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Lost Positives: Estimating the American Jewish Population

by Bruce Phillips

January 31, 2012 | 3:38 pm

In a recent Blog entry my colleague and co-blogger, Pini Herman, questioned Len Saxe’s estimate of 6.4 million Jews, arguing that the over-estimate was the result of “false positives,” meaning non-Jews who report Judaism as their religion. In the 2004 San Francisco study we did weed out some false positives.  More importantly, however, we also did not interview (and thus did not count) many more persons who had a Jewish parent but answered no to this screener question: “Do you consider yourself to be Jewish, either ethnically or by religion?” It could well be that if we pushed further (an effort the San Francisco Federation was not willing to underwrite) they might have considered themselves Jewish in some other way, and there would be even more Jews in the Bay Area. So Pini is wrong on that one, but correct in focusing on the extensive screening needed to identify Jewish households.

The basis of Saxe’s argument is that the refusal rate in telephone surveys is getting higher and Jews are more likely to refuse than others.  In his meta-analysis Saxes emphasizes that the lower the refusal rate in the 51 surveys he examined, the higher the percentage of Jews, and he provides some other evidence as well. Saxe makes a valid argument. It should also be noted that other eminent social scientists such as David Marker accept the lower 5.4 million estimate of the 2000 NJPS

Going back to a time when conducting Jewish population studies was easier, Sid Goldstein (truly the father of American Jewish demography) estimated that the American Jewish population to close to six million in 1970, but he did not expected Jewish numbers to increase because Jewish fertility was well below the “replacement rate” of 2.1 children per woman. The estimate of 5.4 million Jews in 2000-2001 would be a logical outcome of this low fertility. So how could the Jewish population have remained stable or even increased?  Intermarriage is one answer. Almost twenty years ago two sociologists at UC Berkeley asked “How 4.5 Million Irish Immigrants Became 40 Million Irish Americans” (American Sociological Review, 1994, 59:1). The answer was that generations of intermarriage had produced 40 million persons who listed “Irish” as one of their ancestries.  Along these same lines, Sergio DellaPergola of the Hebrew University has recently estimated that 12 million Americans of Jewish ancestry would qualify for immediate Israeli citizenship under the Law of Return.

Regardless of the debate over the size of the Jewish population, all Jewish demographers agree that the Jewish population in the midst of a sea change. Jews are more dispersed, and soon there will be more Jews with a non-Jewish parent than with two Jewish parents. These important changes have gotten lost in the Jewish press. It is easier to complain about the lack of consensus among Jewish social researchers than to grapple with the unquestioned consensus among them: this isn’t your father and/or mother’s Jewish population any more.

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Bruce Phillips is a Professor of Jewish Communal Service in the School of Non-Profit Management, HUC-JIR/Los Angeles and USC. Bruce is among the leading sociologists studying the contemporary Jewish community, specializing in the sociology and demography of American Jewry.  Bruce can be found playing banjo, mandolin and other stringed instruments in the Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills Shabbat Unplugged live Bayit (House) Band on many Friday nights.pini00003@gmail.com

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

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Bruce Phillips is Professor of Sociology and Jewish Communal Studies at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, Los Angeles. He has conducted Jewish population...

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