An Open Letter to the Jewish Community: We Stand with Jews of Color!
By Ira M. Sheskin and Arnold Dashefsky
Last week, we published a short article about Jews of Color on eJewishPhilanthropy (eJP). The article was excerpted from our chapter in the forthcoming American Jewish Year Book, which we co-edit. In the article, we discussed the percentage of American Jews who are Jews of Color (JOC), suggesting that it is almost certainly closer to the 6% from the highly regarded and frequently cited A Portrait of Jewish Americans, published by the Pew Research Center in 2013 (hereinafter, the Pew Report), than to the 12-15% that Professor Ari Kelman and his coauthors developed in their report “Counting Inconsistencies: An Analysis of American Jewish Population with a Focus on Jews of Color“ (hereinafter, the JOC Report). The JOC Report did not mention the Pew Report’s 6% estimate.
According to the JOC Report itself, the “at least 12-15% is an “educated guess” (p. 2). The 6% from Pew is based on solid social science.
We reported the 6% and explained why we think it is the more accurate percentage. If people have misused the 6% figure, let us all work together to address that issue. Please don’t shoot the messenger.
For reporting a statistic (6%) and indicating our support for that statistic, we have been vilified. Our work has been seriously misrepresented by an influential scholar of American Jewry (Professor Ari Kelman). The president of the Union for Reform Judaism (Rabbi Rick Jacobs) has accused us of violent racism. A second person (Yoshi Silverstein) has jumped on the bandwagon to denounce us for perceived dire sins and demand teshuva. Countless commentators on eJP have questioned our morality and our ethics.
When we state in various sources that Jews today constitute only 2% of the US population, a one-third decline from the 3% they represented in the middle of the twentieth century, does that mean that we are defaming American Jewry and are enemies of Jewish continuity, rather than individuals who have devoted their personal and professional lives to studying and enhancing Jewish life?
We wish to respond
We start with our colleague in scholarship, Professor Ari Kelman. We want to praise him and his coauthors for demonstrating the inconsistency in questions about race and ethnicity on surveys of American Jews and for arguing for the need for more consistent measurement in their JOC Report. They are correct in that regard. For those who missed it, our eJP article expressed the same sentiment when we concluded that “responsible planning by the American Jewish community demands recognition that not all Jews are of Eastern European Ashkenazi origin, and future research on American Jews needs to be sensitive to discerning Jews of Color.”
The JOC Report
In many quarters, though, the JOC Report seems to have been taken as Torah miSinai, viewed as not just revelatory but also flawless in all aspects. As scholars, we know (and we hope the authors of the JOC Report also know) that no piece of human research (ours included) is without flaws, and a broader look at the JOC Report reveals that it is no exception. It has numerous factual errors. It misreads and misreports survey data, including some that Professor Sheskin produced in community studies. It oversimplifies complex aspects of community studies related to sampling and weighting.
The JOC Report offers very weak justification for only reporting the findings of one national study (the American Jewish Population Project [AJPP]), which has the highest available estimate of Jews of Color (11%). As academics, the authors had a responsibility to report and discuss the findings of other national studies, including the Pew Report.
It should also be understood that all criticisms of local Jewish community studies (about sampling and consistency in questionnaire design) are irrelevant to whether the national Pew Report percentage of 6% is better. The Pew Research Center had the resources that allowed them not to have to make any significant compromises in sampling design that are necessary for budgetary reasons in local Jewish community studies, and they did ask about race and ethnicity using standard questions.
The JOC Report modifies the national result of AJPP’s 11% based upon two local studies (NY and SF, where a combined 25% of American Jews live). Modifying a national percentage on the basis of local study percentages is not sound practice. But this is how the JOC Report takes the 11% and makes it “at least 12-15%.” A 2017 Gallup Poll puts the percentage of all American adults who are LGBT at 4.3%. Certainly, no one would then look at a poll of the City of San Francisco that shows 15.2% LGBT and modify the 4.3%!
More importantly, the JOC Report indicates that 11 other local studies that asked race/ethnicity questions were examined. They ignored 7 studies from the same time frame that did ask race/ethnicity questions. These 18 studies (11 plus 7) contain about one-third of the American Jewish population, compared to about one-fourth in NY and SF. With the exception of the Miami and Broward County (FL) studies (both of which have substantial Hispanic Jewish populations), these 18 studies report percentages of Hispanic and African American Jews between 0.2% and 6%. (True, some of these studies only asked ethnicity and not race. But the overall picture lends credence to the 6% in the Pew Report.)
