for the number of people with Jewish roots in this region vary. Many Spanish and Portuguese have family names that indicate a Jewish past. Some at the conference spoke of families observing unexplained traditions such as lighting candles followed by a grandmother’s mumbling of unintelligible incantations and the washing and salting of meat.

According to a recent genetic study, about 20 percent of Portuguese and Spanish citizens have Jewish backgrounds.

Rafael Peretz, 47, is from the town of Saragossa, about 150 miles west of Barcelona, where only three Jewish families live. He recently started a Web site about Anusim, Kolisraelorg.net , which features a section on Israeli advocacy. There are links to several Spanish-language pro-Israel bloggers, and Peretz sends messages on online social networking sites and posts videos on the video-sharing site YouTube to help get out what he calls more balanced information on Israel.

“In Spain there is not much information about the reality of life in Israel,” said Peretz, who started investigating his Jewish roots several years ago.

As a child, his father had brought him to a synagogue and startled him with the announcement “We come from the Jewish people.”

At the seminar, Gissin said that one must think creatively in order to advocate for Israel successfully.

“You have to learn how to fight, how to speak: short sentences, use stories,” he said.

Gazing around the room, Gissin said, “You are a living testament to what we are talking about. Each of your stories is a living document to the eternity of the Jewish people.”

The above article can be found here: http://www.forward.com/articles/106654/

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