American Jews Stand Up To Be Counted

Counting Jews, whether for demographic research or for communal policy planning, is a difficult task. Ours is a highly dispersed community. Once you leave the major metropolitan areas of the Northeast, locating Jewish respondents is a needle-in-a-haystack endeavor.

The difficulty in estimating the number of Jews is compounded by the fact that some Jews do not want to be found. When receiving a random telephone call from a nosy stranger wanting to know if their parents were Jewish or not, many will simply hang up the phone.

It should not be surprising, therefore, that improved research methods would find more Jews than previously estimated. And indeed, a new research project by the Institute for Jewish and Community Research has identified more Jews than any previous study. What was surprising was how many more. We found 6.7 million Jews in the United States, nearly one-fourth higher than the commonly accepted estimate of 5.5 million.

Population estimates are as much an art as a science, and any estimate is based on judgments and assumptions that can substantially alter the outcome. We conducted some important methodological tests to support our assumptions and feel confident that our study includes many Jews that other studies have been missing.

Ours is a sociological assessment, not a religious one. Our estimate of 6.7 million Jews includes the same categories included in other population estimates: those who were born Jewish or converted and who state Judaism as their primary religion or ethnicity. We did not include Jews for Jesus. We did, however, count children who are being raised primarily as Jews, even when they are being raised in mixed households practicing Judaism and another religion.

Our higher estimate does not result from counting people who should not be counted, as some critics might claim. Rather, it results from new methods. Most important, we tested for nondisclosure — that is, Jews who deny that they are Jews when asked by strangers. Many fear antisemitism, especially subgroups like immigrants from the former Soviet Union, where Jewish self-identification often led to discrimination or persecution.

We tested nondisclosure by telephoning persons known to be Jewish, drawn from lists of present and past donors to Jewish federations, and introducing ourselves with standard “screening” questions from past Jewish population surveys. Our calls found nondisclosure rates of more than 20% in some categories and as low as 5% in other categories. We then proceeded to call a random sample of 10,000 households to reach our own population estimate, deriving raw figures that we then adjusted for nondisclosure.

Simple accuracy requires such statistical adjustment: There is a proportion of American Jews who are uncomfortable revealing their religion to strangers. Indeed, some people will hang up the phone as soon as they hear any questions about religion. We do not know if Jews are less likely than other religious groups to answer the survey entirely. But we might hypothesize, given the lower levels of religious affiliation of Jews compared to other religious groups, that Jews might be more unwilling to cooperate. If so, our estimate of 6.7 million is likely to be an undercount.

We also found more Jews by asking a series of questions about ethnicity before addressing religion. This sequence makes respondents feel more comfortable, as opposed to plunging into the more sensitive area of religion. Most American Jews think of themselves more in ethnic and cultural terms than in religious ones, and may be more comfortable talking about that aspect of their identity. By probing ethnicity, we identified Jews among those who gave their religion as “None,” “Atheist,” “Agnostic” or “Other.” Experience teaches us that many Jews say: “I am not a religious Jew or a practicing Jew. But I feel Jewish. I am a cultural Jew.” Our survey found many such people.

Perceptions of stability and growth or decline can lead to self-fulfilling prophesies, in either direction. A community that is seen to be vibrant is likely to retain its members and attract others. On the other hand, a community that ages without replacing its numbers and attracting people from outside is likely to fulfill the image of being in decline. Communities that believe they are in decline can abandon institutions, cut services and plan for a more limited future, which in turn is defined through limited vision of what might be. Communities that plan for growth can often achieve that goal by promoting it.

There were other important findings in our survey. Beyond the 6.7 million Jews, we found a nearly equal population of some 6.6 million persons who are not Jewish but who have a connection to Judaism or the Jewish community. Some are married to Jews and feel identified with the community. Others volunteer a sense of affinity based on intellectual or emotional identification with Jews and Judaism. The largest group, some 4.1 million, consists of people who have a Jewish grandparent or great-grandparent. Adding all these together gives us a total of more than 13 million Americans who claim a connection to Jewish life. That does not include in-laws of the intermarried and relatives of converts.

These numbers strengthen the argument of those who advocate more vigorous outreach to potential converts. If the Jewish community were to lower its severe ideological, emotional and structural barriers to conversion — barriers that it claims it does not have — it might find a ready audience of people open to the message of Judaism.

Simply taken as is, however, our numbers show a growing sociological presence of the Jewish community in American life. The numbers could be said to represent the flip-side of the standard gloom-and-doom approach to interfaith marriage.

There is great significance in the existence of a sizeable non-Jewish population that is close to the Jewish community in various senses. They might not fast on Yom Kippur, but they could be expected, for example, to vote instinctively against a political candidate whom they see as antisemitic — that is, threatening to themselves or to the community with which they have a connection. In the political arena, both in support for Israel and as an electoral factor in key states, the news of the Jewish community’s growing size and reach should be welcome.

Some Jews will not like these findings, especially demographers, sociologists and community leaders who are used to predicting disaster and destruction, and even the disappearance of American Jews. The business of despair as a motivational force is one to which many Jews, especially professional and rabbinic leadership, have become accustomed. The notion that Jews are more plentiful, that the population is not only stable but growing, may be more than the prophets of doom can handle.
Is it possible that we can take findings that show a growing American Jewish community and feel good about what we have found? Can we begin to disassociate ourselves from our need to motivate through fear and despair? Can we accept these numbers for what they really mean and take some satisfaction and pride in our ability both to adapt and endure as a growing part of American society? Can we take some comfort in these numbers? I do.