More Jews Mean a More Liberal Community

Good Fences

By J.J. Goldberg

Published December 29, 2010, issue of January 07, 2011.
  • Print
  • Share Share

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


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!
  • "Israel should not let captives languish or corpses rot. It should do everything in its power to recover people and bodies. Jewish law places a premium on pidyon shvuyim, “the redemption of captives,” and proper burial. But not when the price will lead to more death and more kidnappings." Do you agree?
  • 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.”
  • 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.