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!
  • A new Gallup poll shows that only 25% of Americans under 35 support the war in #Gaza. Does this statistic worry you?
  • “You will stomp us into the dirt,” is how her mother responded to Anya Ulinich’s new tragicomic graphic novel. Paul Berger has a more open view of ‘Lena Finkle’s Magic Barrel." What do you think?
  • PHOTOS: Hundreds of protesters marched through lower Manhattan yesterday demanding an end to American support for Israel’s operation in #Gaza.
  • Does #Hamas have to lose for there to be peace? Read the latest analysis by J.J. Goldberg.
  • This is what the rockets over Israel and Gaza look like from space:
  • "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?"
  • 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.