Stop Worrying: Details Follow

Published December 22, 2006, issue of December 22, 2006.
  • Print
  • Share Share

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.






Find us on Facebook!
  • When is a legume not necessarily a legume? Philologos has the answer.
  • "Sometime in my childhood, I realized that the Exodus wasn’t as remote or as faceless as I thought it was, because I knew a former slave. His name was Hersh Nemes, and he was my grandfather." Share this moving Passover essay!
  • Getting ready for Seder? Chag Sameach! http://jd.fo/q3LO2
  • "We are not so far removed from the tragedies of the past, and as Jews sit down to the Seder meal, this event is a teachable moment of how the hatred of Jews-as-Other is still alive and well. It is not realistic to be complacent."
  • Aperitif Cocktail, Tequila Shot, Tom Collins or Vodka Soda — Which son do you relate to?
  • Elvis craved bacon on tour. Michael Jackson craved matzo ball soup. We've got the recipe.
  • This is the face of hatred.
  • What could be wrong with a bunch of guys kicking back with a steak and a couple of beers and talking about the Seder? Try everything. #ManSeder
  • BREAKING: Smirking killer singled out Jews for death in suburban Kansas City rampage. 3 die in bloody rampage at JCC and retirement home.
  • Real exodus? For Mimi Minsky, it's screaming kids and demanding hubby on way down to Miami, not matzo in the desert.
  • The real heroines of Passover prep aren't even Jewish. But the holiday couldn't happen without them.
  • Is Handel’s ‘Messiah’ an anti-Semitic screed?
  • Meet the Master of the Matzo Ball.
  • Pierre Dulaine wants to do in his hometown of Jaffa what he did for kids in Manhattan: teach them to dance.
  • "The first time I met Mick Jagger, I said, 'Those are the tackiest shoes I’ve ever seen.'” Jewish music journalist Lisa Robinson remembers the glory days of rock in her new book, "There Goes Gravity."
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.