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Saturday, February 3, 2007

How many Jews are there? Ira Sheskin on Jewish Demography

There are not a lot of American Jews any way you look at the figures, and the numbers are declining.
 Rosner's Guest 
 Shmuel Rosner, Chief U.S. Correspondent   
Ira Sheskin
Professor Sheskin is the Director of the Jewish Demography Project of the Sue and Leonard Miller Center for Contemporary Jewish Studies at the University of Miami. He is one of two authors of the recently published - and hotly debated - study on the number of Jews in the US, concluding there were more than 6 million of them. According to the survey, about 2.2 percent of Americans are Jewish.
Sheskin has completed or is currently working on more than 35 major demographic studies for Jewish Federations throughout the country and has been a consultant to numerous synagogues, day schools, Jewish agencies, and Jewish Community Centers throughout the country (more bio here).
We will discuss some of his findings and its meaning this week, and readers, as usual, can send their questions to
Dear Prof. Sheskin
What will be the main factors eventually determining the size and strength of the Jewish community in North America? Is it bound to decrease or can it actually grow - and how will this happen?

Before I start making predictions of the future size of the US Jewish population, let me say that the only people wrong more often then economists are demographers! And making predictions of the Jewish population is even more difficult than predicting the general population.
Has the Jewish population of the US been declining? In my opinion, it has not, but only because of the large migration we received from the former Soviet Union in the early 1990s. The 1990 National Jewish Population Survey found 5.5 million American Jews and the 2000 National Jewish Population Survey found 5.2 million. But, given the margin of error around each number, this is actually a statistical tie.
Yet, we know that there are more Jewish deaths each year than Jewish births by 10,000. But we also know that we are gaining about 5,000 Jews per year due to the excess of immigrants over emigrants. However, we are probably losing more people each year to assimilation than we are gaining due to conversions to Judaism. Thus, chances are that had we not received 300,000 immigrants during the 1990s (mostly in the beginning of the decade), we probably would have seen a significant decrease in the Jewish population.
Some reporters who have clearly not read the article that started this controversy have interpreted what we have said as saying the US Jewish population has increased. We never said that, nor is it true. We are saying that we believe that previous estimates have simply been too low.
So, what of the future? Jews have a very low birth rate and a high death rate. Assimilation is significant. Our numbers are going to decrease. The Jewish population of the US will be lower in the future.
Nationally, this probably makes relatively little difference. As I have said, our impact on America will probably continue to be significant if there are 5 million of us, 6 million of us, or 4 million of us.
Where the lowering of the numbers will have an impact is on small Jewish communities. A Jewish community of 10,000 which now supports, say, 3 synagogues, a JCC, a kosher butcher, and several Jewish agencies and organizations, may very well lose some of this infrastructure if, say 20 years from now, the population is down to 5,000. So the impact of the lowering of the Jewish population will be at the local level more than at the national level.
Many resources in the Jewish community are being applied now by Jewish Federations and Foundations throughout the country to assure the Jewish future. Sheldon Adelson just started a foundation which will provide $200-$250 million per year in grants to Jewish communities. The challenge is to devise programs and services that will provide a quality of life within Jewish communities that will keep people wanting to be Jewish.

