It takes a special kind of courage to bring Jews good news. We are a people bred on tales of past disaster and impending doom. The very hint that things might be going well for us, that calamity isn’t lurking around the corner, seems to drive some of our brethren to the brink of distraction.
For that reason, if for no other, a debt of thanks is due to the two teams of demographic researchers that produced new findings in recent weeks, both of them showing that America’s Jewish population is not dwindling, as commonly believed, but in fact is growing steadily. The two teams, working separately, using different methods of data collection, both under the sponsorship of impeccably mainstream institutions — the American Jewish Committee and Brandeis University — have concluded that American Jews now number at least 6 million and probably far more.
The new information ought to still the alarms set off three years ago by the publication of the so-called National Jewish Population Survey 2000-2001, which purported to find a community numbering barely 5.2 million. The number was a full 300,000 lower than the 5.5 million found in a similar survey in 1990. That touched off a stampede by rabbis, educators and community planners desperate to stanch the hemorrhage. Traditionalists wagged their fingers, pointing to the losses as proof of the failures of modernity, liberalism and social integration. Opponents of Israel gloated that the numbers spelled the eventual disappearance of Jewish political influence. Israelis crowed that they were, at last, the world’s largest Jewish community.
All of it was, it now appears, based on a statistical error. Jewish numbers weren’t declining. On the contrary, they were rising. That gloomy figure from the 2001 survey can now receive the burial it deserves.
What’s oddest about this latest news is that it’s not really news. The 2001 survey shouldn’t need burying now, because it had pronounced its main finding defunct, or tried to, before it was even released. Controversy had surrounded the study’s methods from its inception. Its release was delayed until 2003 because of doubts about its reliability. The published version cautioned that 5.2 million was probably an undercount, and should not be compared with the 1990 figure of 5.5 million. An outside review, commissioned by the sponsor, United Jewish Communities, and conducted by one of the country’s top polling experts, Mark Schulman, then president of the American Association for Public Opinion Research, found the survey riddled with errors and questionable judgment calls, nearly all of them leading toward an undercount. Nothing more should have needed saying.
But it did need saying. The press and the Jewish public, dazzled by the seeming confirmation of the Jews’ disappearance, ignored the fine print and had a field day. A handful of Israeli scholars and officials, convinced they’d found final proof of the Zionist prophecy, picked up the ball and haven’t stopped running with it since then. Virtually every scholar of American Jewish population studies understood that the number was wrong, but none of them wanted to descend to the level of polemics. Consequently, the doomsayers and triumphalists had the field to themselves. Maybe now, as the scholarly field begins to speak out, the hysteria can be laid to rest.
Most right-thinking folks will find the entire controversy mildly comical, and a trifle dull. While the scholars argue, American Jews are busy living their lives, doing their jobs, celebrating with their families, saying whatever prayers they say, trying to do right and to pass their values along to their children. They don’t need experts in New York or Jerusalem to tell them who and what they are. It is they who are, in the end, the truest — the only — guarantee of Judaism’s survival and continued thriving.
If the new research finally gives those Jews the credit they deserve for the choices they make every day, then it’s worth every penny.