How Many Jews are There in America?

Last month the Pew Research Center released a new comprehensive report on US Jewry entitled “Jewish Americans in 2020”. It is the first major study of US Jewry since the 2013 Pew study, and therefore deserves careful consideration. Over the course of a few short pieces, I intend to offer some reflections on different aspects of the Pew data.
 
The first big headline that emerges from the new report is that Pew discerns a significant rise in the size of the US Jewish population between 2013 and 2020. The 2020 Pew data counts 7.5 million US Jews, compared to 6.7 million reported by Pew in 2013. According to the authors of the report, “the size of the adult Jewish population has been fairly stable in percentage terms” since an “estimated 2.4% of U.S. adults are Jewish” whereas in 2013 “the estimate was 2.2%”.
 
This language suggests that Pew’s reported Jewish population increase is fairly unremarkable and is roughly consistent with the growth in the US population. But is that in fact the case? A population increase from 6.7 million to 7.5 million represents a 12% jump … in seven years. In the same period, the US population grew from roughly 315 million to 331 million – an increase of just 5%.
 
How can it be that a community with high intermarriage rates, and a birthrate below replacement levels could demonstrate such robust growth? Were all the gloomy forecasters wrong? Is it possible for the Jewish community to expand its numbers at an impressive pace even with high intermarriage and low birth rates? Answering these questions is important because the conclusions suggest policy prescriptions.  
 
Parenthetically, it is also worth noting that, for a number of years, many have been asserting that Israel has the largest Jewish population in the world. On Yom Ha’Atzmaut this year, Israel reported that its Jewish population was just over 6.9 million. If the 2020 Pew figure is correct for US Jewry, then Israel is actually in second place – by some distance.
 
It will come as no surprise that attaining an accurate measure of any Jewish population hinges on who actually counts as a Jew. Who should we include as Jewish and who not? There are those who say that the only people who should be counted are those that the halakhah deems to be Jewish. But neither the statisticians in the US nor in Israel use that approach.
 
Instead, the Pew researchers divide America’s Jews into two groups: those who are “Jews by religion”, and those who are “Jews of no religion”. The terms can be a little misleading. If you are a “Jew by religion” it doesn’t mean that you are necessarily religious. It just means that you will answer “yes” to the question “is your religion Jewish?” Conversely, “Jews of no religion” will answer “no” to the same question – that Judaism is not their religion. They will say that they are atheists, agnostics, or “just Jewish”, and will identify themselves as being Jewish culturally, ethnically or because of family heritage.
 
Here then is who Pew counts as Jewish: all of those who say that their present religion is Jewish, plus those “Jews of no religion” who have at least one Jewish parent or were raised Jewish.
 
This means the following: if you say that your religion is Jewish, you’re Jewish. Also, if you say that you have no religion, but that you have a Jewish identity, and one Jewish parent – or that you were raised Jewish … then you too are considered Jewish.
 
Pew’s parameters raise a critical question: in defining Jewishness this way have the Pew researchers included in the count people whose connection to Judaism is tenuous? The report itself tells us that one of the world’s leading Jewish demographers, Sergio DellaPergola of the Hebrew University, thinks they have done exactly that. DellaPergola contends that we should include Jews of no religion in the total Jewish tally only if they have two Jewish parents. This is, in his view, a better representation of the true “core” Jewish population. Examining the survey data in this way yields around 6.0 million Jews in the US, up from 5.7 million in 2013.
 
I agree with DellaPergola that this definition makes more sense. “But why?”, some will ask. “Why not count every person – even if they only have remote connections – as being Jewish?”
 
Here’s why: there was a time when there was a considerable gap between Jews and surrounding society. For the most part, you were either part of the Jewish world, or you were not. Societal exclusion of Jews meant that, no matter how weak your Jewish affinities might have been, most Jews were linked to the Jewish community.
 
No longer. Today, we live in a hyper-connected world in which multi-component identities are assembled from many different sources. Consequently, there are those who have elements of a Jewish identity but who are in fact orbiting at such a distance from the Jewish core that they barely sense any Jewish gravitational pull. They may not have left their Judaism behind entirely but their connections to Jewishness and to the Jewish future are sufficiently attenuated to make it illogical to count them as truly belonging to the Jewish people.
 
That’s why DellaPergola talks about the Jewish “core” – those individuals who genuinely live within the Jewish gravitational field. An unrealistically inflated number of Jews in America suggests that high intermarriage and low birth rates pose no problems for the Jewish future. Arriving at a more representative figure affords us a better understanding of the outcomes of our choices.
 
At six million, the core US Jewish population is smaller than that of Israel. The good news is that the number of American Jews has expanded slightly (by about 5%) rather than contracted, as some expected. While that is indeed the cause for some satisfaction, there is no room for complacency, for reasons that I will explore in my next piece.

Rabbi Danny Schiff

If you have thoughts or reactions in connection with this piece, I would be pleased to hear from you. Feel free to leave a comment below or continue the conversation by contacting me directly at dschiff@jfedpgh.org.

Posted in

Leave a Comment