Daniel Staetsky
Daniel Staetsky

How many American Jews are out there?

Another bright star in the sky of the demographic research and the American Jewry: Pew Research Center just released the result of the survey of American Jews putting their number at 7.5 million. It is their second survey. The first survey, conducted by Pew in 2013, put the number of American Jews at 6.7 million. This means that in seven years, American Jewish population grew by 12%. And that simply cannot be. How so? In similar timeframe American population as a whole grew by 4%, British population  – by 5%, Israeli Jewish population, the youngest and the most fertile in the West, grew by 14%. American Jews, demographically, look a lot more like their American non-Jewish counterparts and rather far from the Israelis. A growth of 12%, instead of the expected single digit growth, makes an incomprehensible finding.

There are some unassailable demographic regularities. Some of them are border-line trivial. Not everyone has a child, but everyone comes from some sort of a mother. Which also means that when there are no mothers, there cannot be children. Further, women, irrespective of their religion or ethnicity or race, bear a certain number of children, and this number is known to fluctuate within certain, usually rather narrow, limits. Any statement that describes population growth incompatible with the number of women capable of childbearing and their usual levels of fertility, is science fiction and not science.

Is the Pew 2020 survey inadequate then? Not at all. It is a top quality scientific product that will inform the study of American Jewry for years to come, just like its predecessor (Pew 2013 survey) did before. It is a treasure trove of information on Jewish identity, economic and social life, and demography. The warning I wish to issue is specifically about the trend in size of the American Jewish population that the surveys results chart – something that stands a good chance of being picked up uncritically by the press.

‘Pew Research Center values transparency and humility’ – the authors of the new 2020 report say in the commentary accompanying their analysis of the trend. They are genuine. Their reports provide ample information on different subgroups among American Jews allowing unambiguous diagnostic of the origins of the ‘12% growth absurdity’. The data from both reports (2013 and 2020) are brought together here. Adult population of American Jews (those aged 18 years and over) actually only grew by 9%. Interestingly enough, adult Jewish population that identifies as Jewish by religion, a very straightforward manner of self-identification, did not grow at all. In 2020, as in 2013, it stood at 4.2 million. Adult Jews identifying as Jews but not through religion (raised Jewish and consider themselves Jewish, just not through religion) grew by 25%: from 1.2 to 1.5 million. The overall growth for American adult Jews is 9%. In the USA and UK, adult populations grew by 5%-6% in a similar timeframe. The American Jewish growth is ‘too much’ when it comes to the adult population.

The situation with children (those aged below 18) is utterly incredible, far beyond the situation with adults. My calculations based on the Pew data show that population of children raised as Jews, exclusively as Jewish by religion or as Jewish with no religion, grew by 60%! The number of children raised as exclusively Jewish by religion grew from 0.9 to 1.2 million (by 33%) while the number of children raised as Jewish with no religion grew by 300%! Just how does all this compare to what has been going on in America, the West and Israel? This is how: children’s population in the USA was stable in 2013-2020, or even declined slightly (by 1.4%). In the UK, children’s population grew by 4% and in Israel – by 19%. The growth in the number of American Jewish children, as suggested by the comparison of the two surveys conducted by Pew surveys, is simply implausible.

What are we to make out of this? The unescapable conclusion is that the 2020 survey covered a different American Jewish population to the one covered in 2013. To put it differently, some people self-identifying as Jews in 2020 did not do so in 2013. They were absent then; their arrival in 2020 out of nowhere, it seems, created the impression of increase. If we had the means of adding them to 2013 appropriately (or, alternatively reducing them in 2020), no growth, or a very different picture of growth, would have been visible in-between 2013 and 2020, perhaps more in line with the surrounding Western populations. What accounts for this is unclear at present. It could be the differences in the methods of data collection, as Pew scholars admit themselves: the 2020 was conducted online and by mail, while the 2013 survey was conducted by phone. Could it be, for example, that the online component attracted the more educated Jews? This is possible, yet the data also suggest that adult Jews who define themselves as ‘Jews of no religion’ (the suspected new-comers in 2020, absent in 2013) are not more educated than Jews by religion. Could it be that the ways in which American Jews identify changed rather dramatically? In other words, could it be that attractiveness of Judaism, or Jewish culture, as a civilisational choice, increased both for adults and children? Could it be that people who had more than one option to affiliate themselves and especially their children – started choosing Jewishness in 2020, though they did not tend to do so as recently as 2013?

