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Content or Continuity? Alternative Bases for Commitment: The 1989 National Survey of American Jews

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Publication Date: January 1991

Publisher(s): American Jewish Committee

Author(s): Steven M. Cohen

Funder(s): Yehuda Rosenman Memorial Fund

Funder(s): Yehuda Rosenman Memorial Fund

Special Collection: Berman Jewish Policy Archive

Topic: Culture and religion (Religion and religious groups)
Culture and religion (Cultural heritage and preservation)

Keywords: American Jews; Jewish Identification; Jewish Outreach

Type: Report

Coverage: United States


This article uses survey research to discuss what Jews mean by their Jewishness. Most Jews are proud to be Jewish, they value the forms of Jewish life - e.g., family gatherings and food. Only a small minority of 10-15 percent are totally unaffiliated with the organized Jewish community. The overwhelming majority do express commitv ment to Jewish continuity and identify themselves with the traditional labels of Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform Judaism.

The weakness in Jewish life, however, lies in the realm of Judaic content. Jews have difficulty formulating a distinctive Jewish identity - informed by knowledge of both Jewish heritage and democratic American norms. For example, Jews appear the most secular of American social groups. Being Jewish is all too often an instinctual reaction to perceived anti-Semitism or to threats to Israel's existence rather than statements of theological or spiritual content.

Cohen's study suggests that the traditional communal agenda of safeguarding Israel, defense against anti-Semitism, and social liberalism is insufficient to guarantee the content of the Jewish future. Jews require initiatives that will enhance the quality of Jewish life, communicate the richness of Jewish tradition, and underscore the spiritual basis of Jewish identity. Cohen suggests that communal initiatives be targeted to the "middles" of Jewish life - those who demonstrate a minimal or marginal commitment to the Jewish community and whose Jewish identity can therefore be enhanced.