Landmark study provides snapshot of new Jewish identity in Central Europe

Scene from inside the "Balint Haz" Jewish Community Center in Budapest. (Ruth Ellen Gruber)

BUDAPEST, Hungary (JTA) — A generation after the fall of communism, Jews in Central Europe feel comfortable where they live but are concerned about anti-Semitism.

They like to visit Israel but don’t want to move there. And they feel that they don’t have to be religious to be a “good Jew.”

These are some of the findings in Identity a la Carte, a landmark study of post-Communist Jewish identity, affiliation and participation released Monday.

“The most important feature for the post-Communist generation is that Judaism is no longer experienced as a stigma that needs to be concealed,” said Marcelo Dimentstein, operations director for the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee’s International Center for Community Development, which commissioned the study.

“On the contrary,” he said, “this is a generation that is proud of being Jewish and has positive feelings about it.”

Carried out in 2008-09 by a team of leading demographers, Identity a la Carte is the most wide-

ranging and in-depth comparative examination of Jewish life and attitudes in Central Europe since the Iron Curtain came down more than 20 years ago — Central Europe’s version of the decennial U.S. National Jewish Population Survey. In fact, one of the demographers on the Identity a la Carte team, Barry Kosmin, directed the 1990 NJPS.

The European identity study focused on Jewish adults in five key countries that have witnessed a post-Communist Jewish revival: Hungary, Poland, Latvia, Romania and Bulgaria.

The main objective, the report’s authors said, was to help Jewish community leaders and organizations that work in Central Europe; the JDC is among them.

“It is very important that a Jewish organization wants to get real data and wants to face the reality in which it has to work,” Hungarian sociologist Andras Kovacs, who coordinated the survey, told JTA. “It’s important that Jewish organizations discover the importance of real data.”

Luciana Friedman, president of the Jewish Community of Timisoara, Romania, said that “as applied research, it will inform and enrich our policy and programs.”

The research that went into Identity a la Carte concentrated on several key areas, including religious observance, Jewish identity, anti-Semitism, Israel, Jewish knowledge and organizational affiliation.

The survey sample was made up of 1,270 Jews aged 18-60 living in urban centers, where most of the Jewish population in each country resides. Face-to-face interviews were carried out based on a common questionnaire for all the countries. Identical criteria and terminology were used in all five countries, where Jewish populations range from 5,000 in Bulgaria to 100,000 in Hungary.

The survey’s results are presented in a dense, 200-plus-page report full of charts and analysis that reveals both communalities and sharp divergences from country to country.

Some results confirm assumptions, such as findings that Jews have higher levels of education and better standards of living compared to fellow non-Jewish citizens. Other results challenge preconceptions.

In all countries, respondents said that Jewish identity was more important to them today than it was in their childhood: 81 percent in Poland, 73 percent in Hungary, 66 percent in Bulgaria, 63 percent in Romania and 62 percent in Latvia. About one-fifth of the total respondents said their Jewishness had been concealed from them in their childhood home.

At least one-third of respondents in each country — and more than half in Poland and Romania — said they were more involved in Jewish life now than five years ago. Between a quarter and one-third of respondents said they wish to be more active in the future.

“The strength of Jewish identity, when contrasted with the mixed backgrounds of participants, is something that is quite surprising,” Dimentstein said.

In all five countries, however, religious observance was found to play a minor role in the formation of Jewish identity, with cultural, educational, social and other “non-religious communal activities” ranking higher.

“A majority of respondents in each country agree that someone can be a good Jew without participating in organized Jewish life,” the report said.

Israel’s role as an identity factor was deemed “significant” for more than half of the respondents in each country, except for Hungary.

But while respondents maintained close connections with Israel — 85 percent have traveled to Israel and 66 percent have visited several times — only 15 percent to 22 percent were considering making aliyah.

Respondents in all countries expressed concern at anti-Semitism. But at the same time, the report said, anti-Semitism “plays a relatively minor role in the formation of Jewish identity throughout the sampled countries.”

Only in Hungary, the study said, did a majority of respondents foresee a significant increase of anti-Semitism in the future. Nearly half in Poland said they believed the level of anti-Semitism would fall.

In fact, respondents had generally optimistic views of the Jewish future in Europe.

Most respondents believed that European Jews “differ greatly” from Jews in Israel and America.

Respondents who said they believe their Jewish community will continue to thrive in the next few decades consisted of 46 percent from Romanian respondents, 55 percent from Poland, 64 percent from Latvia, 74 percent from Bulgaria and 87 percent from Hungary.

High numbers also agreed with the statement that Europe today “is a safe place for Jews to live” — 57 percent in Latvia; 59 percent in Poland; 61 percent in Romania; 67 percent in Bulgaria; and 77 percent in Hungary.

Contrary to expectations, most of the survey respondents in each country were affiliated in some way with organized Jewish life.

“We had hoped to have a two-thirds majority of non-affiliated Jews in the sample, but this did not prove possible,” Kovacs said.

“It was not a problem to contact non-affiliated Jews in Hungary and Latvia,” he said. “But it was very difficult in Poland and Romania, if such Jews exist, as the network is broken: They have no links to the Jewish community.”

Strategically speaking, Kovacs said, this means that future outreach programs there targeting non-affiliated Jews “could face extreme difficulties.”