This is possible. It is not unprecedented either. Jewishness was not the first choice for the offspring of marriages of Jews and non-Jews in the Soviet Union. To say the very least. Most of them chose the ethnicity affiliation of the non-Jewish parent when they had to identify in one way or the other.  Jewishness was not a popular choice. That changed almost overnight in the early 1990s, when the option of immigration to Israel became available. That option was linked to Jewishness. All of the sudden, Jewishness became a new chic. Nobody bothered to ask the questions of continuity with the old estimates at that time. Mass immigration from the Soviet Union to Israel made it all irrelevant.

Fashions rise and fall. The real questions remain. These are questions of the demographic reality, of unassailable demographic truths. Can we hope to describe the demographic reality of the American Jewry? If that is still of interest, then we must be guided by some ‘fixed stars’. These ‘fixed stars’ are definitions that do not change in response to social desirability of any given identification. Halakhic definition is one such option but not the only one. In calling for a stable definition, true to the demographic realities, I do not favour any particular definition, on ideological grounds. The Jewish halakhic definition, conditioning Jewishness on being born to a Jewish mother (according to halakha, the Jewish law) is just one ready option. ‘Ready’ because all Jewish denominations ( i.e. Orthodox and Reform) agree on it. But there are others. Having a Jewish parent (male or female) could be an additional one. Topping these with additional definitions, whatever they are, is also not a problem. The users of these definitions (e.g. the communal leadership) should be able to pick the one that suits them best, pragmatically. Let us create a spectrum. Let us allow a demographic definition, true to the demographic realities and comparable to the realities of other nations on Earth, be one of them.

We have it, in fact. For decades the trends in numbers of Jews by country have been published in the American Jewish Year Book. Since the 1980s, they have been updated by Professor Sergio DellaPergola, and, as it tends to happen to timeless classics, not infrequently they also make it into various other publications unacknowledged. What do they say? – I can hear you asking. They say that, putting fashions aside, Jewish population of the USA stands at around 6 million people. They also say that the numbers have been largely stable since the beginning of the 21st century. The definition used is the ‘Jewish core’ definition, which is ‘a Jew is someone who defines him/herself as a Jew in response to the question ‘are you Jewish?’ and does not profess a religion other than Judaism. When tested for validity in the European context, this definition revealed a close match to the Jewish halakhic definition. Voila!-as they say in Europe.

It is time to celebrate then. American Jewry is large and stable – the American Jewish Year Book tells us. And it is possible that being Jewish is a kind of chic in America today, Pew Research Center teaches us. Let us see what it means, and how long it lasts.

About the Author
The author is a demographer and a statistician, born in the USSR - a world that no longer exists - and educated in Israel and Britain. The author holds a PhD in Social Statistics and Demography. To date he has served in senior analytical roles in the Central Bureau of Statistics (Israel) and RAND Europe (Cambridge, UK). He is currently a Senior Research Fellow at the Institute for Jewish Policy Research (London, UK). He has published widely on Jewish , Israeli and European demography and social statistics. The author's favourite topics are demographic and social puzzles involving Jews and people that surround them-why do Jews live so long? why do Muslim Arabs in Israel have so many children? why do women-globally- live longer than men? Is there a link between the classic old-fashioned antisemitism and today's antizionism? These are just a few examples of questions that motivated some of his work and on which he has written extensively. Dr Daniel Staetsky is an owner of the website 'Jewish World in Data' which is a unique depository of data and factual commentary in Jewish demography and statistics.
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