Two major new demographic studies estimate the American Jewish population at well above 6 million people, indicating a growing Jewish community that contrasts sharply with popular images of Jewish decline. In particular, scholars say, the new studies appear to refute a widely publicized survey conducted in 2001, which counted 5.2 million American Jews and sparked widespread anxiety over American Jewry’s future.
The most clear-cut refutation of the earlier figure comes in the newly published American Jewish Year Book, published by the American Jewish Committee, which sets the American Jewish population at 6.4 million. A separate study, being conducted by a new Jewish demographic institute at Brandeis University, is not yet complete, but the head of the institute told the Forward that the final estimate will likely be between 6 million and 8 million.
The earlier figure, 5.2 million, has been criticized by many American demographers as too low since it appeared. Nonetheless, it has gained traction in public discussion and has been cited by Israeli officials as confirmation of Israel’s central role in world Jewry. Earlier this year, a quasi-governmental Israeli think tank used the 2001 number in a report announcing that Israel had more Jews than America and was the world’s largest Jewish community for the first time in over 2,000 years. Until now many American demographers have hesitated to challenge the 2001 figures publicly because there was no good alternative. Now, however, the public consensus appears to be shifting.
“The buzz among social scientists — on the e-mails and over the coffee tables — has been, ‘We all know the number is higher,’” said sociologist Steven M. Cohen, who helped oversee the release of the 2001 National Jewish Population Survey. “We just don’t know exactly how much higher. This is the first post-NJPS effort to come out.”
The focus of the current debate is a matter of decimal points, but the stakes are higher: The verdict will have an impact both on communal policy-making and on the self-image of Jewish communities worldwide. The new numbers have not stilled the debate.
Israel’s most prominent demographer, Sergio Della Pergola, has stuck to the lower American figures, almost alone among prominent researchers. The new American Jewish Year Book allows for a continuing debate. Several hundred pages after the chapter announcing the 6.4 million figure, the book offers a chapter by Della Pergola on world Jewish population in which he offers and defends an estimate of 5.275 million American Jews.
The executive editor of the American Jewish Year Book, Lawrence Grossman, acknowledged that Della Pergola is now mostly alone in touting the lower figure. But, he said, Della Pergola is too respected a scholar to be ignored.
“The prestige of Della Pergola is such that he is not just one guy out there,” said Grossman, who edits the annual reference book for the American Jewish Committee. “I think that the Year Book does a service to its readers to indicate that this issue is not black and white.”
The debate over the last five years has turned the button-down world of demography into an unlikely arena of public recriminations. The hubbub began in 2000 when the central body of American Jewish federated charities, the United Jewish Communities, prepared to release a National Jewish Population Survey, the first since 1990. Months before publication, social scientists began to argue that the study used flawed methodology that would yield a population undercount.
The debate led to staff changes and a yearlong delay in publication, as consultants were brought on for last-minute damage control. While the survey, finally published in 2003, gave a population total of 5.2 million American Jews — 300,000 fewer than in the 1990 survey — the study warned in footnotes that the new figure was probably too low and should not be compared with the 1990 figure. Further criticism came in a review — conducted by outside experts commissioned by UJC — that found numerous flaws, all suggesting an undercount, as well as on the editorial page of the Forward.
The controversy has had a marked impact on public discussion of the Jewish population. During the 1990s, UJC had been responsible for preparing the chapter on American Jewish population in the American Jewish Year Book. This was done by totaling local community studies. After 2001, this method yielded a figure nearly 1 million higher than the new UJC national survey showed. Shortly thereafter, UJC said it would no longer contribute to the yearbook.
Last year, the customary chapter on American Jewish population was simply omitted from the yearbook, leaving only Della Pergola’s essay on the world Jewish population. Behind the scenes, though, efforts were underway to provide more reliable estimates. This year, two Jewish demographers — Ira Sheskin of the University of Miami and Arnold Dashefsky of the University of Connecticut — took over the yearbook’s compilation of local surveys, which resulted in the 6.4 million figure.
The team wrote a lengthy essay in which they acknowledged the potential pitfalls in simply adding up local surveys. The method can lead to an overestimate by double-counting so-called snowbirds, persons who divide their year between different states. It can also fail to account for families that move in between surveys. But Sheskin said his study compensated for such pitfalls, and he has more confidence in his survey than in the 2001 study.
“I don’t think it does us any good, in America, to be talking about this 5.2 million, when in fact there clearly has to be more than that,” Sheskin said.
After the 2001 study, a new demographic institute was created at Brandeis specifically to explore better ways of estimating the Jewish population. Looking beyond individual surveys, the new Steinhardt Social Research Institute is combining some 125 different studies that contain information about Jews, including the General Social Survey and the National Election Study.
Institute director Leonard Saxe said his staff is still receiving feedback from peers on the methodology but already has preliminary estimates. According to Saxe, where the 2001 NJPS found 4 million Americans who identify themselves as Jewish “by religion,” his method has found some 6 million. Another 1 or 2 million consider themselves Jewish, though not by religion, Saxe said.
Despite the new work, the old figures have had a dogged persistence, largely due to the efforts of Della Pergola, the Israeli scholar. A professor at Hebrew University, Della Pergola is also the lead demographer for the Jewish People Policy Planning Institute, or JPPPI, an offshoot of the quasi-governmental Jewish Agency for Israel. Under his leadership, several emergency conferences have been convened here and in Israel to address the presumed decline of American Jewry. Using Della Pergola’s data, the JPPPI issued a report last spring, following a new Israeli census, proclaiming Israel’s Jewish community to be bigger than America’s for the first time. This led to editorials and essays in The Jerusalem Post, The Washington Post and elsewhere and to speeches by Israeli officials calling for a greater share of influence and money from global Jewish organizations. The public impact can be seen in sources such as About.com, a reference Web site that restates Della Pergola’s findings in its article about world Jewry and concludes that “the size of the American Jewish community is declining at a rapid rate.”
In fact, social scientists such as Saxe, Cohen and Sheskin say this is generally considered by scholars to be outmoded thinking. “It has become the accepted wisdom that the community is in decline,” Saxe said. “And yet, what we believe is both that the NJPS mischaracterized the numbers and that we can provide alternative data.”
The director of the JPPPI said this week that his institute stands behind Della Pergola’s numbers. Della Pergola himself, reached by phone, offered a critique for each of the new studies. He said the compilation of local studies risks over-counting. As to the new Brandeis figures, Della Pergola said the new methodology is less reliable than a single national survey. He also told The Jerusalem Post this week that his estimate was more plausible, given trends such as intermarriage and low birthrate.
“I may be the only one who proclaims certain things,” Della Pergola told the Forward. “But I think this has been done on the basis of a very systematic and coherent analysis of the strength and weakness of data.”
Since the United States, unlike most countries, does not ask about religion in its census, all Jewish population counts are estimates and no final answer is likely. All sides agree that results are influenced, in varying degrees, by how survey questions are asked and who is considered Jewish. But, Saxe said, “I think there will be a new consensus as a result of all this new work. There will be a new consensus.”