Interdisciplinary Journal of Research on ReligionInstitute for Studies of Relgion
IJRR :: 2005 Volume 1 :: Article 12
2005 Volume 1, Article 12
Retention Strategies and Religious Success: A Regional Comparison of American Jews

Author: Michael K. Abel (University of Washington)

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If we assume that there are few remaining external barriers to religious assimilation for Jews in the United States, a fundamental question arises: Why do some Jews exit Judaism, while others choose to stay with the religion? One of the major themes in the literature about American Judaism is that the reformulation of Jewish theology and practice instigated by some Jewish leaders in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was necessary to strengthen the religion. They believed that if Jews were required to continue in their traditional ways, they would only become disillusioned and leave the faith. Some researchers agree that a traditional and exclusive Jewish religion with its focus on strict ritual observance, the coming of a Messiah, and a book of law dictated by God to Moses will not retain members. They argue that religious adherents will be most effectively retained by groups that are more socially appealing. In contrast, others assert that only commitment to a unique religious culture that socially encapsulates members will retain them. In this article, I investigate whether traditional Jewish observance has a different impact on Jewish retention rates than does adhering to a less costly, socially oriented form of the religion. Specifically, potential causes of the variable retention rates observed between Jews living in the East and West Coast regions are considered. I conclude that the evidence indicates that a retention strategy that promotes unique religious practice provides a stronger basis for religious group persistence.

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