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Unfortunately, they picked the so-called National Jewish Population Survey 2000-01, best remembered as a multimillion-dollar botch job. Its release had been delayed two years to allow two separate reviews by outside experts. The confidential reviews were devastating. This was not a useful data point.
A critical misstep in 2000 was a decision to set aside interviewees with “weak Jewish connections” and not bother asking them detailed questions about Jewish identity. One result was a falsely upbeat picture of Jewish commitment and practice. Another was the disappearance of most Jews who claimed “no religion.” You can guess the rest.
When Pew compared its findings with NJPS 2000-01, researchers were shocked to discover a huge increase in Jews answering “none” for religion. Pew’s total in 2013 was 22%. The records from 2000 turned up 7%. Conclusion: Jews were abandoning religion.
That should have rung an alarm. Fifteen percent of a highly visible and vocal religious community, three-quarters of a million people, quietly losing their religious faith inside a decade? How could that happen?
The answer is, it didn’t. For a reality check, go back to an earlier survey, NJPS 1990, which was highly regarded in most respects. Of 5.5 million Jews it found, 20% chose “none” for religion. Given a 3% margin of error, that’s the same as 22%. There’s been no rise. None.
What has risen is the total number of Jews. Pew counted 6.3 million Jews this year. It also offers a second possible figure, 6.7 million, which includes children who are being raised Jewish “and something else.” This causes some confusion. Adults of Jewish parentage who practice Judaism “and something else” — usually Christianity, occasionally Buddhism — aren’t included in the Jewish population.
But kids — hey, you never know how they’ll turn out, right? So you can’t just write them off statistically. Experience shows that some will grow up to be Jewish.
It makes sense to use a working total somewhere in the middle, around 6.5 million. Up from 5.5 million. That’s an 18% increase in a quarter-century when America’s population grew 26%. We were supposed to be declining.