We are glad that the recent Pew Research Center survey of U.S. Jews has served as an important source of information for discussions about the state of American Jewry, including David Eliezrie’s recent blog post. However, Eliezrie’s piece contained a number of factual errors and misunderstandings that we would like to correct.
First, Eliezrie says our report “claims that the numbers of Orthodox have dropped over the decades.” This is untrue. Our report makes no such claim. In fact, our report shows that compared with other Jews, the Orthodox are much younger on average and tend to have larger families, which “suggests that their share of the Jewish population will grow.” And although Orthodoxy’s growth has been limited in the past by a relatively low retention rate, our report shows that the falloff from Orthodoxy appears to be declining and is significantly lower among young Orthodox adults than among older people.
Second, Eliezrie contends that the survey “ignores” Chabad. This is misleading. The survey included two questions about identification with streams or movements within Judaism, giving respondents multiple opportunities to describe themselves. First, respondents were asked whether they consider themselves Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, something else, or no particular denomination. Those who said “something else” were asked to specify what, and their answers were recorded verbatim. Next, those who identified as Orthodox were asked whether they consider themselves Hasidic, Modern Orthodox, Yeshivish, or “some other type” of Orthodox. Since the Chabad movement is associated with Hasidic Judaism, people active in Chabad may well have identified as Hasidic. Those who said they are “some other type” of Orthodox were asked to specify what type, providing another opportunity to identify with Chabad.
In total, more than 150 respondents to the survey said they are Hasidic Jews, including a few who specifically identified with Chabad (or the alternative term “Lubavitch”). The number who described themselves as Chabad is too small to analyze separately, but that does not mean the survey deliberately ignored them. It means only that there were not enough to constitute a separate category for reliable statistical analysis, and that one must look instead at somewhat broader categories, such as Hasidic Jews or all Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) Jews, as described in our report. (The term ultra-Orthodox, by the way, is not intended to be pejorative; it is commonly used in the media, academic studies and previous Jewish surveys. If it has inadvertently given offense, we sincerely apologize.)
Naturally, we wish the survey sample had been large enough to provide separate data on Chabad, as well as on many other sub-groups of Jews. But there are practical limits to what can be achieved in surveys without astronomical costs, and readers should bear in mind that this was the largest and most comprehensive telephone survey of U.S. Jews in more than a decade. The survey went to considerable lengths to obtain a representative sample of Orthodox Jews, including extra interviews in communities where Orthodox Jews are concentrated. No areas of the country where Orthodox Jews are known to reside were excluded from the survey’s sampling. And no calls were made on the Jewish Sabbath or on Jewish holidays, when observant Jews generally will not pick up a telephone. All together, the survey included more than 500 Orthodox Jewish respondents. (See our recent post on Pew Research Center’s Fact Tank blog, “Eight facts about Orthodox Jews from the Pew Research survey.”)
Third, Eliezrie seems to object to the use of self-identification in analyzing the Orthodox. He seems to suggest, instead, an analysis of measures of Jewish observance: Jews are “allowing for Jewish tradition to have a stronger voice in their lives,” but “Pew never even created any questions in its survey to analyze this significant trend,” he says. Actually, the survey included questions both about self-identification and about observance. Just to cite a few examples, the survey asked about synagogue attendance, synagogue membership, lighting Sabbath candles, other aspects of Sabbath observance, keeping kosher in the home, observance of Passover and Yom Kippur, membership in Jewish organizations, the importance of observing Jewish law, belief in God, and donations to Jewish charities. We think it is important to measure and analyze both self-identification with social or religious movements and indicators of religious observance and involvement.
Fourth, Eliezrie’s suggestion that the number and growth of Orthodox institutions (like Chabad centers and Orthodox congregations) indicates that the survey undercounted Orthodox Jewish people is a classic red herring. While counting institutions is an important task and can provide a sense of the vitality of a given movement, the number of institutions does not necessarily imply anything about the number of people who are associated with an organization. Stepping outside the study of U.S. Jewry can provide a good example of how this is the case. The 2010 Religious Congregations and Membership Study (RCMS), conducted by the Association of Statisticians of American Religious Bodies, found that there are more than 286,000 Protestant congregations and fewer than 21,000 Catholic congregations in the United States. But the ratio of Protestant to Catholic adherents is not nearly so skewed; the RCMS estimates that there are roughly 78 million Protestant adherents in the U.S., and approximately 59 million Catholics. In other words, though there are more than 13 Protestant congregations for every Catholic congregation, there are only about 1.3 Protestant adherents for every Catholic adherent. In short, relying on counts of institutions can be a very misleading way to draw inferences about the size of a population of people.
We hope this response helps to clear up any confusion that may have resulted from Eliezrie’s piece. We at the Pew Research Center take great care in designing and implementing our surveys, and it is our wish that our survey of American Jews will continue to serve as a useful source of information for those interested in the characteristics, attitudes and experiences of the American Jewish population.
Alan Cooperman is Deputy Director at the Pew Research Center’s Religion & Public Life Project.
Greg Smith is the Director of U.S. Religion Surveys Pew Research Center’s Religion & Public Life Project.