Laurence Kotler-Berkowitz didn’t bring any specific proposals to Pittsburgh last week when he met with Jewish leaders about the just-released Pew Survey of U.S. Jews.
But the senior director for research and analysis at the Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA) did say his umbrella agency was ready to assist the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh as it makes decisions in light of the survey’s findings.
“The first step is to grapple with what the data says and what will be difficult decisions on what local communities want to do when expending their resources,” Kotler-Berkowitz said.
To that end, he said JFNA can be a “convener” to help the Federation address questions such as, what are measures of success? What does success look like?
In an interview with the Chronicle separate from his off-the-record meetings with local Federation and community leaders, Kotler-Berkowitz said the Pew survey contained few surprises, but clarified areas where American Jews must continue to work to strengthen the community.
“Some of the major trends we’ve seen over the decades are continuing. That’s not surprising. The intermarriage rate is continuing,” he said.
He noted that the large proportion of Jews who don’t identify as religious “mirrors the rest of the American population.”
One area he did find surprising was what he called “significant gaps” between the number of religious and secular Jews, intermarried and in-married Jews and Jews of different denominations.
That could indicate growing divides within the U.S. Jewish community that should be addressed.
“It would seem to be there’s a growing polarization in the Jewish population between those who are highly engaged and connected and those who are less engaged,” Kotler-Berkowitz said. “Thirty or 50 years ago, you wouldn’t have seen such deep divisions in the population.”
While the survey indicated that the intermarriage rate was leveling off at 58 percent, studies from past years have also shown “plateaus” in the rate, only to rise again in later reports, according to Kotler-Berkowitz.
“We have those sort of plateaus in the past; it’s hard to know where they’re going to go in the future,” he said. “I wouldn’t be surprised if in 10 to 15 years we see another rise, but predicting the future is a dangerous game.”
He admitted the survey contained some bad news for the Conservative movement, noting that the findings show a serious decline in adults identifying as Conservative Jews.
But he said the movement can rebound, comparing it with Orthodox Judaism, which was also written off in past surveys.
“Every denomination has had moments when it seems to be on the upswing and seems to be on the decline. Thirty to 40 years ago they were writing off the Orthodox movement.”
However, he observed, “Obviously, the Conservative movement has its work cut out for it.”
Addressing one particularly interesting finding, Kotler-Berkowitz noted that 73 percent of the respondents selected “remembering the Holocaust” as essential to being Jewish — the most often selected answer to that question, beating out “leading an ethical and moral life,” “working for justice/equality” and “caring about Israel.”
But he didn’t find that selection concerning.
“In many ways, it’s understandable,” Kotler-Berkowitz said. “For many people it [the Holocaust] was a part of their lives; it happened in their lifetimes; it shaped their lives in the way they think about Israel. So that it’s at the top of list wasn’t surprising.
“What was surprising was the things that were down on the list,” he continued. He pointed to one answer in particular: “being part of a community” (28 percent).
“That’s part of the challenge,” he said.
(Lee Chottiner can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)