Gevalt: The American Jewish Population is Expanding!

By Leonard Saxe

My colleagues and I at the American Jewish Population Project (AJPP) at Brandeis University have just released our latest estimates of the US Jewish population. As of 2018, there are nearly 7.5 million Jews in the United States. Contrary to conventional wisdom, US Jewry is expanding at roughly the rate of the general population.

For a Jewish community whose psychological DNA predisposes many to focus on dark clouds even on sunny days, the latest estimates may provoke skepticism. Be assured, however, that we are using long-accepted definitions of “who is a Jew.” Furthermore, our estimates are based on, and consistent with, the results of multiple recent surveys, including: national studies, such as those conducted by the Pew Research Center; local Jewish community studies by a number of research groups; and national studies of secular issues that include questions about religious identity.

Using sophisticated statistical models that combine data across these studies, we estimate that 1.8% of US adults identify their religion as Jewish. This percentage has remained steady for some time, even as the US population has increased.

Because the standard question asked on secular surveys refers to religious identification, developing a Jewish population estimate also required that we estimate the number of non-religious Jews, primarily cultural and secular Jews. These are individuals who, in almost all cases, have Jewish parents and were raised as Jews. They identify as Jewish culturally, ethnically, or secularly, but not by religion. To count them, we used data from Jewish-focused surveys (e.g., Pew’s A Portrait of Jewish America and local Jewish community studies), that ask about religious and non-religious identification. We also used those studies, which include questions about how children are raised, to estimate the number of Jewish children.

Our updated estimate is that of the 7.5 million US Jews, 4.3 million adults identify their religion as Jewish, and another 1.5 million adults identify as Jewish in ways other than by religion. An additional 1.6 million Jewish children ages 0 to 17 live in households with Jewish parents. Our estimate is likely conservative. We do not, for example, include Jews who live in institutional settings and those who live outside the contiguous United States (Alaska and Hawaii).

As noted above, our estimates are consistent with those of other US investigators. For example, the Berman Jewish Databank – which relies on community studies for the core of their estimates – reports that as of 2016 there were 6.9 million US Jews. Their estimate is slightly lower than ours for several reasons. Databank researchers rely primarily on local community studies, and recent changes to those populations may not be reflected in their estimates. At the same time, researchers are limited by the difficulty of developing accurate estimates of the number of Jews who live outside known Jewish population areas with Jewish institutions.

Estimates of the size of the US population are, of course, only one element of efforts to understand American Jewry. More important is how contemporary Jews enact their identities and their connection with Jewish life. Our studies of local Jewish communities tell us that American Jews enact their Jewish identity in a myriad of ways. For some, religious observance is at the core of their Jewish identity, while for others being part of Jewish organizations is central. For some Jews, family ties are their primary connection to Judaism; for still others, Jewish culture is their primary means of enacting Jewish identity.

Nevertheless, knowing the number of Jews is still important and provides the context for understanding patterns of Jewish engagement. To be Jewish is, fundamentally, to feel a connection to other Jews – past, present, and future. Being counted as part of the Jewish community is the basis for feeling a sense of responsibility for other Jews, for feeling a connection to Israel, and for a desire to pass on the tradition to the next generation. Knowing how large the population is allows us also to appreciate the diversity of Jewish identity and assess the effectiveness of strategies to engage Jews with one another.

Jewish tradition has always struggled with whether or not to count Jews. A census of Bnei Yisrael is part of our Biblical inheritance and was seen as necessary to assess our strength. But, at the same time, rabbis and commentators across the ages have cautioned that any counting runs the risk of failing to count Jews and, thereby, diminishing them. Our estimates of the Jewish population are, perhaps, a compromise. Although not a census, our estimates do provide a good faith effort to apply modern science to understanding the strength of the modern Jewish people.

Leonard Saxe is Klutznick Professor of Contemporary Jewish Studies at Brandeis University and Director of the Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies and the Steinhardt Social Research Institute.