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Jews of Color deserve an accurate count

This weekend, eJewishPhilanthropy, the main online publication supporting the Jewish professional world, published an essay by demographers of American Jewish life, Ira M. Sheskin and Arnold Dashefsky, “How Many Jews of Color Are There?” which was republished in the Forward. The essay, a preview a chapter in their forthcoming “American Jewish Yearbook”, concludes that we have over-counted Jews of Color. While a recent study commissioned by the Jews of Color Field Building Initiative put the percentage of the Jewish community that are Jews of Color between 12 and 15%, Sheskin and Dashefsky argue that Jews of Color make up closer to 6% of the American Jewish community.

Tema Smith | Artist: Noah Lubin

Tema Smith | Artist: Noah Lubin

For many of us working to create a more inclusive Jewish community for Jews of Color and others who have been marginalized from Jewish life, this essay comes as a huge blow. Empirically, we have all observed that the Jewish community, though always racially diverse, has become increasingly more so in recent years. We have also observed that this growing diversity is not necessarily translating to proportional participation in mainstream Jewish communal organizations.

The recent intervention into the demographic record by the Jews of Color Field Building Initiative study, entitled “Counting Inconsistencies: Jews of Color Field Building Initiative,” was a watershed moment for many of us. For the first time since Gary Tobin z’l attempted to count Jews of Color in his 2003 study, “Counting Jews”, serious consideration was paid to how the methodologies of previous surveys of American Jews might result in Jews of Color being systemically undercounted.

“Counting Inconsistencies,” which analyzed 25 population studies and their survey strategies, uncovered substantial inconsistencies across the field that suggest that the counts of racially diverse Jews in these studies are largely inaccurate. Issues they point out range from sample design, survey questions that do not query race accurately or even at all, and a general lack of consistency in design that means that comparisons across surveys are all but impossible.

The consequence of these issues is that we only have flawed data to rely on – whether because of assumptions in survey design that led to undercounting, or educated guess methodologies like the one employed by the authors of “Counting Inconsistencies,” where the estimate is extrapolated from aggregate data from a number of sources. And without an accurate baseline metric of Jews of Color, it becomes impossible to determine whether surveys have represented this cohort accurately.

Sheskin and Dashefsky acknowledge “Counting Inconsistencies,” but appear to gloss over the methodological concerns it raises. Instead, they assert that the studies that the authors of “Counting Inconsistencies” examined are “generally accepted as accurate sources of information on the American Jewish community as a whole.”

They also conjecture that while “some observers believe that this sub-population [of Jews of Color] is relatively ‘invisible’ to many members of the Jewish community as well as to researchers… Jews of Color may be more likely to participate in surveys because they want to make certain that Jews of Color are not underestimated.”

Those of us who work in this space can tell you that this does not reflect our experiences in Jewish communal surveys, or indeed, in broader national surveys; in the Census, historically marginalized groups continue to be undercounted.

Furthermore, samples for Jewish community studies have been gathered in varied ways, including but not limited to creating lists of people with “typically” Jewish last names, random dialing through organizational databases, random dialing in neighborhoods above a certain concentration of Jewish homes per the census, and disseminating a call to respond through mainstream Jewish communal organizations – all areas where Jews of Color are woefully underrepresented.

If the surveys are not reaching Jews of Color, how could they be more likely to respond?

Sheskin and Dashefsky’s assert that the percentage of Jews of Color in the American Jewish community has not increased significantly since 1990, which, on its face, seems unlikely. Jews of Color come from many backgrounds; many are born into families that have been Jewish for generations, others have converted to Judaism, and some become Jewish through transracial adoptions. Many others are the children of interracial, and often interfaith, marriages. Given that interracial and interethnic marriage across the United States grew by close to three percentage points from 2000 to 2012-16, one would expect to see some growth from this in the Jewish population statistics as well.

Sheskin and Dashefsky also rely on assumptions about the racial and ethnic makeup of regional communities, taking for granted that San Francisco and the Greater New York area are outliers in terms of the racial makeup of their Jewish communities. But this is not something that we should conclude with any certainty, especially when a great number of regional Jewish population surveys did not include questions about race at all. And as is often the case in communal discourse, they conflate Ashkenazi – the predominant ethnic group of North American Jews who most recently trace their roots to Eastern and Western Europe – with racial and ethnic whiteness when they write that “many Jews who might identify as Hispanic are, in fact, Ashkenazi and are much less likely to be ‘of Color’.” This, of course, erases the significant number of Jews of Color who are, in fact, also of Ashkenazi descent.

Still, Sheskin and Dashefsky’s intentions – that communities should have accurate demographics with which to plan for our growing diversity – are right, and they arrive at an important conclusion: “responsible planning by the American Jewish community demands recognition that not all Jews are of Eastern Europe and Ashkenazi origin; and future research on American Jews needs to be sensitive to discerning Jews of Color.”

But they miss the mark when they rely on past research that did not have such sensitivities built-in. And without an accurate baseline of the percentage of Jews of Color, it becomes impossible to determine whether surveys have represented this cohort accurately.

The forthcoming publication of these conclusions in the “American Jewish Yearbook” shows once again what many of us already knew: that a rigorous study, designed to account for the inherent challenges of counting Jews of Color, must be undertaken by the Jewish community to truly understand who we are.

Demography is not simply an academic endeavor. Jewish communal organizations use these population studies to determine strategic and programmatic priorities, and to allocate financial resources. For better or for worse, efforts to ensure that the needs of Jews of Color are met in the organized Jewish community rely on accurately counting us.

As long as the debate persists over how many of us there are, we will never be able to move beyond simply counting to needed efforts to understand who Jews of Color are and what we need. And without this, our work to make sure Jews of Color are represented, included and embraced in our community will continue to be hampered.

Tema Smith is a contributing columnist for the Forward and the Director of Professional Development at 18Doors.

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