More Jews Mean a More Liberal Community

Good Fences

By J.J. Goldberg

Published December 29, 2010, issue of January 07, 2011.
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Well, the news is out. If you haven’t heard yet, you’ll want to be sitting down for this. A brand-new Jewish population study has just come out, courtesy of Brandeis University. Who couldn’t use another Jewish population study?

And get this: The study concludes, as the Forward reported last week, that there are more Jews in America than most of us had thought. A cool million more. Moreover, the researchers tell us, Jews in America are not declining in number, as is widely supposed. In fact, if the new study is correct, the Jewish population is actually growing at a healthy rate.

If all this sounds strangely familiar, there’s good reason. It is now routine for a new Jewish population study to come out every 10 years with a new and utterly shocking discovery about the state of American Jewry. Traditionally, each one sets off a new panic, resulting in countless emergency meetings, position papers, fiery sermons and urgent action plans. First we hear we’re planting the seeds of our own destruction. A decade later the deluge has begun. Ten years after that we’re informed that there wasn’t any flood. Just a sunshower. Whoops.

There are several reasons why all of this matters. First of all, and most obviously, there are those for whom the survival or demise of Judaism is of considerable concern. Second, it’s instructive to be reminded of the fallibility of social science research; sometimes prophecies of doom turn out to be statistical errors.

Third, it matters because of its political implications. Impending disaster brings out the conservative in all of us. The institutions of American Judaism have been on emergency footing for decades, through foul weather and fair, because of mounting alarm about vanishing American Jews. That happens to coincide with a period in which the public face of American Jewry has come to be perceived as increasingly conservative. Do the math.

The prophecies of Jewish demographic doom began in earnest in 1990 with the release of the National Jewish Population Survey, the largest-ever demographic study of American Jews, conducted by the Council of Jewish Federations. The survey turned up a vast trove of data, starting with the fact that the nation’s Jewish population totaled about 5.5 million, a very slight increase since the previous NJPS in 1970.

The biggest attention-getter of 1990, however, was the survey’s finding that 52% of all Jews who had entered marriage in the previous five years had married non-Jews. This unleashed a torrent of hysterical warnings that American Jews were on a path to disappearance.

A follow-up survey in 2000 provided what looked like the clincher. America’s Jewish population was now found to be 5.2 million, a drop of 300,000 from the 1990 total. This touched off a wave of somber reassessments. With more than half of all Jews marrying out, and barely more than a quarter of the out-married raising their children in the Jewish faith, numerical decline was inevitable.

Now comes the 2010 Brandeis edition. This study isn’t a follow-up, though. It’s a refutation of the 2000 survey. As the university’s Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies points out in its press release, the earlier survey “found that the U.S. Jewish population had declined by 300,000 during the 1990-2000 period.” Using an entirely different method of counting, this new study finds a current Jewish population of nearly 6.5 million. It turns out we’re not disappearing after all, despite all the previous evidence.

By the way, several other studies have found numbers resembling Brandeis’s 6.5 million, including a city-by-city headcount published every year in the American Jewish Year Book. They don’t get discussed very much.

Here’s what you’re not hearing: There never was any evidence of impending disappearance. It was all a series of embarrassing statistical errors. That intermarriage rate of 52%? A mistake in the 1990 survey, as the sponsors acknowledged in a barely noticed passage in the 2000 follow-up survey. In fact, several errors were made, each of which tended to inflate the intermarriage rate, resulting in the alarming-sounding “more than half.” Whoops.

And the population decline of 300,000? Poor presentation. The 2000 survey used different methods from the 1990 edition. This meant, as the survey itself stated in a little-noticed passage, that the results of the two surveys could not be compared. The 5.2 million Jews they found in 2000 did not in any way represent a decline from the 5.5 million they found in 1990. They represented different counting methods, rendered even more misleading by placing the 5.2 million figure in the headline and burying the cautionary note inside. Whoops.

To sum up: The population decline found in the 2000 survey did not confirm the warning in the 52% intermarriage rate from 1990, because both — the intermarriage rate and the subsequent decline — were fictional.

There’s a lot riding on how we hear the truth. If Jews are in decline, conservatives are ascendant and liberals are on the defensive. The threat of assimilation is commonly taken to be an indictment of the open, liberal society that Jews have championed for the past two centuries. The more Jews mingle with gentiles, the more mixed marriages will ensue, supposedly resulting in ever-decreasing numbers of children raised as Jews. To protect our sacred birthright, we must circle the wagons and fight to preserve our separateness.

Logically, the flip side should also be true: If Jews really aren’t dwindling but in fact increasing, then there’s little need for the fear and defensiveness to which we’ve grown accustomed. The Jewish institutional world can afford to be less guarded, less pessimistic about its future. Donors and budget directors can stop agonizing over communal dollars spent assisting the non-Jewish poor rather than preserving the Jewish identity of our own youngsters. The community can, in short, be more liberal if its own future seems secure.

Will our leaders and activists absorb the news and change their tone? More likely, they’ll be telling us that we need to be extra careful to avoid complacency and keep our guard up. You know what they say, when a Jew gets good news, it must be the wrong address.

Contact J.J. Goldberg at goldberg@forward.com and follow his blog at www.forward.com


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