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!
  • "Selma. Nearly 50 years ago it was violent Selma, impossibly racist Selma, site of Bloody Sunday, when peaceful civil rights marchers made their first attempt to cross the Pettus Street Bridge on the way to the state capitol in Montgomery, Alabama." http://jd.fo/r50mf With the 50th anniversary approaching next spring, a new coalition is bringing together blacks, Jews and others for progressive change.
  • Kosovo's centuries-old Jewish community is down to a few dozen. In a nation where the population is 90% Muslim, they are proud their past — and wonder why Israel won't recognize their state. http://jd.fo/h4wK0
  • Israelis are taking up the #IceBucketChallenge — with hummus.
  • In WWI, Jews fought for Britain. So why were they treated as outsiders?
  • According to a new poll, 75% of Israeli Jews oppose intermarriage.
  • Will Lubavitcher Rabbi Moshe Wiener be the next Met Council CEO?
  • Angelina Jolie changed everything — but not just for the better:
  • Prime Suspect? Prime Minister.
  • Move over Dr. Ruth — there’s a (not-so) new sassy Jewish sex-therapist in town. Her name is Shirley Zussman — and just turned 100 years old.
  • From kosher wine to Ecstasy, presenting some of our best bootlegs:
  • Sara Kramer is not the first New Yorker to feel the alluring pull of the West Coast — but she might be the first heading there with Turkish Urfa pepper and za’atar in her suitcase.
  • About 1 in 40 American Jews will get pancreatic cancer (Ruth Bader Ginsberg is one of the few survivors).
  • At which grade level should classroom discussions include topics like the death of civilians kidnapping of young Israelis and sirens warning of incoming rockets?
  • Wanted: Met Council CEO.
  • “Look, on the one hand, I understand him,” says Rivka Ben-Pazi, a niece of Elchanan Hameiri, the boy that Henk Zanoli saved. “He had a family tragedy.” But on the other hand, she said, “I think he was wrong.” What do you think?
  • 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.