Counting American Jews: Research Offers a Glimpse Behind the Numbers

Some 4,000 years ago, when the ancient Israelites were wandering in the Sinai wilderness, there appeared to be more certainty than today about the size of the Jewish population. As recounted in Numbers 1:2, a census of the Israelite community by the clans of each ancestral house counted 603,500 males aged 20 or older who were able to bear arms.

Scholars may argue about the accuracy of the biblical number, but there’s no argument that counting the number of Jews in 21st-century America has become the focus of a contentious dialogue on the methodology, the numbers and the meaning of those numbers.

There’s no simple dichotomy, nor is it an easy task — as comedian Lenny Bruce once did — to divide the world into Jewish and goyish.

Is a person born of Jewish parents, but who now practices Buddhism, Jewish? It depends on who asks the question and how the question is asked.

According to the National Jewish Population Survey 2000-01, there are about 3.9 million Americans who identify themselves as Jewish by religion, and about 5.3 million who identify themselves as Jewish using broader criteria such as ethnicity or ancestry.

However, a new meta-analysis — a synthesis that combines the results of more than 20 existing national surveys with reliable data about religious identity — suggests that the NJPS numbers may be too low.

Results of the new study, unveiled Nov. 3 at the inaugural conference of the Steinhardt Social Research Institute at Brandeis University, say about 4.5 million Americans identify themselves as Jewish by religion. As many as 6.5 million may identify themselves as Jewish using broader criteria, the research found.

Leonard Saxe, director of the new institute as well as Brandeis’ Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies, told JTA it’s the first time that meta-analytic methodology has been applied to the question of how many Jews live in the United States.

The methodology offers a new paradigm for studying the country’s Jewish population, Saxe believes.

“It allows us to estimate the size of the Jewish population without our contacting hundreds of thousands of households to find out if there is a Jewish member,” he said.

The methodology means the Jewish community can invest its limited resources in studies that delve more deeply into more substantive questions and specific subgroups, Saxe said.

Glenn Rosenkrantz, a spokesman for the United Jewish Communities federation umbrella group, said no decision has been made about whether or not to do a new NJPS — which could cost more than $10 million — in 2010 .

If there is a new NJPS, the efforts of Saxe and his Steinhardt institute team to arrive at an accurate, ongoing count of U.S. Jews could change its contours.

“If we can come up with the basic numbers, we can undertake a different set of studies to develop better information about issues that are more important to the Jewish community,” Saxe said.

Saxe currently is working with Boston’s Combined Jewish Philanthropies to map the Jewish population of Greater Boston, developing an innovative tool drawn from the databases of more than 80 local Jewish communal organizations.

The one-day conference at Brandeis, titled “By The Numbers: Understanding American Jewry,” brought together many of the leading scholars in the world of Jewish demographics, including members of UJC’s NJPS team.

Sergio Della Pergola, professor of population studies at the Hebrew University’s Harman Institute of Contemporary Jewry, presented his findings on “Community Implications of U.S. Jewish Population Change, 2001-2051.”

DellaPergola suggested that the greatest factor for the future size of the American Jewish population would be the fertility rate of Jewish women, showing projected changes based on birth rates of 1.9, 1.5 and 1.1 children per woman.

Based on those different rates, the projected American Jewish population in 2051 would be, respectively, about 5 million, 4.3 million or 3.6 million, he said.

DellaPergola then detailed the projected changes in the American Jewish population by age, with the elderly Jewish population growing and children diminishing.

His most surprising number was that there potentially were 10 million Americans who would qualify for Israeli citizenship under the Law of Return, which includes anyone with a Jewish grandparent.

Bethamie Horowitz, who directed the 1991 New York Jewish Population Study for the UJA-Federation of New York and now is research director of the Mandel Foundation in Israel, argued that the context is as important as the numbers.

Horowitz, whose “Connections and Journeys” study in 2000 looked at how the meaning of Jewishness shifts over individuals’ life spans, talked about how changes in the Jews’ role in American life have changed the way of counting Jews.

In the past, she said, counting children’s absences from New York City public schools on Yom Kippur might have been an accurate means of tallying the Jewish population.

With Jews no longer on the margins of society, it’s not surprising that membership boundaries also have blurred, Horowitz said. She cited the fact that just a century ago, intermarriage between Christians and Jews in America was so rare that it made the front page of The New York Times.

The Steinhardt Social Research Institute was established and underwritten by a $12 million gift from philanthropist Michael Steinhardt, who attended the conference and who has not been shy in criticizing Jewish communal organizations for what he calls their “astounding lack” of high-quality data.

The conference focused on new methodology and narrative, but a strong undercurrent of Jewish population studies — how policy decisions are made and who makes them — kept bubbling to the surface.

Was the institute suggesting that there’s no need for a new NJPS in 2010? Given that the Jewish population in America is about 1.5 percent of the total population, why worry about discrepancies in numbers that amount to one-10th of a percentage point?

In his presentation, Saxe offered two answers, both from Mark Twain.

“If statistics are right,” he quoted Twain as saying, “the Jews constitute but 1 percent of the human race. It suggests a nebulous dim puff of stardust lost in the blaze of the Milky Way. Properly, the Jew ought hardly to be heard of, but he has always been heard of. His contributions to the world’s list of great names in literature, science, art, music, finance, medicine, and abstruse learning are way out of proportion to the weakness of his numbers.”

Quoting Twain again, Saxe added, “Facts are stubborn, statistics are more pliable.”

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