Counting Jews

Be’chol Lashon educates the public and policymakers through ongoing publication of books, monographs, journal articles and reports.

Who is a Jew?

Counting Jews requires decisions about who is being counted, a direct function of whom we define as a Jew: biology, self-identity, or behavior. Biological Jews are individuals with a Jewish parent versus those Jews who practice Judaism, with or without having a Jewish mother or father. According to Reform Judaism and the patrilineal descent of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, a Jewish father can define a Jew. According to Orthodox and Conservative Judaism and the tradition of hundreds of years, only a Jewish mother defines a Jew. Demographic surveys usually do not ask about grandparents, although Israel‘s law of return includes grandparent lineage.

Self-identity is how individuals think of who they are. Some people think of themselves as Jews regardless of their parents‘ religion. They may have Jewish heritage or Jewish peer groups.

Behavior is what people do. Behavioral Jews practice Judaism and live as Jews, with or without biological origins. This includes people who go to synagogue weekly, observe kashrut, and otherwise meet tests of behavioral Judaism.

If their parents were not Jewish or they did not formally convert to Judaism, we usually exclude them in our counts.

How Many Jews Are in the World Today?

Scholars have only a rough idea about how many Jews there are in the world today. Current sources report between 13,500,000 and 15,500,000, a variance of about 15%, as defined within very limited boundaries. The real number is probably much higher. Both locating Jews and convincing them to reveal their religious identity complicates and compromises our ability to estimate the number of Jews. These factors result in undercounting Jews around the world. If we consider all the issues that plague counting the Jewish populations around the world, we are probably missing millions of Jews in our official counts.

The snapshot of the worldwide geographic distribution of Jews today is dramatically different from what it was prior to World War II. Before the Holocaust, Europe was the center of the world‘s Jewish population, with relatively large populations also spread throughout North America, North Africa, and the Middle East. In spite of discrimination and harassment in the 19th and early 20th centuries, the world Jewish population showed a steady growth from 2.5 million in 1800 to 11 million in 1900. This growth continued from 1900 to 1938. Prior to the Holocaust that 11 million grew to 16.6 million. The majority of Jews continued to live in Europe with 9.5 million in 1938. North and South America had 5.5 million Jews. The number of Jews in Asia grew from 500,000 to one million between 1900 and 1938.

After much of European Jewry was murdered, almost one million Jews living in Muslim countries were forcibly expelled. They migrated to Israel, France and North America, resulting in two major population centers in the United States and Israel. Today, the United States and Israel together comprise about 75% of the total world‘s Jewish population.

Relatively low birth rates and some Jews leaving Judaism have resulted in a stagnant population today. Population loss and decline in most individual Jewish communities around the world is largely the result of migrations from one place to another overall stasis has developed. The Jewish population of the United States, for example, would be considerably smaller if not for the influx of Jews from the former Soviet Union, Iran, and elsewhere over the last 30 years. Similarly, much of the population growth in Germany has resulted from migration from the former Soviet Union, France from migrations from Northern Africa, and Israel from Jews all over the world.

At this point, there is a zero sum game of Jewish populations around the world exchanging populations. Destinations include a few select countries, primarily, the United States, Germany, France, Canada, and Australia. Aliyah to Israel continues, with growing numbers from North America, France, and from the former Soviet Union.

The Table of World Jewish Populations compiles data from three different sources: The World Jewish Congress, The American Jewish Yearbook, and Wikipedia. It provides an overview of the major Jewish communities around the world, but also exposes the limitations of collecting population data about Jews. For example, some countries are listed with “0” population, either because the source has no information or the researchers believe there are no Jews living there.

The World Jewish Congress reports that there are 25,000 Jews in Austria and The American Jewish Yearbook published by The American Jewish Committee estimates that there are 103,000, and Wikipedia 8,184, a variance of 1200%. Wikipedia claims there are 717,101 Jews in Russia, American Jewish Congress reports 450,000 and The American Jewish Yearbook lists 228,000, a variance more than 300%. The high and low estimates are all almost random.

These widely used sources that show the Jewish population estimates, country-by-country, do not agree on the size of some of the world‘s largest Jewish populations. None of these compilations is particularly more reliable than the other, and often draw their information from the same unscientific local sources. The data on Israel are the most accurate. Others, including the United States, France and the former Soviet Union are more problematic.

The largest Jewish population lives in the United States—somewhere between 6 and 7 million as estimated by the Institute for Jewish & Community Research in 2002. Over 5 million Jews live in Israel. France has somewhere between 600,000 and 750,000. Large Jewish populations can also be found in Russia, Great Britain, and Argentina.

As they have for thousands of years, Jews keep moving from place-to-place, country-to-country. A map of the geographic distribution of world Jewry is a snapshot in time, and twenty years later may look different again. What will the Jewish map look like in 2025? Will Jews be on the move again, and where?