Dear Ira
I will ask this question in an attempt to represent the many readers who seem - from the emails they send me - somewhat confused by the figures. So let's just try making is simple.
In your opinion:
1. How many Jews are there in America, Israel and the rest of the world?
2. Can you tell us if this figure is increasing or decreasing?
3. What is the essence of the professional debate surrounding the new figures?
Thank you.
With this question, we get to the heart of the matter that Arnie Dashefsky and I addressed in our research. I would urge all who are interested to buy the American Jewish Year Book (AJYB) from . The article explains in greater detail what I will briefly address below. It also contains estimates of the Jewish population for 535 geographic areas in the U.S. and all countries of the world.
The problem with trying to count Jews is that we do not seem to be able to agree on the definition, nor will we ever. If you asked me to count the number of cans of peas on the shelf in a supermarket, we would have no problem, because everyone would agree which is, and which is not, a can of peas. We have no set definition among Jews as to who is a Jew. Even some Jews cannot decide whether they are Jewish!
So social scientists usually use a simple definition: if a person calls themselves a Jew, than they are. We do this because we do not wish to take a stand and decide that one person is Jewish and the other is not. From a scientific point of view, this is really the only way to go. As a Jew, I may have a different opinion. As a social scientist, this must be the definition.
We will always have a good idea of how many Jews there are in Israel (although even in Israel the definition of a Jew is not simple!). Sergio DellaPergola's excellent article in the AJYB puts the number at 5,313,800. This number is probably very close to the truth because it is based on Israel's Central Bureau of Statistics data, which is based on a census.
The number of Jews in the world is in the 13 million to 14 million range, depending on the count we believe for the US.
As to the number of Jews in the U.S., the National Jewish Population Survey (NJPS) estimates 5.2 million, of whom about 4.3 million would say their religion is Jewish; the remainder are persons who are Jewish, but would indicate they are atheists, agnostics, "nones," etc., when it comes to religion. Yet, the NJPS report admits that the 5.2 million is probably an undercount, and I agree. We did a test which showed unequivocally that Jews were more likely to refuse to participate than non-Jews, depressing the estimate of the percentage of American Jewish households in the population.
What Arnie Dashefsky and I did for the AJYB is to collect the latest estimates of Jewish population in more than 535 geographic areas of the US. When we added these together, it totaled 6.4 million. More than 80 percent of this total has support in scientific studies. The other 20 percent, mostly estimates for places like Ames, IA and Lehigh Valley, PA are based on information from informants.
We know that the 6.4 million estimate is too high because of double counting. A certain number of snowbirds, students, "beach people," and households who have moved from one community to another in between scientific studies are being double counted. My best guess would be that about 6 million Jews live in the U.S..
The number of Jews in Israel is increasing and the evidence for this is clear, again because of the Israeli census.
The number of Jews in most Diaspora countries is generally deceasing due to low birth rates and high rates of intermarriage and assimilation.
The number of Jews in the U.S. is probably remaining relatively constant. According to Sergio DellaPergola's article, 50,000 Jewish babies are born each year in the U.S. and 60,000 Jews die each year in the U.S., leading to a natural decrease of about 10,000 per year. Yet more Jews migrate into the U.S. than out, leading to a net migration of +5,000. Thus, the U.S. Jewish population, at the moment, seems to be decreasing by about 5,000 per year. Of course, there are also gains and losses due to converting in/opting in and converting out/opting out. My suspicion is that the "opting out" is larger than the other factors and the loss in the number of Jews is probably greater than 5,000 per year. But offsetting this loss between 1990 and 2000 was the large number of Jews who entered the U.S. from the FSU during the beginning of the 1970s. Thus, it is probably true that, since 1990, the number of U.S. Jews has remained relatively constant.
The professional debate surrounding the new numbers is related to the fact that the number of Jews in Israel (5,313,800) is higher than the 5,275,000 Jews that the Israeli demographer (DellaPergola) claims live in the U.S., based upon NJPS and other sources. I would argue that these numbers are close enough that even if you accept the NJPS number as correct (which I do not) means that we have a statistical "tie."
By the way, I have much respect for Sergio, he is a competent social scientist and a true gentleman. We just disagree on this.
Ira Sheskin
Shmuel Rosner,
I often come across articles addressing the "problem" of Jewish intermarriage. On one hand I understand why there is concern over intermarriage rates. On the other hand I find it repugnant. I know "Jewish" is both an ethnicity and a religion. I think most people (maybe I'm naïve) would agree that worrying about intermarriage between ethnic groups and/or races is distasteful. For some reason it isn't seen as nauseous to worry about intermarriage between religious groups. Why do religious concerns get a free pass here? Isn't it just plain old out-group hostility and xenophobia?
