We Count As Americans, But Not As Jews


By the time we have cleared the dishes from our seders, those of us who live in the United States should have returned our 2010 U.S. Census forms. Completing the census is mandatory and if you failed to comply by April 1, you will be visited by a census-taker. As a matter of law, you can be fined for failing to submit the form or refusing to answer the required questions. In the end, we are all counted. 

Importantly, the 2010 census, like every U.S. Census since 1790, asks about race and ethnicity but not religion. You indicate whether members of your household are White, Black, American Indian and/or one of a number of other designations. If you check Hispanic, Latino or Spanish background, you are to indicate your country of origin. The justification for these questions is that that the government has to ensure non-discrimination and, if necessary, provide bilingual services. Those who want absolute separation between the government and religion are pleased with this arrangement. Those who understand how important it is for the Jewish community to know the size and characteristics of its population are less pleased.

Avoiding questions about religion on a national census makes the U.S. unique compared to other Western countries. It is not, as some suspect, a constitutional issue, and the Census Bureau, beginning in 1860, actually collected organizational data on “religious bodies.” At one point more than a century ago, there were efforts to collect ethnicity data that would allow enumeration of Jews. But prominent members of the Jewish community opposed such efforts, fearing that being identified as “people” would lead to discrimination and undermine Jews being treated as “Americans.”

The U.S. Census is an expensive proposition, with an estimated cost of $14.5 billion. This enormous expenditure is used to apportion congressional seats, allocate government resources and assure that programs are available to those in need. The Jewish community has analogous needs for information. We, like many Americans, are changing in numerous ways and, lest we fly blind when we design programs and allocate communal resources, the information provided by socio-demographic studies is essential.  

But gathering information about American Jews is not an easy proposition, particularly in the absence of census data about our basic population characteristics. We are a small group — around 2 percent of the population — and both finding and gaining voluntary consent for interviews is a difficult process. When we do population studies of the Jewish community we are not taking a census; instead, we draw a sample of representative people.   Although a literal counting of people, as in a census, is fraught with its own problems, a survey is only as good as the size of the sample and the ability to gain cooperation.   

Most surveys of Americans, regardless of the issue being studied, are corrected (weighted) to match the U.S. Census. Surveys of the Jewish population cannot do that and so are even more problematic than other types of surveys. In addition, most Americans with landline telephones are survey-weary and it is, increasingly, difficult to get them to respond. Only in areas such as New York, where the Jewish population is perhaps 15 percent of the total, is it possible to think of efficient ways to do general surveys.

A team at the Steinhardt Institute at Brandeis has developed a set of techniques to estimate the size of the adult Jewish population and their basic socio-demographic characteristics. Our strategy involves synthesizing data from dozens of the highest quality surveys, conducted by the government and private agencies that include questions about religious and ethnic identity. Estimates of the Jewish population derived from these surveys can be used, like census data, to weight specific studies of Jewish behavior, including research on education, marriage, child rearing, Israel engagement and synagogue involvement.  

As the Jewish community plans its future, reliable data about who comprises the community and how those who identify as Jews interact with one another, are critical. We will never be able to count our numbers perfectly, but there is value in developing reliable estimates that help guide where we place our resources and provide feedback on the development of our community, our priorities and our overall health. The U.S. Census is a reminder of the communal need for better information and about who we are, and how we are changing. 

Leonard Saxe is a professor of social policy at Brandeis University where he directs the Brandeis Steinhardt Institute for Social Research.



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