Survey of U.S. Jews Sees a Dip; Others Demur

A major survey released yesterday estimated the Jewish population in the United States at 5.2 million, a decline of 300,000 from 10 years earlier. Other studies last month had reported figures of more than 6 million.

That demographic estimates vary is no surprise. But the numbers underscore passionate arguments not just about who is a Jew, but also about what is Jewishness and why it matters.

The National Jewish Population Survey, released yesterday, described an aging, declining population whose women are having children relatively late.

According to the survey, the median age of Jews in the United States rose to 41 in 2000 from 37 in 1990, compared with the national average of 35. The proportion of children in the Jewish community dipped to 19 percent from 21 percent, compared with 26 percent nationally. People older than 75 are 9 percent of the Jewish population, compared with 6 percent nationally.

Of Jewish women ages 30 to 34, the survey found, 52 percent have not given birth, compared with 27 percent of all women. Jewish women ages 40 to 44 have a birth rate of 1.8 children, compared with the 2.1 children needed to replace the current population, it said.

The survey, which had a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 1.4 percentage points, was sponsored by United Jewish Communities, an umbrella group of Jewish federations and communities. Researchers contacted 177,000 randomly chosen people, and conducted more than 9,000 interviews. The study cost $6 million, and its sponsors called it the largest, most comprehensive survey undertaken of American Jews.

It has its critics.

“It’s utter nonsense,” Dr. Gary Tobin, who released his own population survey last month, said of the figures. He is president of the Institute for Jewish and Community Research in San Francisco, which receives grants from foundations.

Dr. Tobin’s survey put the number of American Jews at 6.7 million, though with its margin of sampling error of nine percentage points, the number could be as low as 6.1 million or as high as 7.3 million. He arrived at a higher figure, Dr. Tobin said, partly by taking into account the rate of people who decline to say they are Jewish, possibly from fear of anti-Semitism.

He also contended that the United Jewish Communities survey failed to give proper weight to Jews residing on the West Coast and undercounted immigrant Jews.

Another study released last month, by the Glenmary Research Center, put the number of people who described themselves as ethnically Jewish at 6.1 million. Yesterday, the center said the figure was a yearly estimate provided by United Jewish Communities researchers, who based it on reports from Jewish communities and leaders around the country. Those researchers, though, said yesterday’s number was more accurate because it was based on a scientific survey.

Dr. Tobin said his definition of Jews included people who said they were Jewish even if they adhered to other religions (a “minute” amount, he said); those who gave no religion but said they were ethnically or culturally Jewish; and those who gave no religion but said they had been raised as Jews, had a Jewish parent or formerly practiced Judaism.

That definition was somewhat broader than that in the new survey, which included as Jews those who said they had no religion but had a Jewish parent or a Jewish upbringing, but did not include the other categories Dr. Tobin did.

United Jewish Communities officials at a news conference said yesterday that they had not seen Dr. Tobin’s research, but noted his work was on a much smaller scale than theirs.

Behind the numbers lies a debate over the best way to bolster American Judaism: whether by strengthening the faith and practice of those who already identify themselves strongly as Jews, or by reaching out to those with more tenuous links.

“The Jewish community is fairly sharply at odds with itself over the question of how far to go to bring in those on the margins,” said Dr. Egon Mayer, the director of the Center for Jewish Studies at the graduate center of the City University of New York who serves on a technical advisory panel for the survey.

The debate often plays out over mixed marriages: how much effort should go into preventing them or how much non-Jewish spouses should be involved in rituals, for example.