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.
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.