By Ira M. Sheskin and Arnold Dashefsky
The 2019 American Jewish Year Book estimate for the US Jewish population is 6.97 million and is based on an aggregation of more than 900 local estimates. This number, which represents 2% of the total US population, is consistent with the estimate of 6.7 million from the 2013 Pew Research Center’s A Portrait of Jewish Americans.
Historical Growth of the Jewish Population
The growth of the US Jewish population is shown above. The US Jewish population has increased significantly since the arrival of 23 Sephardic Jews to New Amsterdam in 1654. Most early immigrants were Sephardic and; by 1820, about 5,000 Jews lived in the US. Due to immigration mostly from Germany, the number increased to about 280,000 by 1880. A significant influx of Jews from Eastern Europe raised the Jewish population to 4.2 million by 1930. Bolstering the population since 1930 are significant numbers of Holocaust survivors and immigrants from the Former Soviet Union, along with smaller numbers from Israel, Latin America, and elsewhere.
While only 17% of all Americans live in the Northeast, 44% of Jews live there. While 21% of all Americans live in the Midwest, only 11% of Jews do. While 38% of all Americans live in the South, only 22% of Jews do. Approximately equal percentages of all Americans and Jews live in the West (23%).
The number of Jews in the Northeast decreased by 9% (316,000) from 1980-2019, and the number of Jews in the Midwest increased by 7% (45,000). The number of Jews in the South increased by 62% (591,000), and the number of Jews in the West increased by 82% (728,000).
Eight states have a Jewish population of 200,000 or more: New York (1,771,000); California (1,183,000); Florida (644,000); New Jersey (545,000); Illinois (298,000); Pennsylvania (298,000); Massachusetts (293,000); and Maryland (237,000). These 8 states contain 75% of American Jews. Seven states have between 100,000-200,000 Jews: Texas (176,000); Virginia (151,000); Ohio (148,000); Georgia (129,000); Connecticut (118,000); Arizona (107,000); and Colorado (103,000).
Since 1980, the number of Jews in New York State decreased by 369,000 (17%), reflecting primarily the decrease in the New York City area, from 1,998,000 in 1980 to 1,538,000 in 2019. The number of Jews in Pennsylvania decreased by 122,000 (29%), reflecting primarily the decrease in Philadelphia, from 295,000 in 1980 to 214,700 in 2019. The only other notable decrease from 1980-2019 in states with significant Jewish population is Missouri (7,500,11%).
Seventeen Jewish communities have 100,000 or more Jews: New York (1,538,000), Los Angeles (519,000), San Francisco (311,000), Washington (296,000), Chicago (292,000), Boston (248,000), Philadelphia (215,000), Broward County (149,000), South Palm Beach (136,000), West Palm Beach (127,200), Miami (123,000), Atlanta (120,000), Northern New Jersey (119,000), Middlesex-Monmouth, New Jersey (122,000), Greater MetroWest (115,000), Rockland County, (103,000), and San Diego (100,000). About 66% of American Jews live in one of these 17 Jewish communities. In many of the larger communities, Jews represent 3-6% of the population; and in two metro areas, they represent 8-10% of the population. This means that Jews in such areas are from two to five times more numerous than the 2% they represent nationally!
Implications for the 2020 Presidential Election
The electoral college makes the Jewish vote less important in some states (like New York and California) and absolutely critical in others (like Florida).
New York: In 2016, 1.3 million Jews voted in New York State. New York’s 29 electoral votes were won by the Democrats by 1.7 million votes. Thus, had every Jew in New York voted Republican, New York would still have been won by the Democrats.
California: In 2016, 900,000 Jews voted in California. California’s 55 electoral votes were won by the Democrats by 4.3 million votes. Like New York, no matter how Jews voted in California, the state still would have been won by the Democrats.
Thus, the 42% of American Jews who live in New York or California have little to no influence on the outcome of US presidential elections!
Florida is different. In 2016, every vote mattered. 535,000 Jews voted in Florida, whose 29 electoral votes were won by the Republicans by 113,000 votes. Thus, unlike New York and California, the Jewish vote in Florida could make the difference. Just think how different the world might be today had a few more Floridians supported Gore in 2000 (the year of the “hanging chads”!), when Bush won the state by 537 votes.
In 2016, Trump won 46 electoral votes in Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin, each by less than 1% of the vote. In each of these states, the Jewish vote, or the people who might have been swayed by Jewish political activists, could easily have changed the result. For the 2020 election, the first two above swing states, along with three others with Jewish populations over 100,000, including Arizona, Georgia, and Ohio, could be tipped one way or the other by the Jewish vote if the margins of victory in the presidential election are small.
While at least some of the increase since 1980 is due to better counting methods and broader definitions of “who is a Jew,” these results show an American Jewish community that remains strong in numbers and significantly geographically concentrated. But being concentrated geographically in this manner effectively disenfranchises the more than 40% of American Jews who live in New York and California, while giving significant influence to Jews in several states, particularly Florida and possibly the others noted above.
The American Jewish Year Book collates information from four sources. First, Scientific Estimates are most often based on the results of surveys using Random Digit Dialing (RDD) telephone procedures or Address Based Sampling (ABS) procedures. In other cases, Scientific Estimates are based on Distinctive Jewish Name (DJN) studies. Second, for a few communities (such as Kiryas Joel) which are close to 100% Jewish, the US Census acts as a guide. Third, the Jewish Federations of North America sends an email to hundreds of Jewish communities and asks for estimates. Fourth, the authors scour the internet for estimates for many smaller places.
Who Gets Counted?
Of course, the number of American Jews depends upon whom the researchers decide to include as Jews. For the Year Book, we accept the numbers suggested by the Jewish federations or other organizations in a community.
Ira M. Sheskin, Ph.D., is the Director of the Jewish Demography Project of the Sue and Leonard Miller Center for Contemporary Judaic Studies at the University of Miami and Professor of Geography in the College of Arts and Sciences at the same institution. He has completed more than 50 major Jewish community studies for Jewish Federations throughout the country while serving on the board of the Association for Social Scientific Study of Jewry (ASSJ) for 15 years.
Arnold Dashefsky,Ph.D., is Professor of Sociology and the Doris and Simon Konover Chair of Judaic Studies emeritus as well as founding Director of the Center for Judaic Studies and Contemporary Jewish Life, at the University of Connecticut. He is the recipient of the 2020 Marshall Sklare Award, given by ASSJ to one who has made a significant scholarly contribution to the social scientific study of Jewry.
The authors have been the editors of the American Jewish Year Book since 2012 and have authored the chapter on the US Jewish population since 2006.
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, published in July 2020.
The Year Book chapter upon which this research is based, including 19 maps and 12 tables, will be available at the Berman Jewish DataBank.