How Many Russian Speakers Are in U.S.?

Experts Spar Over Numbers — And Ponder Who Is a Jew

But How Many? Russian shop signs are commonplace in Brighton Beach, Brooklyn, which is the epicenter of recent immigration from the former Soviet Union. Demographers are split on exactly how many of the newcomers should be classified as Jews.
getty images
But How Many? Russian shop signs are commonplace in Brighton Beach, Brooklyn, which is the epicenter of recent immigration from the former Soviet Union. Demographers are split on exactly how many of the newcomers should be classified as Jews.

By Paul Berger

Published November 25, 2011, issue of December 02, 2011.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Single Page

They make up about 10% of the American Jewish community, but no one is entirely sure how many Russian-speaking Jews there are in the United States.

At a recent conference at Harvard University, the answer fluctuated from as high as 750,000 people to fewer than 500,000, depending on which expert took the podium.

Sam Kliger of the American Jewish Committee gave the high estimate of 750,000, a figure that was subsequently endorsed by Leonard Saxe, Brandeis University’s Klutznick professor of contemporary Jewish studies.

“By any account, the number of Russian-speaking Jews in the United States now probably exceeds those of Russia and Ukraine combined,” said Kliger, a sociologist who is director of Russian community affairs at AJC. “New York today is populated by more Russian Jews than any other place in the world.”

Kliger asserted that previous studies significantly underestimated America’s Russian-speaking Jewish population.

But Mark Tolts, a researcher at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, called such estimates “wishful thinking” and said there are fewer than 500,000 Russian-speaking Jews in America. Ira Sheskin, director of the Jewish Demography Project at the University of Miami’s Sue and Leonard Miller Center for Contemporary Jewish Studies, backed up that claim.

Migration: Since 1970, about 700,000 people immigrated to the U.S. from the FSU. Only about 410,000 were resettled by HIAS.
Source: U.S. Dept. of Justice and U.S. Dept. of Homeland Security, From a paper presented by Barry Chiswick, George Washington University and HIAS.
Migration: Since 1970, about 700,000 people immigrated to the U.S. from the FSU. Only about 410,000 were resettled by HIAS.

Tolts said that since 1970, only about 500,000 Jews and their relatives immigrated to America from the former Soviet Union, either directly or via Israel. There is no way the population has exploded by 50% since then, he said.

“The balance of births and deaths is negative among USA Jewry as a whole,” Tolts explained later in an email to the Forward. “Thus, my guesstimated figure of Jews originated from the FSU and their relatives for the USA is less than half a million. However, much higher inflated figures — as a kind of wishful thinking — are in circulation.”

Demographers and sociologists are largely in agreement on the number of people from the former Soviet Union — about 700,000 — who immigrated to America in the last great wave, between 1971 and 2009. They also agree that about half of that population lives in New York City, with other large communities in Boston, Chicago, San Francisco and South Florida.

But they are divided about how many of those Russian speakers should be counted as Jewish, particularly when many non-Jewish immigrants came as members of families that include Jews.

Most experts agree that there are relatively few undocumented Jewish immigrants from the former Soviet Union in the United States.


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!
  • 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?
  • Former Israeli National Security Advisor Yaakov Amidror: “A cease-fire will mean that anytime Hamas wants to fight it can. Occupation of Gaza will bring longer-term quiet, but the price will be very high.” What do you think?
  • Should couples sign a pre-pregnancy contract, outlining how caring for the infant will be equally divided between the two parties involved? Just think of it as a ketubah for expectant parents:
  • Many #Israelis can't make it to bomb shelters in time. One of them is Amos Oz.
  • According to Israeli professor Mordechai Kedar, “the only thing that can deter terrorists, like those who kidnapped the children and killed them, is the knowledge that their sister or their mother will be raped."
  • Why does ultra-Orthodox group Agudath Israel of America receive its largest donation from the majority owners of Walmart? Find out here: http://jd.fo/q4XfI
  • Woody Allen on the situation in #Gaza: It's “a terrible, tragic thing. Innocent lives are lost left and right, and it’s a horrible situation that eventually has to right itself.”
  • "Mark your calendars: It was on Sunday, July 20, that the momentum turned against Israel." J.J. Goldberg's latest analysis on Israel's ground operation in Gaza:
  • What do you think?
  • "To everyone who is reading this article and saying, “Yes, but… Hamas,” I would ask you to just stop with the “buts.” Take a single moment and allow yourself to feel this tremendous loss. Lay down your arms and grieve for the children of Gaza."
  • Professor Dan Markel, 41 years old, was found shot and killed in his Tallahassee home on Friday. Jay Michaelson can't explain the death, just grieve for it.
  • Employees complained that the food they received to end the daily fast during the holy month of Ramadan was not enough (no non-kosher food is allowed in the plant). The next day, they were dismissed.
  • Why are peace activists getting beat up in Tel Aviv? http://jd.fo/s4YsG
  • Backstreet's...not back.
  • 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.