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Gathering and Crunching Numbers Keeps Demographer in the News

December 27, 2006
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When it comes to Jewish number-crunchers, Ira Sheskin is the maven from Miami. Thanks to his research, we now know everything from the percentage of Jews in Dade County, Fla., who have mezuzahs on their doors — 82 percent — to the median household income of former Soviet Jewish immigrants living in Minneapolis-St. Paul — $22,900.

Sheskin also can tell you the percentage of Jews in metropolitan Washington who say they’ve experienced anti-Semitism — 8 percent; how many Jews in San Francisco consider themselves lesbian, gay, bisexual or transsexual — 13,000; and what proportion of Jews in Atlantic City, N.J., are only part-time residents — 36 percent, with half of them spending at least four months of the year in Pennsylvania.

“Most people would think sociologists do this kind of work, but I’m a geographer,” said Sheskin, director of the Jewish Demography Project at the University of Miami’s Sue and Leonard Miller Center for Contemporary Judaic Studies.

Sheskin, 56, works with his wife of 33 years, Karen Tina, as well as two part-time assistants at his home office in Cooper City, north of Miami.

“This is my own private consulting firm,” he told JTA, “but the university gets a lot of credit because every one of my reports has the university’s name on it.”

Now Sheskin is in the news.

An American Jewish Year Book survey released last week estimates the current U.S. Jewish population at 6.4 million. That number — published by the American Jewish Committee and based on studies conducted by Sheskin and Arnold Dashefsky of the University of Connecticut — is significantly higher than the 5.2 million figure provided by the 2000-01 National Jewish Population Survey.

It also indicates that American Jews, who comprise 2.2 percent of the total U.S. population, constitute the largest Jewish community in the world, bigger than Israel’s.

Not surprisingly, the most Jewish of the 50 states is New York, with 1,618,320 Jews, or 8.4 percent of its total population of 19.3 million. Jews are also numerous in California, with 1,194,190; Florida, with 653,435; New Jersey, with 480,000; Pennsylvania, with 284,875; Illinois, with 278,810; and Massachusetts, with 275,030.

At the other end of the spectrum is South Dakota, whose 295 Jewish residents make up less than 0.04 percent of the state’s 775,933 residents. In eight other states — Arkansas, Idaho, Mississippi, Montana, North Dakota, Oklahoma, West Virginia and Wyoming — Jews comprise 0.1 percent of the population, or less.

Sheskin acknowledged that there’s a fair amount of controversy over how many Jews actually live in the United States, but he insists that 80 percent of his 6.4 million total was derived through scientific studies involving random-digit dialing telephone surveys.

The remaining 20 percent is based on the less reliable method of using local “informants” who have access to synagogue membership rosters and the mailing lists of local Jewish federations.

Random dialing utilizes a computer that randomly generates four numbers that go at the end of each area code or local exchange code combination.

That way, “we get people who are very active in the Jewish community, people who moved in yesterday, people who barely admit they’re Jewish,” Sheskin said. “When we get done, we know what percentage of households contain a Jew, and No. 2, we’ve achieved a random sample of people without taking any names out of a phone book or off a mailing list.”

Sheskin says the 6.4 million figure is probably on the high side, for various reasons, while the NJPS’s 5.2 million estimate was probably too low. His own survey utilizes numbers gleaned from, among other sources, the 38 community studies Sheskin has supervised over the past 25 years.

“These studies started coming in one or two a year in the ’90s, and since 2000, I’ve been doing three or four per year,” said Sheskin, who’s currently working on reports about the Jewish communities of Detroit and Las Vegas. All of his reports can be found online at

One of the questions Sheskin asks is whether respondents have ever been to Israel. He also quizzes them on their level of religious practice, inquiring whether their families belong to a synagogue, light Shabbat candles or put mezuzahs on their front doors.

Among the things he has discovered is a national intermarriage rate of 48 percent, ranging from a low of 13 percent in Palm Beach County, Fla., to a high of 80 percent in tiny Ames, Iowa.

Starting with the 2006 edition of the American Jewish Year Book, Sheskin and his team are now responsible for producing annual estimates of the U.S. Jewish population for the AJCommittee. Previously, these estimates were provided by the United Jewish Communities, the coordinating body for 155 Jewish federations and 400 independent Jewish communities across the nation.

Sheskin conducted his first Jewish survey, of the Miami community, in 1982. In 34 of the 38 Jewish community surveys Sheskin has supervised, anywhere from 20 to 60 locals were hired to conduct the interviews. Questions may be asked in Spanish, Russian, French, Hebrew or Yiddish, depending on the community.

The community surveys generally take a year and cost anywhere from $75,000 to $200,000. Jewish federations depend on the numbers they generate to plan annual fund-raising campaigns and get a better sense of the size, distribution and level of Jewish involvement of their communities.

“These are expensive undertakings,” Sheskin said, though he acknowledged that studies like these are literally what keeps him in business.

“I recognize that if I’m working for a big federation like Detroit, they ought to pay me what I’m worth,” he said. “On the other hand, the entire campaign of the Fort Myers Jewish Federation is only $1 million, so obviously I’m not going to charge them as much.”

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