Some years back I wrote about my Uncle Morty, who left Long Island for Manhattan one day in 1959 and never returned. They found his Chevy alongside Grand Central Parkway, but no Morty. The loss was devastating.
I was recalling the incident, I wrote, not for sympathy but to note that Uncle Morty was the only Jew I’d ever known who actually vanished.
At the time, Jews everywhere were abuzz over the 1990 National Jewish Population Survey, which famously reported that America’s 5.5 million Jews were intermarrying at a rate of 52% per year. Given that only 28% of intermarried couples reported raising their children as Jews, you didn’t need higher math to see that American Jewry was headed for oblivion.
Mass hysteria ensued. Many readers thought half the Jews had already married non-Jews and left Judaism. An official of the World Jewish Congress testified in the Knesset that 52% of American Jews were assimilating each year, whatever that means.
Several social scientist friends told me the intermarriage number sounded fishy. Over the next few years I wrote a number of articles questioning it. Soon the survey’s sponsor, the Council of Jewish Federations, got very angry with me. It reached the point where I’d attend CJF’s annual General Assembly and find staffers comically fleeing when I approached, afraid to be seen with me.
In the spring of 1991, worse news: The City University of New York released a study of American religions showing just 4.3 million Jews. It turned out to be the previous year’s survey recycled. CJF’s researchers had made 125,000 phone calls, looking for Jews to interview. CUNY took the notes from those calls and published a breakdown of Americans’ religious identities. In all, 4.3 million Americans claimed their religion was Jewish. No mention of 1.2 million others who identified as Jews by “culture” or “ethnicity.”
Soon enough, 4.3 million began appearing in speeches, articles and books bemoaning Jewish disappearance. Nobody clarified that this wasn’t actually the number of Jews in America. When I called the researchers to ask why not, they said it wasn’t their problem.