How Many American Jews Are There?

New Jewish Yearbook Takes Stab at Dueling Population Figures

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By J.J. Goldberg

Published February 18, 2013, issue of February 22, 2013.
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The first total, 6 to 6.7 million, appears in an article titled “Jewish Population in the United States, 2012,” written by the book’s editors, Ira Sheskin of the University of Miami and Arnold Dashefsky of the University of Connecticut. They reached their figures, they explain, through a mixture of methods, mainly combining local surveys from scores of communities around the country, along with informed estimates by local leaders in hundreds of other communities, plus some U.S. Census information. Their article includes charts and maps showing Jewish population by state, region and in each of some 900 communities around the country.

They note that their total is much higher — by 1.5 million — than the widely publicized 5.2 million total published in the 2001 National Jewish Population Survey, conducted by what’s now called the Jewish Federations of North America. To understand the gap, they refer readers to an article in the 2006 American Jewish Year Book by the respected Israeli demographer Sergio DellaPergola.

The second figure, 5.425 million, appears in the new book’s next article, “World Jewish Population, 2012,” by the same Sergio DellaPergola. He explains that his total for the United States, part of a worldwide total of 13.7 million, is based on that 5.2 million figure from 2001, corrected for known errors and then adjusted for a decade of births, intermarriages and more.

He notes that the 2001 total was lower than the 5.5 million found in a 1990 population survey. That means Jewish numbers are declining. He cites several other national surveys with similar results. Studies with higher estimates, including Sheskin-Dashefsky and an innovative Brandeis University study, are “implausible,” “unreliable” and “not tenable.”

Here’s what neither article tells you. First, the 2001 population survey was a fiasco. It was conducted in 2000 but not released until 2002, following a series of inside and outside investigations into its known problems. These included lost data and flawed questionnaires.

The outside investigation, by the head of the prestigious American Association for Public Opinion Research, found at least two dozen serious methodological errors, most of them pointing toward an undercount. The published survey said the actual total was probably closer to 5.8 million. It also noted that its methods were different from those used in 1990, and therefore no comparison was possible — meaning no decline should be read into it.

The headlines, of course, all talked about 5.2 million Jews, down from 5.5 million a decade earlier. Nobody read the fine print.


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