Study Says 6.1 Million U.S. Jews, but Numbers Come in for Criticism
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Study Says 6.1 Million U.S. Jews, but Numbers Come in for Criticism

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There are slightly more than 6.1 million Jews in the United States, according to a new study.

If that count — 6,141,325, to be exact — sounds familiar, it is.

The figure, contained in a new study on American religious life, is a two-year-old estimate, first reported in the 2001 edition of the annual American Jewish Year Book, published by the American Jewish Committee.

Such major media as The New York Times and The Washington Post recently reported last week on the study by the Glenmary Research Center, an arm of a Catholic missionary institute.

“I assumed they had an independent means” of calculating the figure, said Lawrence Grossman, editor of the American Jewish Year Book, who had seen the new coverage. “I didn’t know they got it from us.”

The demographic portrait of American Jewry will change in coming weeks and months, though to what degree is anybody’s guess.

The much-anticipated National Jewish Population Survey 2000-2001 is due out shortly, as is a population study by Gary Tobin, president of the Institute for Jewish and Community Research in San Francisco.

The reports, which will examine the size and character of American Jewry, will fuel intense debate and may shape the agenda for organized U.S. Jewry for years to come.

The new NJPS updates the 1990 version, which sparked controversy with the assertion that in the previous five years, 52 percent of U.S. Jews intermarried. The 1990 survey stirred intense communal soul-searching, and spawned a decade’s worth of efforts at outreach and Jewish identity building.

The 1990 NJPS put the U.S. Jewish population at 5.5 million.

Tobin is among those who have voiced intense criticism of the 1990 survey, and he is no less suspicious of the American Jewish Year Book numbers that recently resurfaced.

“Those numbers are not at all reliable,” he said, because the grass-roots methods used to gather the numbers are “hit or miss.”

One of those who gathered the estimate for the 2001 yearbook is Jim Schwartz, director of research for the United Jewish Communities and director of the North American Jewish Data Bank.

Schwartz also is one of the chief researchers for the UJC’s forthcoming 2000-2001 NJPS.

Schwartz said the 6.1 million figure was based on “local community counts” by 200 Jewish federations, and on information from rabbis and other “informed Jewish communal leaders” in areas lacking federations.

Unlike the other counts from religious movements in the Glenmary study, the Jewish calculation includes self- identified Jews in addition to those who belong to a synagogue.

Schwartz would not say whether the 6.1 million figure differs in any way from the forthcoming NJPS count.

The 2001 American Jewish Year Book figure did shift from earlier editions. In 2000, the yearbook reported the total U.S. Jewish population at 6.06 million.

And in late 2001, Egon Mayer, director of the Center for Jewish Studies at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, led a team of researchers conducting a study intended to provide a “second opinion” to the 1990 NJPS.

Using much of the same methodology, Mayer’s study counted 5.5 million Jews — the same as the NJPS figure from 11 years earlier.

The Glenmary study offered snapshots of other religious movements as well. It found:

All Protestant churches combined claim 66 million members;

The Catholic Church remains the single largest movement with 62 million adherents;

The Mormon Church is the fastest-growing religious body, up 19.3 percent from the last Glenmary study in 1990 to 4.2 million members;

There are 1.6 million Muslims, far lower than the 7 million figure expounded by some U.S. Muslim groups.

The Muslim count was based on those “associated” with mosques, said Richard Houseal, vice president of the Association of Statisticians of American Religious Bodies, who advised the 1990 Glenmary study. The study surveyed one-third of the nation’s 1,200 mosques.

Like the Jewish count, the Muslim figure is considered problematic because it relies on “self-reporting,” said James Wind, president of the Alban Institute, an independent group that provides consulting for religious congregations.

In addition, groups may want their numbers either over- or underestimated for political reasons, Wind said.

The American Jewish Committee published a study late last year putting the Muslim population at 1.9 million to 2.8 million, but U.S. Muslim leaders criticized the report as an attempt to downplay the importance of their community.

Though the portrait of U.S. Jewry is also rough because it does not differentiate between Jews who are “rigorous” in practice and those who identify mainly on a cultural basis, the overall number reflects a “more established” population than U.S. Muslims, Wind said.

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