Again, local studies should never be used to change a national number. On the surface, and we hope we are wrong, it appears that the authors of the JOC Report selected AJPP because it had a higher number (11%) than Pew (6%) and then selected 2 local studies (NY and SF) out of 18 to justify increasing that number.
The Authors of the JOC Report and Their Lack of Peer Review
Neither Professor Kelman nor his coauthors have been engaged in conducting local Jewish community studies (other than in a few advisory roles) or national surveys of US Jews, nor, more generally, have they been engaged in the quantitative study of American Jewry. In that situation, it would have made sense for them to read and cite the literature on how complicated studies of American Jews are, but the report contains no citations of any type. It would have made even more sense for them to share their report with people who have more experience in Jewish demography than they do. But there is no indication they did. To the best of our knowledge, none of the researchers who regularly conduct or consult on local Jewish community studies were asked to read and provide feedback on the report before it was published, which seems like a huge missed opportunity for them to have received helpful peer review. Professor Sheskin, who has completed more than 50 local Jewish community studies and served on the committees that developed the 1990 and 2000-01 National Jewish Population Surveys, would have gladly helped if asked.
The JOC Report itself thanks only IIana Kaufman and Dr. Tobin Belzer, who are highly accomplished professionals in their fields, but they are not quantitative social scientists or survey researchers and could not have been expected to catch some of the errors and recognize the weaknesses of the report. It also thanks the Berman Jewish DataBank, presumably only for making data files available, since the director of the DataBank told us he was not involved with the report nor was he asked for feedback.
As noted above, our eJP article was excerpted from our annual 100-page chapter in the forthcoming 2019 AJYB. This chapter routinely covers such topics as population estimation methodology and presents US Jewish population totals for the nation, census regions, states, and urban areas, among other relevant subjects. We usually begin the chapter with a brief report on a contemporary issue that has emerged in the previous year, and this year we chose to highlight the JOC Report and its estimate of 12-15%, as well as the Pew Report’s 6% estimate. We believe this is the first time that the AJYB has addressed the issue of JOC. We decided to do so in part because JOC are a significant and substantial community: The 6% is three times greater than the 2% that American Jews are of the total US population!
We would like to point out that the apparent failure of the authors of the JOC Report to ask for peer review is in direct contrast to what we did when we were writing our AJYB chapter. We understand the value of peer review. All chapters in the AJYB are subject to peer review. We sent the portion of our chapter about JOC to Professor Kelman for his feedback. He made several suggestions that we incorporated in the chapter, although we also acknowledge that we did not incorporate all his suggested changes.
Professor Kelman’s eJP Response
Professor Kelman responded to our eJP article with his own, and we note that he did not reach out to us before posting it. In it, he attacks us, claiming that Professor Sheskin “did not even think” to ask questions about race and ethnicity in community studies. This is an interesting point for Professor Kelman to claim since he has never been involved in a community study with Sheskin and he has never asked Sheskin about his work. If Kelman asked, he would have learned that Sheskin would gladly share his experiences with him. He would learn that Sheskin has been suggesting questions on race and ethnicity to local communities for many years. He would also have learned that the communal process of designing a questionnaire has lots of cooks in the kitchen, and he might have obtained a better understanding of why race and ethnicity questions have sometimes not made it into the final version of some community questionnaires. He also failed to mention that many Jewish communities who used researchers other than Sheskin did not include such questions. Thus, he may have learned something that could have helped him make his case for future inclusion of these questions in local studies.
Next, we would like to address the comments of Rabbi Rick Jacobs, the president of the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ) and one of the most influential rabbis in the country. We do not know him personally or professionally. He does not know us personally or professionally either. We have never met, or even spoken. Despite this, he felt entitled, in his own eJP article, to accuse us of racism, to link our work to white supremacist violence, and to insinuate that we are reactionaries who want to stop his work of acknowledging Jewish diversity. (Quite the contrary, our article mentions the work of URJ on this topic!) Like Professor Kelman, Rabbi Jacobs made no effort to reach out to us about his concerns after our article was published. Had he, he would have found willing partners and supporters of his work, not the imaginary straw men he created and then pummeled. Rabbi Jacobs made assumptions about us and then spoke ill of us with no knowledge about us. So, we ask: Rabbi Jacobs, now that you have smeared us in a public forum, how is this injustice righted?