The Demographic Study of Jews is Difficult

Scholars, community leaders, and the public-at-large often inquire about the size, make-up, and location of the diverse Jewish population. There are methodological, definitional, ideological and political reasons why we do not have accurate counts of Jews around the world. Some of these factors apply to specific countries and some apply to overall efforts to count Jews. Some are unique to Jewish demography, and some are more universal issues affecting any census, specifically, or counting racial, ethnic, or religious groups. The demographic study of Jews is difficult for a variety of reasons.

Some countries do not survey religion

Some countries, like the United States, do not ask about religion in their census counts of the population. A number of interest groups (especially many Jewish organizations) are concerned about the separation of church and state, and do not want the government inquiring about religion. Therefore, we rely on a variety of surveys to try to estimate the Jewish population, including the number of diverse Jews. Many are unreliable.

Some Jewish communities are highly dispersed

Even in communities with significant Jewish populations, people are more likely to be scattered among the general population than in previous generations. Jews in the United States also live in the suburban fringes of many metropolitan areas, far from any Jewish population center, making them difficult to locate. Finding Jews to respond to surveys outside major metropolitan areas is an even more needle-in-a-haystack endeavor.

Some Jews do not want to be found

Some Jews may hide their identity or background from survey takers or a government census. The Institute for Jewish & Community Research conducted methodological tests that confirm that there are many Jews that refuse to reveal their identity. We took known lists of Jews and asked them about their religion and found that many denied that they were Jewish. Some groups of Jews are more reluctant than others to reveal their religious identity. This includes those who tend to mistrust governments; those who have been victims of persecution; those who reject their religious identity; and those who think of themselves as ethnic Jews rather than religious Jews.

Many people do not know their Jewish heritage

Finding Jews in the United States is a simple task when compared to finding individuals and groups with Jewish ancestry in some countries around the world. The sophisticated methods of survey research do not apply, and written records sometimes do not exist in some communities. Oral traditions or ritual practice are the indicators of Jewish roots and help find some people. Others do not know about their religious origins, especially those descended from ancient, but now assimilated Jewish communities. For example, many descendents of Spanish and Portuguese Jews have no idea about their Jewish ancestry.

We do not look for some Jews

Some of the problems in counting Jews result from where we look and for whom we look when we do surveys. Some of these issues cause minor shifts in the total numbers, and others can cause huge differences. Some communities, such as the Lemba of South Africa and the Ibo of Nigeria are omitted entirely. For example, when we count Jews in South Africa, we traditionally count Jewish descendants from Europeans who settled there. We do not look for and count the Lemba, an indigenous people who have practiced Judaism for centuries. Nor do we look in Uganda for black African Jews where the Abayudaya practice Judaism. Many of the official counts in most of sub- Saharan Africa, are of non-indigenous populations only, a strong statement about who is a Jew and who is not.

Counting Jews of Color in the United States

The Changing Nature of Jewish Identity

Americans are increasingly characterized by switching their religions, mixed religious marriages, “recombined” religions and inter-racial marriage. The Jewish community, including Jews of color, are part of these national phenomena. The Jewish community is often too quick to reject Jews who are on these paths and journeys, looking to who is “in” and “out,” rather than where individuals are on a continuum. Like many others in all religious groups across the American spectrum, many Jews of color are on their own spiritual and religious paths, sometimes resulting in conversion after living as a Jew for many years. Some may bring with them religious practices from their former religion until identity transformation to being Jewish is complete. Furthermore, conventional wisdom about race and religion do not necessarily apply (i.e., “Asians are Buddhist” or “Blacks are Christian”). The images of Jews are similarly inaccurate.

All of these issues are pressed even harder upon ethnically and racially diverse Jews. In the same way that Jews of color are a microcosm of the ways that Jewish organizations and institutions alienate many Jews, so is this population a microcosm for the “who is a Jew” issue. The constant questioning of the legitimacy of others now characterizes much of the rhetoric and behavior of the Jewish community. Has someone converted properly? When a child is adopted, are all the rituals followed? What is the nature of someone‘s lineage? Is the mother “really” Jewish? Halakah is important and so are standards. But the Jewish community has different and evolving standards. Are they applied uniformly and fairly?

We estimate at least 20% of the Jewish population is racially and ethnically diverse, including African, African American, Latino (Hispanic), Asian, Native American, Sephardic, Mizrahi and mixed-race Jews by heritage, adoption, and marriage. Calculating this number is challenging and requires examining a number of different sources.

