Surprise! U.S. Jewry May Be Growing
On the eve of a much-anticipated national Jewish population survey, a leading demographer has found that there are 18 percent more Jews in America than earlier reports have stated.
In a new national survey to be released this week, Gary Tobin, president of the San Francisco-based Institute for Jewish Community Research, reveals that 6.7 million Americans say that Judaism is their primary religious or ethnic identification. That is significantly more than the 5.5 million people in the “core Jews” category reported by the 1990 National Jewish Population Survey.
Tobin’s study found an additional 2.5 million respondents who he terms “Jewishly connected non-Jews.” Those people said, among other things, said that they practice Judaism as a secondary religion; or that their spouse or other household member is Jewish; or that they have one Jewish parent but do not themselves identify as Jews; or that they simply feel “Jewish in their hearts,” Tobin said.
That totals 9.2 million people — 1 million more Jews and non-Jews who live with Jews than were found by the 1990 NJPS.
In addition, Tobin’s study estimates that another 4.1 million Americans report having some Jewish blood, though they are not Jewish themselves, because they have a Jewish grandparent or other relative (besides a parent).
That population was not measured on the 1990 NJPS.
That brings the total to 13.3 million Americans who are linked in some way to Judaism and the Jewish people, according to Tobin, who says that it is a far higher number than anyone has previously estimated.
More than the numbers themselves, Tobin’s survey, which is likely to spark much controversy, sets the stage for a debate over who should be counted as a Jew; the community’s perception of itself as either withering or thriving; and the crucial communal policy and funding decisions made by Jewish organizations and private foundations that will flow from the demographic data.
Coming as it does just before the National Jewish Population Study 2000 findings are slated to be unveiled early next month by the United Jewish Communities, Tobin’s survey is being seen as a major salvo in the “inreach/outreach” debate over the best way to ensure Jewish continuity.
As a result of the NJPS in 1990, for example, “inreach” and “outreach” programs designed to intensify levels of Jewish learning and behavior have proliferated. Inreach proponents believe the best way to ensure continuity is to focus on “core” Jews; outreach proponents believe reaching out to those on the margins is a more effective strategy.
Tobin, a vocal proponent of the “big tent” approach to reaching out to Jews, is a sharp critic of the terminology, as well as methodology, employed by much of the Jewish establishment in its discussions of continuity over the past decade.
“Calling people ‘core’ and ‘non-core’ Jews is so insulting,” he said, referring to language used in the 1990 NJPS analysis. “They are really ways of saying ‘Either you’re a good Jew or you’re not,’ ” Tobin said.
“If the organized Jewish community wants to say ‘Feh, they don’t go to synagogue,’ or ‘Oh no, there’s a gentile in the house,’ they are discounting these people in ways guaranteed to make them feel excluded,” Tobin said, who calls the 1990 NJPS the “1990 Hysterical Intermarriage Study.” That survey found put the intermarriage figure at 52 percent.
“I do see the number of Jews growing,” Tobin said. “Some of it may be because of Russian and Israeli immigration to this country. But a lot of it is because the sociological network of Jews is growing,” he said, referring to people who may not be technically Jewish but who feel close to Judaism and may observe aspects of it.
“It’s a fluid continuum,” he said, contrasting that image with the inner core/outer ring model presented by other demographers.
Tobin attributes the discrepancy in his numbers to his use of a “more sensitive” questionnaire than that used by the NJPS; the fact that he conducted preliminary tests of screening questions; and weighted the findings to account for groups — Russian immigrants, Israelis and Orthodox Jews — whose members frequently refuse to disclose their Jewishness to telephone interviewers.
“We picked up more people who anyone would call Jewish because we eased into the survey much more broadly and gently” than other surveys have, asking several questions about heritage and cultural identity before asking directly if someone is Jewish, “so people were more likely to engage.”
Tobin’s survey was carried out by the Washington, D.C.-based polling company Market Facts. Over 10,000 people were interviewed through random phone number dialing between July 2001 and June 2002, and 250 households expressed some relationship to Judaism. The NJPS 2000 study has a sampling of 4,500 households.
Tobin says the margin of error is “minute” but demurred from giving a specific percentage. He also declined to say how much the study cost and who funded it.
Another key difference in Tobin’s method of counting is that “We don’t exclude people who are sociologically and psychologically Jewish but aren’t religiously Jewish.”
Because these techniques have not been routinely applied to past demographic studies, “Jews have been systematically undercounted for decades,” said Tobin.
“Much of the doom and gloom from some Jewish demographers about the diminishing Jewish community comes from faulty research that has failed to capture the true dimensions of the Jewish population in the United States,” he said.
Critics of Tobin’s survey weren’t surprised by his numbers.
Given intermarriage rates and the deep level of Jewish integration into all parts of American society, it’s no surprise that “there are an awful lot of people intimately linked with Jews who may even see themselves as Jewish,” said Steve Bayme, director of Contemporary Jewish Life at the American Jewish Committee.
The problem is that they “aren’t living a Jewish life in any meaningful way,” he said. “I’ve always found the core Jewish population to have the most meaningful expression” of Jewish commitment.
“I’m not sure the outer group is all that meaningful” in the debate over Jewish continuity, “except to indicate that Jews have more friends out there than ever,” he said.
Unlike the UJC studies, Tobin’s population survey does not measure intermarriage or other critical issues related to Jewish behavior, but simply assessed the size of the community.
UJC officials would not comment on Tobin’s study, saying they haven’t seen the figures. In a statement, they said the NJPS 2000 “is the most wide-ranging [study] ever of the American Jewish population, based on sample size and range of questions. Once the survey results are released, it will stand as the most definitive portrait of the American Jewish community and will serve as a reference point for the next decade.”
Next on Tobin’s agenda, he said, is to further analyze the behavior and attitude of those who identify themselves as “cultural Jews.”
For now, Tobin says, he is satisfied that the data he gathered “indicate that there is real life going on out there, and there are mixtures of households and ideologies and identifications among Jews because that’s what America is like.”
“The reality is that ‘who is a Jew’ is wider than most people in the Jewish establishment define it. People are out there being Jewish in different ways,” he said. In American religious life, “people pick and choose and combine and recombine” what they do “all the time,” said Tobin. “Jews are part of that.”
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