New Study Finds More Jews in the United States Than Previously Thought

Leonard Saxe and Researchers at Brandeis Use Breakthrough Method To Count Jews, Arriving at 6.5 Million

By Gal Beckerman

Published December 22, 2010, issue of December 31, 2010.
  • Print
  • Share Share

There are more Jews in the United States than widely thought — 20 percent more.

That’s the major finding in a new study conducted by the Steinhardt Social Research Institute at Brandeis University, which says that there are now 6.5 million Jews in America, 1 million more than the last time a major count was attempted.

Research: Leonard Saxe is a
leading Jewish demographer.
Courtesy of Leonard Saxe
Research: Leonard Saxe is a leading Jewish demographer.

The findings are a rebuke to the most recent National Jewish Population Survey, conducted in 2000-2001, which indicated a negative trend line for the Jewish population, with a loss of nearly 300,000 Jews during the previous decade.

Leonard Saxe, the Klutznick professor of contemporary Jewish Studies at Brandeis and the lead researcher of the recent study, had criticized the 2000-2001 survey, saying it failed to capture a true picture of Jewish demography due to a variety of methodological errors and that it served as what Saxe called a “self-fulfilling prophecy” for a community primed to believe that its numbers were in decline.

Saxe set out to offer what he believes is a more accurate picture. Because the Jewish Federations of North America had decided not to fund another large-scale National Jewish Population Survey for 2010, Saxe searched for cheaper alternatives that would not involve mounting a multi-million-dollar Jewish head count.

Saxe and his Brandeis researchers gathered more than 150 nationwide surveys conducted by government agencies and national polling organizations over the past decade that asked about religious identity, and then synthesized the data. After reconciling the various surveys so their findings could be grouped together, Saxe’s team drew on the responses of 400,000 people to arrive at his estimate for the Jewish population.

Saxe presented the findings at this year’s Association for Jewish Studies conference in Boston in mid-December.

“This is really a brilliant step forward,” said Bethamie Horowitz, a socio-psychologist and researcher at New York University. “No one study is the perfect measure but if you have many studies, you can get an increasingly accurate range in which the estimate falls.”

Horowitz also said that the study met with the approval of demographers outside the field of those studying Jewish population and was seen to be “scientifically on very solid ground.”

Another part of Saxe’s study tried to deal with the question of what constitutes Jewish identity. The shifting definition of what being Jewish means makes counting Jews difficult. While some see Jewishness as a religious identity, others see it as a cultural or ethnic designation and might, for example, not answer “Jewish” to a researcher inquiring about their religion.

Saxe hired a polling firm, Knowledge Network, which questioned a sample of 1,400 Jews. Using this data, researchers concluded that of their estimated 6.5 million Jews, 5.5 million see themselves as Jews “by religion,” while 1 million more call themselves Jews for other reasons.

Saxe’s results present a paradox. While the findings show a higher number of Jews than previously thought, Saxe found that engagement in Jewish life has decreased. Even among those who identify as Jewish “by religion,” he found a majority do not belong to synagogues, do not participate in Jewish life cycle events or have not visited Israel — all indicators, according to Saxe, of engagement in the Jewish community.

“It’s as if there are more people willing to call themselves Red Sox fans, but fewer people actually attending the games,” Saxe said.

Saxe believes the Jewish community can draw a lesson from the new research.

“We have to stop worrying about whether the community will exist,” Saxe said. “Instead we should worry about the content, about how we make communal life meaningful for the many Jews who are out there.”

Contact Gal Beckerman at beckerman@forward.com or on Twitter @galbeckerman


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • Slate.com's Allison Benedikt wrote that Taglit-Birthright Israel is partly to blame for the death of American IDF volunteer Max Steinberg. This is why she's wrong:
  • Israeli soldiers want you to buy them socks. And snacks. And backpacks. And underwear. And pizza. So claim dozens of fundraising campaigns launched by American Jewish and Israeli charities since the start of the current wave of crisis and conflict in Israel and Gaza.
  • The sign reads: “Dogs are allowed in this establishment but Zionists are not under any circumstances.”
  • Is Twitter Israel's new worst enemy?
  • More than 50 former Israeli soldiers have refused to serve in the current ground operation in #Gaza.
  • "My wife and I are both half-Jewish. Both of us very much felt and feel American first and Jewish second. We are currently debating whether we should send our daughter to a Jewish pre-K and kindergarten program or to a public one. Pros? Give her a Jewish community and identity that she could build on throughout her life. Cons? Costs a lot of money; She will enter school with the idea that being Jewish makes her different somehow instead of something that you do after or in addition to regular school. Maybe a Shabbat sing-along would be enough?"
  • Undeterred by the conflict, 24 Jews participated in the first ever Jewish National Fund— JDate singles trip to Israel. Translation: Jews age 30 to 45 travelled to Israel to get it on in the sun, with a side of hummus.
  • "It pains and shocks me to say this, but here goes: My father was right all along. He always told me, as I spouted liberal talking points at the Shabbos table and challenged his hawkish views on Israel and the Palestinians to his unending chagrin, that I would one day change my tune." Have you had a similar experience?
  • "'What’s this, mommy?' she asked, while pulling at the purple sleeve to unwrap this mysterious little gift mom keeps hidden in the inside pocket of her bag. Oh boy, how do I answer?"
  • "I fear that we are witnessing the end of politics in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I see no possibility for resolution right now. I look into the future and see only a void." What do you think?
  • Not a gazillionaire? Take the "poor door."
  • "We will do what we must to protect our people. We have that right. We are not less deserving of life and quiet than anyone else. No more apologies."
  • "Woody Allen should have quit while he was ahead." Ezra Glinter's review of "Magic in the Moonlight": http://jd.fo/f4Q1Q
  • Jon Stewart responds to his critics: “Look, obviously there are many strong opinions on this. But just merely mentioning Israel or questioning in any way the effectiveness or humanity of Israel’s policies is not the same thing as being pro-Hamas.”
  • "My bat mitzvah party took place in our living room. There were only a few Jewish kids there, and only one from my Sunday school class. She sat in the corner, wearing the right clothes, asking her mom when they could go." The latest in our Promised Lands series — what state should we visit next?
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.