Rabbi Jacobs also seems to be one of those who has bought into the flawlessness of the JOC Report. He declared: “The Jews of Color Field Building Initiative is led by incredible researchers who have done tremendous, valuable work to determine their statistics – despite faulty Jewish demographic studies of the past, which led to the need for ‘Counting Inconsistencies’ in the first place.” (Recall that the 6% is totally the work of Pew and not any “faulty” local studies.) As impressive as Rabbi Jacobs’ rabbinic accomplishments are, we are curious about his credentials for evaluating statistical analyses and demographic studies.
Another person who apparently sees perfection in the JOC Report is Yoshi Silverstein, who acknowledges that he is “a member of the Jews of Color Field Building Initiative’s grant advisory group, and his organization … is a recipient of grant funding from the Initiative.” In his eJP post from Friday, he writes: “Presumably they [Sheskin and Dashefsky] have seen the new data presented in Counting Inconsistencies … they just don’t seem to believe it, despite the highly bonafide credentials of its authors and supporting institutions.” He also suggests that the JOC Report was some sort of invitation to other researchers for open collaboration. He writes: “Understanding how these findings might be of concern to other demographers, the authors [Kelman et al.] also included a methodological appendix as well as recommendations that served as a tacit invitation for ongoing discourse and partnership.”
Silverstein is correct that the JOC Report authors are highly credentialed, they have made major contributions in their careers, and their supporting institutions are highly reputable. In the research community of open inquiry, however, credentials and reputations do not place any work, including the JOC Report, beyond critique.
The JOC Report’s methodological appendix that is touted above offers almost no actual useful methodological information. Usually methodological appendices are long, detailed, and technical, but this one is a scant two pages that simply summarizes what the authors said they did. It would not meet any reasonable criteria for providing methodological information that other researchers could use to evaluate and replicate their findings.
Furthermore, although Silverstein states that we have been invited to participate in an “ongoing discourse or partnership” about these studies, such has not happened. As we detailed above, Professor Kelman and his coauthors did not reach out to us, or as far as we know, to any others who have spent their careers conducting surveys of American Jews before issuing their report. Professor Kelman’s post on eJP also was not an invitation, it was a condemnation. And apparently Silverstein’s offered “invitation” starts with the precondition that we admit the guilt of our sins and start a process of teshuva.
We also want to address the many people who commented on our original eJP article. We admire your passion and commitment. Because we believe in forthright conversation, we spent many hours last week responding to the comments and many more hours on this article. We appreciate the many private emails we received from others who expressed their support but did not do so publicly on eJP out of fear they would be treated as we have been.
Do Numbers Matter?
We found several comments posted on eJP troubling. Some people suggested that numbers are not important, and that we should, essentially, stop focusing on the quantitative study of American Jewry. Obviously, we disagree. We have dedicated our careers to understanding society in part through numbers, because numbers provide the context within which people live their lives. Numbers are also critical for any kind of planning, policymaking, and advocacy.
Ask yourselves: If numbers are unimportant, why did the Jews of Color Field Building Initiative commission a study to examine how many Jews are JOC? And, if numbers are not important, then what is all this commotion about?
Other commentators indicated numbers matter only as a signal of morality and virtue. If you believe JOC are 12-15% of the American Jewish population, you are morally virtuous. If you think data suggest a lower number, you are morally suspect. Again, we disagree. Whether JOC are 6% or 10% or 15% or 25% of the Jewish population, the Jewish community’s moral imperative – as articulated in the mission of the Jews of Color Field Building Initiative, which we wholeheartedly support – is exactly the same.
Nevertheless, we appreciate the role of qualitative research, which we have also carried out in the past, to probe the lived experience of individuals in-depth. Given the passion expressed by many readers, we would suggest that a more effective way to elevate the experiences of JOC to the forefront of American Jewry would be for funders to consider providing grants to support research involving key informant interviews and focus groups on the attitudes and behaviors of Jews of Color. Survey research is best for counting, but not the best methodology for the type of in-depth analysis some have called for.
Most of all, had we looked at the Pew Report and had it said that 20% of Jews are JOC, would there be all this commotion? Or would Sheskin and Dashefsky be hailed as “heroes” by many?
I think we all know the answer.
