U.S. Jewish Population Up Slightly; Growth Reported in South and West

The Jewish population in the United States grew slightly last year, though world Jewry showed “zero population growth,” according to figures published this week in the 1988 American Jewish Yearbook.

The yearbook, published by the American Jewish Committee, estimates there were 5.94 million Jews in the United States in 1987, representing 2.5 percent of the overall U.S. population.

The most significant trend confirmed by the updated figures is the continuing growth of the Jewish populations in the Sun Belt and West Coast regions of the country.

The largest Jewish population gain in absolute numbers over 1986 was reported in California’s Bay Area, where the Jewish population increase in San Francisco, Oakland, San Jose and vicinity exceeded 50,000. Florida reported an increase in its Jewish population estimate of more than 30,000.

Symbolic of the South and West’s growth was the “discovery” of six new Jewish communities in the regions. Communities reporting a Jewish population for the first time were Fairfield and Chico, Calif.; Naples, Pasco County and Stuart-Port St. Lucie, Fla.; and Medford, Ore.

Conversely, 15 states cited a drop in Jewish population since 1986. New York state reported the greatest absolute decline, with a loss of nearly 20,000 Jews. The greatest relative loss occurred in Mississippi, where the Jewish population fell from 3,005 to 2,400, a 20 percent loss.

Still, New York remained the state with the highest Jewish concentration, with 1,891,400 Jews, comprising 10.6 percent of its total population. New Jersey followed with 427,000 Jews, or 5.7 percent of the state’s total population.

Massachusetts, which last year tied Florida for the third-place spot in percentage terms, this year edged out Florida and Maryland, with an estimated 286,600 Jews, or 4.9 percent of its total population. The District of Columbia, with 25,400 Jews, or 4.0 percent, had the fifth highest concentration of Jews.

TOP 10 STATES

The top 10 states in terms of absolute number of Jews were New York, California (868,200, or 3.3 percent), Florida (549,200, or 4.8 percent), New Jersey, Pennsylvania (347,000, or 2.9 percent), Massachusetts, Illinois (259,800, or 2.2 percent), Maryland (209,700, or 4.8 percent), Ohio (136,000, or 1.3 percent) and Connecticut (113,300, or 3.6 percent).

Another trend noted by the study is the increase of Jewish population in college towns, state capitals, resort areas and “exurbs” — small towns and rural areas just beyond the traditional boundaries of metropolitan areas.

The figures are contained in an article by Dr. Barry Kosmin, Dr. Paul Ritterband and Jeffrey Scheckner of the North American Jewish Data Bank.

The Data Bank, a joint effort of the Council of Jewish Federations and the City University of New York, derives its findings from local Jewish federation studies, United Jewish Appeal field reports and, occasionally, local rabbis and Jewish community leaders.

The authors warn that “population estimate is not an exact science,” especially since there has never been a question on religion or ethnicity in a U.S. census.

Among the methods used by communities to determine Jewish population are sample surveys, counting the number of children absent from school on Yom Kippur or the number of recognizable Jewish last names. Researchers also interpret census data on countries of origin, taking into account the massive Jewish emigration of the early part of the 20th century.

WORLDWIDE POPULATION

The American Jewish Yearbook also includes estimates of the world’s Jewish population as of 1986. According to an article by U.O. Schmelz and Sergio Della Pergola of Hebrew University, the estimated worldwide Jewish population is slightly below 13 million.

About half of the world’s Jews live in the Americas, with 46 percent in North America. Twenty-one percent live in Europe, including the Asian territories of the Soviet Union and Turkey.

Twenty-eight percent live in Asia, nearly all of them in Israel. The study puts the number of Jews in Israel at 3,562,500 at the end of 1986, an increase of 1.3 percent annually over 1984.

The increases in Israel, however, are offset by demographic losses in the Diaspora. “Despite all the imperfections in the estimates, it is clear that world Jewry is in the state of ‘zero population growth,’” write Schmelz and Della Pergola.

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