Home  Principles & Statements  Positions of the ACJ  Articles  DonationsAbout Us  Contact Us  Links                                         

Poll Showing Decline of Jews in the U.S. Stirs Debate and Criticism

Allan C. Brownfeld, Editor
Special Interest Report
November - December 2002

The number of Americans who identify themselves as Jews fell by 5 percent from 1990 to 2000, the first statistically significant decline in the U.S. Jewish population since 1800, according to a nationwide survey released in October.  

The study’s central finding was that the U.S. Jewish population numbers 5.2 million. According to the survey’s sponsor, United Jewish Communities, “The Jewish population in the U.S. has remained stable over the past decade, declining five percent.” America’s overall population grew by some 13 percent during the same period.  

The Forward (Oct. 11, 2002) reports that the survey’s lead researchers blamed the decline “on a mix of factors, including deferred child-bearing - owing to a variety of women’s issues such as career advancement - and the cumulative impact of interfaith marriage.”  

Ohio State University demographer Frank Mott, co-chairman of the survey’s technical advisory committee, said, “It doesn’t look too good. Unless there are changes, the age cohorts now in the child-bearing years will not replace themselves.”  

Several other members of the advisory committee disagreed, saying that the population drop was statistically unreliable given the survey’s margin of error and methodological uncertainties. “It would be easy to believe that number has declined” to 5.2 million from 5.5 million, said University of Miami demographer Ira Sheskin, who headed the advisory panel’s key methodological subcommittee. “But statistically, the two numbers are the same.”  

Outside critics were even more emphatic. “This 5.2 million figure is completely and totally inaccurate,” said sociologist Gary Tobin of the California-based Institute for Jewish and Community Research.  

According to a survey by Tobin’s organization, the American Jewish population stands at about 6.7 million. Casting a wider net than previous surveys, it also found another 2.5 million Americans who are “socially or psychologically connected” with Judaism - people who practice Judaism in addition to another religion, who were raised Jewish but now practice another religion, or who have a Jewish partner or spouse. And it found another 4.1 million Americans who have at least one ancestor who is Jewish.  

Tobin says that it is the existence of these “gray areas” that requires new thinking in the organized Jewish world. “The kinds of language we used to describe populations in the past are useless and self-defeating,” he said. “We have to be more open to the idea that the Jewish community is broader and probably disconnected from Jewish life. I think the potential for a larger and even more vibrant Jewish community is here.” (The Jerusalem Report, Oct. 21, 2002).  

Edmund Case, president of the Interfaith Family.com Network and co-editor of The Guide to Jewish Interfaith Family Life, notes that, “According to the recent survey ... 1.5 million non-Jews live with Jews. Who are they? How do they relate to the Jewish community? How should the community respond to them? ... the decisions that interfaith couples make abut the religious identity of their children is critical to the future vitality of the community ... About 30 percent of interfaith families are sadly lost to the Jewish community, choosing not to be involved in Jewish life. ... But the majority of interfaith families ... offer fertile ground in which to grow the American Jewish community.” (The Forward, Oct. 25, 2002)  

In Case’s view, “If we want interfaith families to raise their children as Jews, we need to welcome them. As Rabbi Rachel Cowan of the Cummings Foundation has said, people can tell when their welcome is genuine. When people who are intermarried hear Jews talk about intermarriage as a negative - ‘bad for the Jewish people,’ ‘communal suicide’ and the like - they are made to feel worse than unwanted. The result is that fewer children are raised as Jews ... It is our choice whether to engage in old, negative, counter-productive and self-defeating strategies, or to seize an opportunity to expand and enrich our community by doing what is necessary to increase the number of interfaith families who raise their children as Jews.”  

Calvin Goldscheider, professor of sociology and Judaic studies at Brown University, notes that, “A vital message that we should be taking from the study is one that tends to be overlooked ... The astounding fact of our generation is that most American Jews continue to define themselves as Jewish, and that many of those who are not born Jewish see value in connecting with Jews and the Jewish community. The overall demographic stability of American Jews is almost miraculous in the context of a voluntary community in the 21st century.”

< return to article list
© 2010 The American Council For Judaism.