The purpose of my "interview" is not to examine American Jewish attitudes toward intermarriage. What we do in our demographic studies is to measure the extent to which intermarriage has occurred and the extent to which it affects the Jewish community.
Certainly, American Jewish attitudes toward intermarriage have changed, as it is the rare family that has not had an intermarriage and it is rare that someone does not have close friends who have intermarried.
I am unabashedly in favor of having a strong American Jewish community. I feel this way for two reasons. First, as a Jew, I believe that for those people who are Jewish, their identity serves them in many positive ways, providing (for those who need it) a source of spiritual guidance, a feeling of being part of a group, and, perhaps most importantly a set of shared ethical values. Second, as an American, I want a strong American Jewish community because, through a combination of factors, American Jews have contributed so much to America. I want America to be strong and to be a leader in the world and having a strong Jewish community, I believe, adds to the greatness of America.
Every individual Jew is going to meet and marry (if that is what they want!) someone. That person, in an open society, may be Jewish or non-Jewish. I would hope that the Jewish identity of people would be strong enough that finding a mate who can share in that identity is important. In fact, in looking at data on the types of singles programs attended by Jews age 18-64, we find that the vast majority who attend singles programs are attending Jewish singles programs. So, to many, they want to find a Jewish mate with whom the can share the Jewish part of their lives. The same way that a baseball fan might want to find a mate that shares that interest.
The problem for the Jewish community is that whether there are 5.2 million of us, or 6.4 million of us, we are few in number. Maintaining the Jewish community in many smaller communities in particular, relies on our ability to maintain our institutions. This requires things like membership, attendance, and donations. Unfortunately all of our studies show that intermarried couples are significantly less likely to join, attend, and give. While some intermarried couples do participate in the community, and I believe that the community should be welcoming to those who do, the plain fact of the matter is that most do not and most do not raise their children as Jews.
I do not think that concern about intermarriage is racist or nauseous, or any other word of that nature. We should applaud whenever two people fall in love to the extent that they want to spend their lives together. But the overall effect on the community of a high intermarriage rate is not good for the Jews. And it is not, in the long run, good for America.
Dear Prof. Sheskin,
We will be discussing numbers this week, but I'd like to
start with this troubling question: assuming that your estimation is
right and that there are more than 6 million Jews in America - how
many of them have a significant Jewish identity? Shouldn't this be the
more important question?
The question of the number of Jews in the USA is not the most important question facing the American Jewish community. I think that all demographers on both sides of the issue would agree that our importance in American society and in the world Jewish community is determined much more by the quality of the community than by whether there are 5 million or 6 million Jews in the country. Nor is the political power of the American Jewish community determined by whether we are 1.6% of Americans or 2.0% of Americans.
The political power of the American Jewish community and the ability to influence American policy is related to our organizational ability, the fact that Jews register and vote in much larger numbers than the general population, the fact that we are active politically and donate to political campaigns, and the fact that the Jewish population continues to be concentrated in states with many electoral votes (New York, California, Florida, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey) all contribute to our influence in American society.
The fact that the community is well educated and has some excellent spokes people to help us influence policy also plays a role. We have quality people in politics: Jews are over represented in both the House and the Senate, with Jews being elected from states with little Jewish population.
If the quality of the community is what matters, the question that we should be asking concerns the percentage of American Jews who actively "do Jewish," to borrow a phrase from the National Hillel Foundation. While in most Jewish communities, only 30% to 60% of Jewish households currently belong to a synagogue, in most Jewish communities, 75% to 85% of Jewish households belong to a synagogue at some point during their adult lives.
But if one defines "doing Jewish" in a broader sense (any home religious practice, membership in anything Jewish, going to synagogue services at least on the High Holidays, donating to any Jewish charity), then 86%-96% of American Jews are involved Jewishly. And what is fascinating is that in a few communities analysis has been completed of the 4%-14% who do nothing Jewish. In these communities, a surprisingly high percentage still say that being Jewish is very important or somewhat important to them.
So, while I think the number is interesting, and if it did not matter we would not be talking about it, I agree that there are more important questions about the quality of the community as well as about whether the number of Jews is increasing or decreasing.

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