First, according to the 2002 Institute for Jewish & Community Research study and the 2000 NJPS study, a little over 7% of America’s 6 million Jews say that they are African American, Asian, Latino/Hispanic, or Native American or mixed-race, for a total of about 435,000 individuals. This includes 85,000 who say that they are some race other than white but do not classify themselves more specifically. Second, the NJPS 2000 found 120,000 Jewish adults living in the United States who were born in Latin America, the Middle East, Asia, and the Caribbean (not including Israel). We estimate that over half of this foreign-born population (not including children) is comprised of diverse Jews, adding another 65,000.

Third, the number of Israelis living in the United States is under great dispute, including those of diverse backgrounds. For example, the NJPS found only 70,000-93,000 Israelis living in the United States, while the most recent New York demographic study showed about 50,000 Israelis in New York alone. The U.S. Census reports almost 200,000 people who speak Hebrew at home. A 2003 study by the Israeli Foreign Ministry showed almost a half million (500,000) Israelis living in the U.S.

Therefore, based on the U.S. Census, we are conservatively estimating the total number of Israelis in the United States at 200,000. Because approximately half of the population in Israel is of Mizrahi, Sephardic, and African heritage (before the migration from the former Soviet Union), it stands to reason that about 50% of Israelis in the United States could be Mizrahi, Sephardic, or African Jews (who are not included in the other categories listed). Therefore, we conservatively estimate that 100,000 Israelis living in the United States are of diverse backgrounds, or 1.7% of American Jews. This brings the total to 600,000 diverse Jews, or about 10% of the population.

Fourth, a question regarding Sephardic heritage was not asked in the 2000 NJPS, although the 1990 National Jewish Population Study showed that 8% of American Jews said they were Sephardic. Is the real percentage 10%? More? We do not know, other than to surmise it is considerably higher than is reported.

The number of Jews with some Sephardic heritage is likely to be grossly underestimated in many Jewish surveys, including the NJPS. Sephardic heritage is especially apt to be lost in individuals’ self-reporting. Many people do not know about their Sephardic background, especially given the propensity of different groups of Jews to intermarry over generations throughout the Diaspora. Taking into consideration all these factors, we are conservatively estimating 10% of the United States population has some Sephardic heritage, in addition to those who say their race is Latino/Hispanic. We have taken into account potential overlap in this reporting and adjusted our estimate accordingly.

Adding 600,000 Sephardic Jews or 10% of the Jewish population together with 600,000 or 10% of Black, Asian, Latino and mixed-race Jews means 1.2 million or 20% of the Jewish population in the United States is diverse. This includes individuals who have converted to Judaism, individuals who have been adopted into Jewish families and raised as Jews, the multiracial children of partnerships between Ashkenazi Jews and people of color, and those who are themselves the generational descendants of Jews of color and those of Sephardic and Mizrahi heritage.

The Lost Tribes of Israel

Some Jewish communities around the world have ancient Jewish heritage and consider themselves descendants of the “Lost Tribes” of Israel. Around 926 B.C.E., the kingdom of Israel split in two. Previously, all twelve tribes of Israel had been united under the monarchies of Saul, David, and Solomon. But when Solomon’s son Rehoboam ascended to the throne, the ten northern tribes rebelled and seceded from the union. This left only two tribes—Judah and Benjamin—under the control of the king in Jerusalem. From that time on, the tribes were divided into two nations, which came to be called the House of Israel (the ten northern tribes) and the House of Judah (the two southern tribes).

When the Assyrians conquered the House of Israel around 722 B.C.E., they deported the native populations to other places throughout the Assyrian kingdom. Many Israelites made their way across the Silk Road ending up in Asia and Africa, where they intermarried with the peoples among whom they settled. They eventually abandoned their distinct identity, and their culture was lost to history. These are the groups who are referred to as the “Lost Tribes” of Israel.

More rigorous scholarship about Jewish migration in Africa and Asia is needed, and such studies are being designed by the Center for Afro-Jewish Studies at Temple University:

There are quite a number of peoples today who cling to the ancient tradition that they are descended from the Jewish Lost Tribes: the tribesmen of Afghanistan, the Mohammedan Berbers of West Africa, and the six million Christian Igbo people of Nigeria. Unquestionably, they all practice certain ancient Hebraic customs and beliefs, which lends some credibility to their fantastic-sounding claims.

According to conversion advocate Lawrence Epstein, Rabbi Avichail distinguishes between the conversions that occur for members of the Lost Tribes and the conversions of gentiles:

Normally, potential converts are turned away and told to return after a period of time so that the prospective Jew can offer convincing evidence of sincerity. For Marranos [pejorative term for Anusim] and remnants of the Lost Tribes, who presumably have remnants of a Jewish soul, however, Rabbi Avichail believes no such discouragement is called for. In fact, for the rabbi, the formal act of conversion is simply “to bring back people with a Jewish past,” and is not a typical conversion.