Jewish Population Survey Reveals Slight Growth, but Downward Trend
Menu JTA Search

Jewish Population Survey Reveals Slight Growth, but Downward Trend

Download PDF for this date

Despite fears that the size of the American Jewish population is in decline, the 1990 National Jewish Population Survey has revealed a slight growth over the last 20 years.

Yet despite the slight increase, the zero or even negative rate of population growth will eventually impact the community, warned one sociologist.

The study shows that there are 5.51 million people in this country who call themselves either Jewish by religion or secular Jews, compared with 5.2 million people who did in 1970.

An additional 590,000 people were raised as Jews, or have Jewish parents, but currently report that they affiliate with another religion.

Combined, the 6.1 million people also repre- sent an increase over the 5.4 million people who identified themselves 20 years ago as Jews and as converts from Judaism to another faith.

The increase, according to the study, is due in part to recent immigration; the fact that more people than ever before are willing to identify themselves as Jews; and because more comprehensive survey methods were used than for the 1970 study.

According to Bernard Lazerwitz, professor of sociology at Israel’s Bar-Ilan University and the survey statistician on the 1970 population survey project, “When the immigration stops, as it becomes limited, then the inevitable decline will begin because of the low birthrate and the loss of Jews through intermarriage.”


Jewish immigration to the United States over the past two decades has primarily been some 150,000 Israelis, 100,000 from the Soviet Union and about 30,000 Iranian Jews, said Lazerwitz.

“Over 20 years,” he said, “that means a birthrate of not very much.”

This study was the second of its kind commissioned by the Council of Jewish Federations, and the first since the 1970 survey.

Preliminary findings were announced at the annual General Assembly of the Council of Jewish Federations taking place in San Francisco.

Dr. Barry Kosmin, CJF director of research and director of the North American Jewish Data Bank, directed the study, which was actually conducted by the ICR Research Group of Media, Pa.

The new findings are important because “they are the best possible way of coming up with a national portrait of the Jewish community,” said David Singer, director of research for the American Jewish Committee and editor of the American Jewish Yearbook.

While other ethnic groups benefit from statistics compiled during the U.S. Census, the census does not record religious affiliation, and so there has been no data on the American Jewish community as a whole for the past two decades, though over 50 studies were conducted by individual communities.

The national study’s results will have great impact on communal policy decisions, say sociologists.


Martin Kraar, CJF executive vice president, said in a statement that the findings mean that “Jewish federations will be better equipped to plan for the development of services and facilities that are vital to the continued growth of Jewish life.”

“You cannot plan intelligent community policy without knowing the facts,” agreed AJCommittee’s Singer. “This puts us in a stronger position.”

For example, the survey found that the Jewish population, like the American population at large, is getting older.

While 21 percent of Jews in this country are under 18 years of age, 18 percent are at least 65 years old, the study found.

“More of today’s older people are the children of immigrant parents, who had larger families. They, in turn, had smaller ones,” said Lazerwitz. “People are also living longer.”

This will lead to a closer look at community child care and elderly care options, pointed out Steven Cohen, professor of sociology at Queens College.

The graying of American Jewry will also impact resource allocation, or where communities will decide to spend more of their money.

“Will they put money into homes for the aged, or into where the future rests, into education for the young?” asked Singer. “The issue of proportions becomes very significant.”

Other findings included the fact that 27 percent of Jewish adults have visited Israel, a significantly higher percentage than had visited in 1970, when it was 16 percent, according to Cohen.

Seventy-eight percent of Jewish adults have received some Jewish education at some time in their lives, the study said, and 735,000 adults, or some 15 percent, have participated in adult education in the past year.

Also, 77 percent of Jewish households contributed to charity in 1989, although only half of them gave to Jewish charities.

The entire survey was overseen by the CJF National Technical Advisory Committee on the Jewish Population Study headed by Dr. Sidney Goldstein, professor of sociology at Brown University, and Joseph Waksberg, former associate director of the U.S. Bureau of the Census.

Founding Funders

The digitization of the JTA Archive would not have been possible without the generous support of the following donors:
  • The Gottesman Fund
  • Righteous Persons Foundation
  • Charles H. Revson Foundation
  • Elisa Spungen Bildner and Robert Bildner, in honor of Norma Spungen
  • George S. Blumenthal
  • Grace and Scott Offen Charitable Fund