They make up about 10% of the American Jewish community, but no one is entirely sure how many Russian-speaking Jews there are in the United States.
At a recent conference at Harvard University, the answer fluctuated from as high as 750,000 people to fewer than 500,000, depending on which expert took the podium.
Sam Kliger of the American Jewish Committee gave the high estimate of 750,000, a figure that was subsequently endorsed by Leonard Saxe, Brandeis University’s Klutznick professor of contemporary Jewish studies.
“By any account, the number of Russian-speaking Jews in the United States now probably exceeds those of Russia and Ukraine combined,” said Kliger, a sociologist who is director of Russian community affairs at AJC. “New York today is populated by more Russian Jews than any other place in the world.”
Kliger asserted that previous studies significantly underestimated America’s Russian-speaking Jewish population.
But Mark Tolts, a researcher at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, called such estimates “wishful thinking” and said there are fewer than 500,000 Russian-speaking Jews in America. Ira Sheskin, director of the Jewish Demography Project at the University of Miami’s Sue and Leonard Miller Center for Contemporary Jewish Studies, backed up that claim.
Tolts said that since 1970, only about 500,000 Jews and their relatives immigrated to America from the former Soviet Union, either directly or via Israel. There is no way the population has exploded by 50% since then, he said.
“The balance of births and deaths is negative among USA Jewry as a whole,” Tolts explained later in an email to the Forward. “Thus, my guesstimated figure of Jews originated from the FSU and their relatives for the USA is less than half a million. However, much higher inflated figures — as a kind of wishful thinking — are in circulation.”
Demographers and sociologists are largely in agreement on the number of people from the former Soviet Union — about 700,000 — who immigrated to America in the last great wave, between 1971 and 2009. They also agree that about half of that population lives in New York City, with other large communities in Boston, Chicago, San Francisco and South Florida.
But they are divided about how many of those Russian speakers should be counted as Jewish, particularly when many non-Jewish immigrants came as members of families that include Jews.
Most experts agree that there are relatively few undocumented Jewish immigrants from the former Soviet Union in the United States.
The Department of Justice does not keep data on the religious affiliation of immigrants. The Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society settled most Jews who came directly from the FSU. Mark Hetfield, HIAS senior vice president for policy and programs, said that since 1970, the agency resettled 410,000 people, mostly Jews.
The dueling numbers were in the spotlight during a three-day conference on contemporary Russian-speaking Jewry, held in November at Harvard’s Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies. About 120 academics, specialists and leaders from the Russian-speaking and American Jewish communities gathered to discuss a range of issues, from the impact FSU migration has had on host countries to how well Russian-speaking Jews are integrating into society.
Measuring the size of the Russian-speaking population is key to answering these questions, said Barry Chiswick, chair of the economics department at George Washington University.
“If you are engaging in planning for a segment of the Jewish community, you would like to know where they live and how many they are,” he said. “And if you are setting up a program to facilitate adjustment to the United States or adjustment to being actively Jewish, you want to know how many people you are talking about, so having those numbers is really important for many purposes.”
According to Sheskin, numbers are particularly important for the Russian-speaking community because it is such a large demographic group — estimates range from about 6% to 12% of American Jewry — and because it has needs that are distinct from the wider American Jewish community.
He added that Russian-speaking Jews are often dismissed as “not very Jewish.” But his studies show they are as Jewish as their American neighbors, albeit in different ways.
Sheskin said Russian-speaking Jews are more likely to be members of a Jewish community center than of a synagogue. And they are more likely to have a stronger bond to Israel than the average American Jew, possibly because many have relatives who immigrated to Israel.
“Knowing what percentage we are reaching and where they are at is important in outreach efforts,” Sheskin said.
Uzi Rebhun, professor of demography and statistics at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, agreed. An accurate picture of the Russian-speaking community is also important because of its implications for the size of the American Jewish community as a whole — itself a topic of vociferous debate. A difference of hundreds of thousands in the estimation of the Russian-speaking community adds or subtracts a significant number from the total overall American Jewish population.
Sergio DellaPergola, a professor at Hebrew University’s Avraham Harman Institute of Contemporary Jewry, recently estimated that only 300,000 Jews immigrated to America from the former Soviet Union. This figure was included in his report, “World Jewish Population, 2010,” in which DellaPergola claimed that the American Jewish population numbered fewer than 5.3 million people.
Saxe, who believes that the Russian-speaking American population is about 750,000, led a study last year that estimated the American Jewish population to be 6.5 million.
At the heart of the debate over the size of both the Russian-speaking community and the wider American Jewish community is the thorny question of who is a Jew.
Conservative estimates such as Tolts’s are based on Jewish identity according to Israel’s Law of Return, which grants citizenship to Jews and certain non-Jewish relatives, such as spouses, children and grandchildren of Jews.
Kliger has a much broader definition, which includes not just those who self-identify as Jewish, but also non-Jews who live in Jewish households or who are more distantly related to Jewish families. A Christian uncle living in a household where one parent is Jewish would be counted as “Jewish” in Kliger’s studies.
Kliger said that in surveys he conducted of FSU immigrants to America, about 70% of Russian-speaking respondents self-identify as Jewish. But most of the remaining 30% belong to a Russian-Jewish household. “In terms of attitudes and patterns of behavior they are indistinguishable from the core Jewish population,” Kliger said. “That’s why I study them together.”
Aviva Zeltzer-Zubida, director of research, evaluation and measurement at the Jewish Agency for Israel, said that such complexities make it very difficult to give a precise figure. She estimated the Russian-speaking American Jewish population at between 600,000 and 800,000.
Although it seems unlikely that demographers will ever agree on the size of the Russian-speaking Jewish population, soon they will have a chance to examine — and argue over — new statistics.
UJA-Federation of New York, which includes the country’s largest Russian-speaking community, is currently conducting a communal survey. The last such survey, taken 10 years ago, pegged New York’s Russian-speaking Jewish population at 225,000.
Kliger, who believes that the figure is closer to 350,000, said the previous study had a number of flaws. He was particularly concerned that interviewers randomly called homes, asking if members of the household were Jewish. “Back in Russia, if somebody knocks at your door and asks, ‘Are there any Jews living in your house?’ that’s a scary question,” Kliger said.
But Leonard Petlakh, a leader in the Russian-speaking community and a member of the New York Federation study committee, said that, as imperfect as the method was, “that was the best study produced at the time, and the methodology has improved.”
Petlakh said such surveys will always be imprecise. They rely on people answering the phone and agreeing to take part in a survey, which this year takes 22 minutes to complete. Petlakh said it can be particularly difficult for older participants, who make up a large proportion of the Russian-speaking population. But that is about the best for which such surveys can hope.
“Even among English speakers,” Petlakh said, “tons of people hang up.”