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 other big news that didn’t get reported from the 2001 survey was that it revisited the best-known factoid from the 1990 survey, that Jews were intermarrying at an annual rate of 52%, and concluded it was wrong. Scholars had begun questioning it soon after its initial release, and the noise from within the academic community eventually led to the 2001 reexamination. The combination of the two embarrassments — the repudiation of the 1990 survey’s best-known finding plus the utter mess of 2001, led to the federation body quietly dissolving its population research unit and quitting the survey business.

Yearbook 2012 also neglects to mention that the Sheskin-Dashefsky findings are matched by several other studies, all based on different basic methodologies. The city-by-city tally had appeared in the yearbook for years and kept showing increases from the year before, generally matching other surveys. Only after the 1990 intermarriage figure prompted predictions of decline did the city-by-city and national surveys start to diverge. By 2002 the gap was embarrassingly close to a million. In 2005 the yearbook dropped the city-by-city tally and went with DellaPergola’s world Jewish population charts. Shortly after, AJC quit the yearbook business.

Behind the confusion are certain new discoveries that are changing our understanding of how Jews view themselves but aren’t fully absorbed into survey methodology. For one, several studies have shown that a significant percentage of Jews — nearly 4% — deny they’re Jewish when strangers ask directly. New interview methods engage them in conversation before raising the J-word, resulting in sharply higher population figures.

Second, there’s a growing, still unmeasured tendency among children of intermarriage to identify as Jewish, perhaps because it’s fashionable in Washington and Hollywood.

Third, growing numbers identify strongly as cultural or secular Jews but non-believers. They won’t show up in a survey that asks their religion.

What difference does it all make? Plenty. Religious conservatives have a stake in proving that intermarriage threatens the Jewish future. Some political conservatives want to discredit the broader liberal agenda of full integration in an open society. For them, clinging to the old surveys is important.

DellaPergola is a different matter. He is Israel’s leading expert in Jewish demography, universally liked and respected by his peers, and is a central figure in virtually every major discussion or decision on relations with the Diaspora. Colleagues decribe his dead-end commitment to a discredited doctrine of American Jewish decline as an eccentricity, but some are beginning to express alarm over its impact. “Sergio,” Sheskin told me, “wants to be able to say that more Jews live in Israel than in America.”

Contact J.J. Goldberg at goldberg@forward.com


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