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THE ART OF JEWISH IDENTITY

Chronicle of North American Jewry resumes publication

By Cindy Mindell

ct cover 12-2-11After a four-year hiatus, what had become the most authoritative “annual review of American Jewish civilization” has resumed publication, the result of an academic partnership between the University of Connecticut and the University of Miami, and scholars from North America and Israel.
book coverThe American Jewish Year Book (AJYB) was first published in 1899 by the now-defunct Jewish Publication Society of North America, inspired by the Jewish Year Book, an annual almanac published in the UK every year since 1896. The annual reference book was taken over by the American Jewish Committee (AJC) in 1908, which published the work every year until 2008.
The 108 volumes have served as a major resource for data on the North American Jewish communities for Jewish leaders and institutions, as well as universities and libraries throughout the world. For more than a century, AJYB was the premier place for leading academics to publish long review chapters on topics of interest to the North American Jewish community. The work also documented the changing demography and institutional structure of the Jewish community.
Seeds of the Year Book’s renewal were planted eight years ago, according to co-editor Dr. Arnold Dashefsky, founding director of the UConn Center for Judaic Studies and Contemporary Jewish Life and director of the Mandell L. Berman Institute-North American Jewish Data Bank. The online database was established to archive and make accessible all quantitative studies collected on North American Jewry as far back as scholars can track the information. Originally housed at City University of New York and later at Brandeis University, the central depository of social-scientific studies of North American Jewry was moved to UConn in 2004.
Within two years, Dashefsky noticed that the AJC was no longer issuing updated statistics on the American Jewish population. When he broached the concern with Larry Grossman, AJC director of publications and AJYB co-editor, Dashefsky learned that AJC had not been receiving revised information from United Jewish Communities (now Jewish Federations of North America), so could not issue new demographics data.
Dashefsky suggested that he and fellow scholars associated with the North American Jewish Data Bank (NAJDB) take on the task. He recruited colleague Dr. Ira Sheskin, data bank board member and director of the Jewish Demography Project of the Sue and Leonard Miller Center for Contemporary Jewish Studies at the University of Miami, with whom he had co-written articles on Jewish population statistics in the last three editions of AJYB.
The two began organizing a similar report for the 2009 volume, but were told that AJC was giving up the project. Instead, they posted the study on the NAJDB website, co-sponsored by Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA) and the Association for the Social Scientific Study of Jewry. The academics did the same in 2011.
That year, Dashefsky and Sheskin realized that many American Jewish communal institutions, like other sectors of society, had shifted their focus inward, as a result of financial challenges suffered in the wake of the 2008 economic downturn.
“But as academics, we look outward,” says Dashefsky. “We thought we could find an academic publisher interested, from an academic point of view, in promoting the Year Book.”
The hunch proved correct. By January 2012, the scholars had signed a contract with Springer, a global publishing company based in Europe that specializes in major reference works, textbooks, monographs, and book series, as well as some 2,000 journals issued every year. Financial
support for the project was provided by UConn and the University of Miami.
Published in January, the 600-page AJYB is available in the traditional hardbound printed edition, as well as in soft-cover and digital formats.
It opens with the same disclaimer that introduced the first volume in 1899: “Everything must have a beginning, and the beginning is necessarily imperfect.”
The tome contains six major chapters, half by authors with Connecticut connections: U.S. Jewish population by Dashefsky and Sheskin, a first-ever survey of American Jewish secularism by Barry Kosmin and Ariela Keysar of Trinity College, national affairs by West Hartford native Ethan Felson, Jewish communal affairs (Lawrence Grossman, AJC), Canadian Jewry (Morton Weinfeld of McGill University, Randal F. Schnoor of York University, and David S. Koffman of the University of Toronto), and world Jewish population (Sergio DellaPergola, Hebrew University of Jerusalem).

In addition to providing insight into major trends in the North American and world Jewish communities, the volume also acts as a resource for the American Jewish community and for academics studying that community. The second half of the book contains directories of national Jewish communal organizations, educational institutions, Jewish press, academic resources, major events, and Jewish honorees and obituaries.
The AJYB is more than a publication providing lists of information, says Sheskin: “It’s a historical record of the Jewish people in North America, and recording it in this way allows people to compare the data year after year, to see how Jewish life has changed.”
In their survey, Sheskin and Dashefsky found that the U.S. Jewish population counts remain stable at approximately 6.7 million, a significant conclusion in view of the continuing debate over which country – Israel or the U.S. – boasts the world’s largest Jewish community. Another important finding is the increase in the number of American Jews – 500,000 – who identify themselves as secular members of a community rather than as Jews by religion.
Dashefsky says that renewed interest in the AJYB is an important tool in the ongoing effort to keep tabs on changes and trends in American Jewish culture. “I’m concerned about continuity in a variety of ways,” he says. “From an academic and intellectual perspective, the reappearance of this work reassures us of maintaining a contemporaneous record of American Jewish life, exploring such topics as the issues of concern to the American Jewish community and the composition of Jewish organizational life.”

For more information: North American Jewish Data Bank, www.jewishdatabank.org

E-MAIL COMMENTS cindym@jewishledger.com.

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