Jewish population undercounted? New study launches a new debate

NEW YORK, Sept. 24 (JTA) — There are 600,000 more American Jews than previously believed, because the U.S. Jewish population has been underestimated for years, according to a new study.

A national survey by the Institute for Jewish & Community Research found 6.7 million Jews out of 288 million Americans, far higher than the closest, most recent estimate of 6.1 million American Jews.

“Jews have been systematically undercounted for decades,” said Gary Tobin, president of the San Francisco-based institute.

But Tobin cast an even wider net than any other demographer has to date when it comes to measuring people who are “connected” Jewishly, capturing a total of 13.3 million people with a variety of Jewish ties and defying what he calls a mistaken notion of “a shrinking Jewish population.”

Jews “have deep roots in American society,” Tobin said. “Jews are not disappearing, they’re transforming.”

But several prominent Jewish demographers questioned Tobin’s findings and their significance.

Ira Sheskin, a University of Miami professor involved with several Jewish population studies, said Tobin painted too big a picture of American Jewry.

“I could claim my dog too, if you want to stretch the net far enough,” Sheskin said.

Tobin’s study, which paints a far more optimistic portrait of American Jewry than earlier studies, comes on the eve of the long-awaited National Jewish Population Survey 2000-2001, which is widely expected to be seen as the benchmark in measuring the U.S. Jewish population.

Tobin’s study surveyed 250 households.

The NJPS 2000 has a sampling of 4,500 households.

The last edition of the NJPS shook American Jewry in 1990 with a finding that 52 percent of Jews who wed between 1985 and 1990 married non-Jews.

Though the NJPSs main finding was that U.S. Jewry numbered 5.5 million, the intermarriage figure became the study’s hallmark, stirring intense communal introspection and tens of millions of dollars being spent on programs to strengthen Jewish identity.

Final tallies of the latest NJPS have been closely guarded by officials of the United Jewish Communities federation umbrella in New York, which is overseeing the survey.

While only a few researchers involved in the latest NJPS have seen the data, some of which is being released early next month, more recent counts have put the Jewish population far closer to the 1990 NJPS than Tobin’s calculations.

In 2000, UJC researchers Jim Schwartz and Jeffrey Scheckner relied on local communal counts — lists provided by the nation’s 200 federations in the largest Jewish centers, along with figures by communal “experts” such as rabbis in less populated Jewish areas, to arrive at an estimate of 6.1 million U.S. Jews.

That figure of 6,141,325 appeared in the 2001 edition of the American Jewish Year Book.

Schwartz has been the lead researcher on the UJC’s NJPS survey, which, with a sample size of 4,500 is expected to be the most comprehensive survey of American Jews to date.

In 2001, sociologist Egon Mayer, director of the Center for Jewish Studies at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, led a team that included several researchers who had worked on the 1990 NJPS in producing a study meant as a companion to the 2000 NJPS, which is due to appear nearly two years late.

Mayer counted 5.5 million U.S. Jews, either by religion, by Jewish parentage or by upbringing. That figure matched the 1990 NJPS, and used much of the same methodology.

One key shift in Mayer’s findings from the 1990 NJPS, however, was that intermarriage seemed to be increasing and Jewish identification shrinking.

Mayer found that 33 percent of Jews — those raised as Jews or who identified as Jews — are married to non-Jews, compared to 28 percent in 1990.

And according to that 2001 CUNY survey, nearly 1.4 million adult Jews — those with Jewish parents or who were raised Jews — said they belonged to a non-Jewish religious group.

Meanwhile, only 51 percent of the 5.5 million Jews CUNY counted said their religion was Judaism, down from 58 percent in 1990.

But Tobin insisted previous studies have been wrong in several ways.
First, these studies undercounted Jews because many Jews deny their identity in phone surveys, out of fears of anti- Semitism, he said.

To test that theory, Tobin said his study used similar screening questions about Jewish identity to those used in the NJPS in 1990 and 2000 with “known” Jews, and found that 13 percent — which he extrapolates to 850,000 people — said there was no Jew in the household.

Second, this latest study, which surveyed 10,204 randomly selected U.S. households to get to the 250 homes with a Jewish connection, used a line of questioning about people’s backgrounds that made them “feel much more comfortable” before delving into Jewish issues, he said.

What Tobin found is that 2.5 million Americans are a subgroup “socially or psychologically connected” with Judaism, though they are not Jews themselves.

This group includes people who are practice Judaism “as a secondary religion,” or aspects of Judaism in addition to their primary religion; who were raised Jews or have a Jewish parent but now practice another religion; call Judaism their ethnicity or culture but practice another religion; or have a Jewish partner or spouse.

Looking even further afield, Tobin said 4.1 million more Americans have at least one ancestor — “a grandparent or beyond” — who is Jewish.

What all that means, Tobin said, is that “there is enormous potential there. These are people who are self-identified as Jewish in some way.”

But just how the Jewish community should relate to this much larger Jewishly connected group is, as Tobin admitted, “up for grabs.”

Sheskin, who is a member of UJC’s National Technical Advisory Committee, which oversaw the 2000 NJPS, said, “There are probably millions and millions of Americans out there who had a Jewish ancestor at some point and feel close” to Jews in some way.

What was missing from the Tobin survey, Sheskin said, were questions about the nature of Jewish observance — such as whether these “connected” Jews covered mirrors while mourning a dead grandparent, for example, as is customary, or even feeling “something special” by watching the Holocaust movie “Schindler’s List.”
Both the 1990 and 2000 NJPS, Sheskin added, found people “who identified as Jews because Jesus was a Jew. We didn’t count those folks.”

Tobin said his study did not get into questions of levels of observance because his was “a sociological study, not a halachic one” based on Jewish law.

But Jonathan Sarna, a professor of American Jewish history at Brandeis University, said both Tobin’s study and the upcoming NJPS will show that, in fact, the numbers of “strictly halachic” Jews are declining.

If nothing else, that raises troubling questions about the future of American Jewish political influence, Sarna said.

While Sarna said Tobin’s rosier portrait is not based on “utter nonsense,” since “vast numbers” of Americans today are indeed tied in some way to Jews, that does not say much about the future of American Jewry.

But 20 million American also have ties to French Huegenots, a culture that died out, he added.

“Many of these people who have a piece of Jewish heritage” aren’t selecting that piece and “see no reason why Judaism should be central to them or their children,” he said. ld