By Ira M. Sheskin and Arnold Dashefsky
A recent article in eJewishPhilanthropy reprinted an estimate (from Reform Judaism) that 12% of American Jews are “Jews of Color.” This estimate, in turn, came from a report entitled Counting the Inconsistencies: An Analysis of American Jewish Population Studies with a Focus on Jews of Color, which stated that “at least 12-15%” of American Jews are Jews of Color. It is also true that the 2017 San Francisco Bay Area Jewish community study shows that 13% of Jews in the 10-county Bay Area are Jews of Color and the 2011 New York Jewish population study shows that 12% of New York Jewish households are multiracial. (However, this does NOT mean that 12% of New York Jews are Jews of Color. Some multiracial households contain non-Jews who are “of color.”) But San Francisco and New York are special cases and are not indicative of the composition of Jews nationally.
Jews of Color Will Increase but…
We agree that a significant number of American Jews are, indeed, Jews of Color, that this number is likely to increase in the future, and that it is more than unfortunate if even just one person is made to feel uncomfortable in a Jewish setting. But we also have a responsibility to make certain that, in both developing programs for any population subgroup and in evaluating the effectiveness of those programs, we do so based upon accurate information.
The “at least 12%–15%” estimate is substantially higher than the 6% estimate made by the Pew Research Center in 2013. The 6% Pew figure is just about equal to the 7% found in the 1990 National Survey of Religious Identification (NSRI) and the 5% from the 2000–2001 National Jewish Population Survey (NJPS), which indicates that the percentage nationally does not appear to have changed significantly between 1990 and 2013. In addition, the number of Jews of Color in America appears to be relatively stable at about 420,000 between 1990 and 2019. NSRI, NJPS, and Pew are generally accepted as accurate sources of information on the American Jewish community as a whole. The few local Jewish community studies (outside of San Francisco and New York) that have queried race and ethnicity also lend support to the 6% figure. In addition, the 12%-15% figure would imply that almost one of 6 American Jews is a Jew of Color.
Note that the 6% in the 2013 Pew study is comprised of 2% black (non-Hispanic), 3% Hispanic, and 2% other/mixed races. (This adds to 7% due to rounding.) These data are consistent with other Pew surveys of religion among both blacks and Hispanics (www.pewforum.org).
Nevertheless, as intermarriage continues among American Jews at high levels, as Jews adopt children who may be “of Color,” and as non-Jewish persons of color decide to identify as Jewish, the share of Jews of Color in the American Jewish population is likely to increase.
“Jews of Color” or “Diverse Jews”
It should also be noted that many Jews who might identify as Hispanic are, in fact, Ashkenazi and are much less likely to be “of Color.” For example, in Miami, about 60% of Hispanic Jews consider themselves Ashkenazi. In many cases, these are Jews whose parents or grandparents fled the Holocaust to places like Cuba and Argentina and then settled in the US. A similar argument can be made against assuming that all Sephardic and Mizrahi Jews are Jews of Color. It is for this reason that Be’chol Lashon (a Jewish organization that advocates for Jews of Color) uses the term “diverse Jews” and not “Jews of Color.”
Being imperfect, surveys may underestimate Jews of Color. Some observers believe that this sub-population is relatively “invisible” to many members of the Jewish community as well as to researchers. Part of the reason for this “invisibility” may be due to Jews of Color being less likely to participate in the formal Jewish community. On the other hand, Jews of Color may be more likely to participate in surveys because they want to make certain that Jews of Color are not underestimated.
Some signs of recognition of this diversity and the need to be inclusive are evident in the American Jewish community. This subject is also highlighted by the existence of at least four national Jewish organizations devoted to advancing Jewish diversity: the Jewish Multiracial Network, the Jews of Color Field Building Initiative, Jews in All Hues, and Be’chol Lashon. The Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism has also examined the subject, and this subject has received much attention in the Jewish media in recent years.
We agree that significant diversity exists in some communities: The 2014 Miami Jewish community study shows significant diversity: 33% of adults in Jewish households are foreign born and 3% of adults in Jewish households are from the former Soviet Union. Fifteen percent of Jewish adults are Hispanic, 9% are Israelis, and 17% are Sephardic Jews. (These groups are not mutually exclusive.) Recognizing the ethnic and racial diversity of the Miami Jewish population, the Federation has hired an inclusion specialist. In addition, the Miami Federation’s Board of Directors recently approved a Diversity and Inclusion Statement to make an affirmative expression of its commitment to an inclusive and diverse community, one in which all are welcome. Even among Hispanic Jews, significant diversity exists: 24% of Hispanic Jewish adults come from Cuba; 18%, from Argentina; 16%, from Venezuela; 14%, from Colombia; 6%, from Peru; and 40%, from other places in South and Middle America.
Our conclusions are that the percentage of Jews of Color is almost certainly closer to 6% nationally than to “at least 12%–15%;” and this percentage has not increased significantly since 1990, although it is likely to do so in the future. Thus, responsible planning by the American Jewish community demands recognition that not all Jews are of Eastern Europe and Ashkenazi origin; and future research on American Jews needs to be sensitive to discerning Jews of Color.
Ira M. Sheskin (University of Miami) and Arnold Dashefsky (University of Connecticut) are Editors of the American Jewish Year Book.
(This essay is based on information presented in Chapter 5 of the 2019 American Jewish Year Book 2019, eds. Arnold Dashefsky and Ira M. Sheskin., vol. 119, Cham Switzerland: Springer, due out in June.)