Being Criticized for What One Did Not Do
Finally, some commentators criticized us for work we did not do. Specifically, they demanded to know why we did not write about the structural sources of bias in the Jewish community. That topic is a critical one, and others have written about it. On the one hand, there is a simple answer: In this short piece, at this time, that simply was not our goal. On the other hand, the question is a trap. After all, it is possible to accuse anyone and everyone that what they are doing crowds out what you think they should be doing. Why don’t all professors of mechanical engineering write about unsafe buildings every time they write? Why don’t all lawyers write about free speech every time they write? Why don’t all rabbis write about the plight of the Jewish poor every time they write? None of us, it turns out, can do everything every time.
Likewise, the JOC Report of 16 pages (which had no limit on length) does not discuss the structural sources of bias in the Jewish community either! Our article was about 1,100 words! We do not criticize the JOC Report for this omission. It was not the purpose of the JOC Report.
Our article was data-driven and not ideologically inspired. We share the enthusiasm expressed by many for promoting a recognition of diversity in the Jewish community, actions that we have undertaken both on our university campuses and in the Jewish community at large. However, we also would argue that the promotion of diversity is best advanced by the reliance on the most accurate data, which we have tried to report. Basing estimates on data sources that are not regarded as the most reliable and valid markers of the national picture undermines the objective of recognizing and promoting diversity in the American Jewish community, a goal that we share with all readers who commented on our original article.
Finally, in publishing the original piece, we only meant to present and discuss a statistic from a well-respected study and to bring to the attention of readers the existence of AJYB, “the annual record of North American Jewish communities since 1899,” praised by both academics and community professionals. We had no intention of demeaning the work of those who seek to advance the place of JOC within the American Jewish community, which we strongly support. We regret that this appears to have been interpreted in a way that has made people uncomfortable or caused them harm. That was not our intent.
At this point, we are going back to our work. We will not engage in any more written back and forth in the comments section of eJP. We leave, though, with an honest invitation: We would be happy to have a rational discussion with our critics, to listen to you and have you listen to us. Perhaps then we can have a productive conversation. We hope that the Pew 2020 study of American Jews (due out sometime this year) will shed further light on this issue.
As the great medieval scholar Maimonides wrote in his will: “ha’emet ya’aseh darko” or “the truth will make its way.”
Or, as Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan said: Everyone is entitled to his [or her] own opinion, but not his [or her] own facts.
Dr. Ira M. Sheskin is Professor of Geography and Director of the Jewish Demography Project of the Sue and Leonard Miller Center for Contemporary Judaic Studies at the University of Miami. He has completed more than 50 major Jewish community studies for Jewish Federations throughout the country and has also been a consultant to numerous synagogues, Jewish day schools, Jewish agencies, Jewish nursing homes, and Jewish Community Centers. He was a member of the National Technical Advisory Committee of United Jewish Communities (now JFNA) from 1988 to 2003, which completed both the 1990 and 2000-01 National Jewish Population Surveys. He also serves on the Oversight Committee of the Berman Jewish DataBank. He is the author of Survey Research for Geographers, How Jewish Communities Differ, Variations in the Findings of Local Jewish Population Studies, and Comparisons of Jewish Communities: A Compendium of Tables and Bar Charts.
Dr. Arnold Dashefsky is the Doris and Simon Konover Chair of Judaic Studies and Professor of Sociology Emeritus at the University of Connecticut and the Director Emeritus and Senior Academic Consultant for the Berman Jewish DataBank. He is a recipient of the 2020 Marshall Sklare Award from the Association for the Social Scientific Study of Jewry (ASSJ) which recognizes “a senior scholar who has made a significant scholarly contribution to the social scientific study of Jewry.” The award will be presented at the 2020 annual meeting of the Association for Jewish Studies. Dr. Dashefsky is the coauthor or editor of twelve books, including Americans Abroad, Charitable Choices, and Ethnic Identification Among American Jews.
Arnold Dashefsky and Ira Sheskin have been the co-editors of the American Jewish Year Book since 2012. This publication documents the “state” of North American Jewry annually and has been published almost continuously since 1899. They jointly write the almost 100-page chapter on American Jewish Population each year and are currently working on a book entitled Jewish Options.
 In NY, 12% of Jewish households contain a person of color (who may or may not be Jewish). In SF, 13% of adult Jews are Jews of Color. But neither of these numbers should be used to justify raising the AJPP percentage from 11% to at least 12-15%.