If you're a fan of Jewish population studies, this is your lucky day – I was able to survive a long and boring meeting this morning by reading the full new American Jewish Population Estimates: 2012. This Brandeis University document is actually an update of previous and similar documents, and contains very little by way of shocking news: it puts the number of American Jews at 6.8 million – notably more than other studies, but this still isn't really news, as the 2010 estimate was also high (close to 6.5 million). Contrary to common belief, though, the authors of this study (Elizabeth Tighe, Leonard Saxe, Raquel Magidin de Kramer, Daniel Parmer) think that the "U.S. Jewish population is substantially larger than previously estimated" and that it is a community that "at least numerically" is "in ascent rather than decline".
Since there aren't big surprises in this study – at least not for those who bothered reading Brandeis' previous estimates – I was focused my reading on the small details. First of all, the authors provide us with detailed geographical data that is neatly organized in this new and very cool interactive map. If you happen to need to know how many Jews, Jewish schools and synagogues (and of which denomination) can be found in Wyoming or in Montana, this is the place to go (one Reform congregation of 127 members according to this map in Wyoming, 6 Reform and one Orthodox in Montana, with total membership of 846 in Montana). Jews – sorry, but this also isn't a surprise, just a reaffirmation of what we all know – are better educated than other Americans, tend live in cities rather than rural areas, and are older. "Nearly 80% of the U.S. Jewish population lives in 10 states". And "just over 20% of the population resides in New York State, 14% resides in California, followed by 12% in Florida; 8% in New Jersey; and 5% in Massachusetts and Pennsylvania".
Naturally, the intriguing part in every Jewish population study is the one in which the authors decide, well, who is a Jew. In this study, the 6.8 million American Jews are divided into three core groups. First: The adult "Jews by religion" – these are the people who answered the poll question about religion with the answer "Jewish". Their number is 4.2 million. Second: The adult "Jews not by religion" - that in a previous study included "17.7% self-declared as Jewish but not by religion, and 5.6% [who] did not self declare as Jewish but had at least one Jewish parent". In this study "the core Jewish population defined as those who self-declared either by religion or considered themselves to be Jewish, the total population is estimated to be 5.2 million, of which 19% consider themselves Jewish, but not by religion". Third: children – 1.3 million of them are "Jews by religion" (JBR) and 300,000 are JNBR.
That is basically your total: 4206000 + 971000 + 1330000 + 307000 = 6814000. That's 6.8 million Jews.
Can we all agree on this number? Of course not – but one has to differentiate between two types of debates that are to be expected following the release of this latest estimate (and to remember that at least two other American Jewish population studies are forthcoming, one of them by PEW)-
The first debate is a professional one – a methodological debate to which lay persons can contribute very little. It is a detailed discussion about the right way to count people and to add numbers, about whether one large survey is preferable to many smaller surveys, or maybe it's the other way around- an interesting debate, no doubt, but one that has a lot to do with statistics and little to do with Judaism.
The second debate is the more interesting one, and as I was reading the parts dealing with "non-religiously identified Jews" I was thinking about it. It is the debate about who should be counted as a Jew in a population survey, a question with which all those conducting such studies have to struggle. What if one has two Jewish parents, no other religion, but doesn't say he is Jewish? What if one says one is Jewish, but has no Jewish parent, did not convert and doesn't observe any Jewish practices? What if one has one Jewish parent, and says he has no religion but that he lights Hanukkah candles at home? With the 4.2 million Jews by religion we have it relatively easy. Surely, some of them might not pass the halachic test of every denomination, but at least we know what we are talking about. These are people who say that they have a religion and that their religion is Judaism. The story of the "one million adults [who] consider themselves Jewish by background and other criteria" is much more complicated because each one of them has a different story to tell. These one million aren't truly a "group" of JNBR's. They are many groups that we bundle together because of something they all 'share': not being Jewish by religion.
Should they be counted? Here's a debate worth having, and a question which is hard to answer with a "yes" or a "no". Since they aren't a group, since they aren't "Jewish" in one way, there is no one answer which fits them all. Count them all out, and you have a Jewish population that is much smaller, much more coherent, much more dedicated to Judaism (JNBRs can be dedicated Jews, but on average they tend to be less so than JBRs). It would also be more boring, less colorful, less inclusive, and more narrow minded in its attitude toward non-conformist members of the tribe. There are advantages to having a coherent core group – and there are disadvantages to having a smaller and less inclusive club. Thus, if there's a debate it isn't just one about the real "values" or essential "practices" that make one a Jew – it is also a debate about the policy of a community, about the gains and the losses of choosing one way of counting over the other.