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New Studies Put U.S. Jewish Population Over 6 Million Mark

Allan C. Brownfeld, Editor
Special Interest Report
March-April 2007

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 recently 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 says that the final estimate will be between  
6 million and 8 million.  
According to The Forward (Dec. 22, 2006), “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 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  
Israel’s most prominent demographer, Sergio Della Pergola, has stuck to the lower American figures,  
almost alone among prominent researchers. This year, two Jewish demographers — Ira Sheskin of the  
University of Miami and Arnold Dashefsky of the University of Connecticut, took over the American  
Jewish Yearbook’s compilation of local surveys, which resulted in the 6.4 million figure. They wrote an  
essay in which they acknowledged the potential pitfalls of simply adding up local surveys. But they said  
the study has compensated for such snowbirds, persons who divide their year between different states,  
and have more confidence in this 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,” said Sheskin.  
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 survey 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.  
Since the U.S., 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. Saxe says: “I think there will  
be a new consensus as a result of all this new work. There will be a new consensus.”  
Editorially, The Forward (Dec. 22, 2006) declared: “It takes a special kind of courage to bring Jews good  
news ... 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 ... but in fact is  
growing steadily. ... 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 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.”

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