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!
  • When YA romance becomes "Hasidsploitation":
  • "I am wrapping up the summer with a beach vacation with my non-Jewish in-laws. They’re good people and real leftists who try to live the values they preach. This was a quality I admired, until the latest war in Gaza. Now they are adamant that American Jews need to take more responsibility for the deaths in Gaza. They are educated people who understand the political complexity, but I don’t think they get the emotional complexity of being an American Jew who is capable of criticizing Israel but still feels a deep connection to it. How can I get this across to them?"
  • “'I made a new friend,' my son told his grandfather later that day. 'I don’t know her name, but she was very nice. We met on the bus.' Welcome to Israel."
  • A Jewish female sword swallower. It's as cool as it sounds (and looks)!
  • Why did David Menachem Gordon join the IDF? In his own words: "The Israel Defense Forces is an army that fights for her nation’s survival and the absence of its warriors equals destruction from numerous regional foes. America is not quite under the threat of total annihilation… Simply put, I felt I was needed more in Israel than in the United States."
  • Leonard Fein's most enduring legacy may be his rejection of dualism: the idea that Jews must choose between assertiveness and compassion, between tribalism and universalism. Steven M. Cohen remembers a great Jewish progressive:
  • BREAKING: Missing lone soldier David Menachem Gordon has been found dead in central Israel. The Ohio native was 21 years old.
  • “They think they can slap on an Amish hat and a long black robe, and they’ve created a Hasid." What do you think of Hollywood's portrayal of Hasidic Jews?
  • “I’ve been doing this since I was a teenager. I didn’t think I would have to do it when I was 90.” Hedy Epstein fled Nazi Germany in 1933 on a Kinderstransport.
  • "A few decades ago, it would have been easy to add Jews to that list of disempowered victims. I could throw in Leo Frank, the victim of mob justice; or otherwise privileged Jewish men denied entrance to elite universities. These days, however, we have to search a lot harder." Are you worried about what's going in on #Ferguson?
  • Will you accept the challenge?
  • In the six years since Dothan launched its relocation program, 8 families have made the jump — but will they stay? We went there to find out:
  • "Jewish Israelis and West Bank Palestinians are witnessing — and living — two very different wars." Naomi Zeveloff's first on-the-ground dispatch from Israel:
  • This deserves a whistle: Lauren Bacall's stylish wardrobe is getting its own museum exhibit at Fashion Institute of Technology.
  • How do you make people laugh when they're fighting on the front lines or ducking bombs?
  • 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.