According to a new study, there are no more than 4 million
people in the United States who are halachically Jewish. This
figure itself should be viewed as an upper bound rather than
an exact number. The true figure is probably significantly
lower. The results of the American Jewish Identity Survey,
2001 have already been reported from various
perspectives. The following report highlights the findings
that are interesting from a chareidi perspective.
Other important findings:
* Close to 10,000,000 people from America are probably
eligible to enter the State of Israel under its Law of
Return as currently formulated.
* Nearly half of all those describing themselves as Reform
said that their outlook is "secular" (30 percent) or
"somewhat secular" (18) indicating that their affiliation
with Reform is explicitly not a religious one. This seriously
undermines the Reform claim to be a "stream" of Judaism
comparable to so-called Orthodoxy, unless we also grant that
organizations such as Hadassah Women are also a stream of
Judaism and can convert Jews. More than a third of
Conservative are secular (35 percent = 21+14).
* The overall intermarriage rate is 51 percent. That is, 51
percent of the 505,000 Jews who got married within the last
decade married spouses who were avowedly not Jewish. 40
percent married a Jewish spouse and 9 percent married someone
who had converted. Of those who married before 1965, 89
percent married a Jewish spouse. At least a third of all
American Jews who are married, are married to a non-Jew.
The recently-released American Jewish Identity Survey,
2001 by Egon Mayer, Barry A. Kosmin and Ariela Keysar, of
the Institute for Jewish Studies of the Graduate Center of
the City University of New York, included, for the first
time, an attempt to address the halachic criteria of
Jewishness. However the limitations of the study and the
underlying sociological approach tend to inflate the
resulting figure considerably. (A report of the study is
available electronically at:
According to the study, the "Core Jewish Population" of the
United States was 5.34 million in 2001, a decline of more
than 3 percent since the last such survey was taken in 1990.
This group includes, according to the authors of the study,
"those whom most Jewish communal bodies accept without
qualification as potential members of their communities."
However, it is immediately clear that all religious Jewish
communal bodies do not regard much of this group as their
This population in turn is divided by the authors into three
major groups: BJR (Born into the Jewish Religion), born into
the Jewish religion and still there, JBC (Jews by choice),
meaning those who have converted or "otherwise" become
committed to being Jewish, JNR (Jews with No Religion), those
who said they had an ethnic Jewish background but were not at
In all cases (including the approximation of halachic Judaism
as discussed below) the groups are self-defined. This is
standard for academic surveys, and gives a result that is
valid for their purposes. Most social groups are simply made
up that way.
Thus, survey respondents are asked questions and their
answers are accepted, without any attempt to challenge or
verify them. If a respondent says that both his or her
parents were Jewish, for example, he or she is marked as a
person born of two Jewish parents. There is not even a follow-
up question asking if either of them converted or not. In
times past this approach gave reasonable approximation for
those who are actually Jewish, but in these assimilationist
times, and after three to four previous assimilationist
generations, that is not so.
In the previous study in 1990, no questions were asked about
parentage. This time, those interviewed were simply asked
about their parents and their answers are recorded. It is
standard sociology but not halachah.
As the authors state: "The current survey sought, as did NJPS
1990, to spread the widest possible net in sampling so as to
provide an opportunity for respondents to indicate in what
way if any they might be Jewish themselves or whether another
member of their household might be Jewish in some way. This
study . . . tried to detect by means of the four screening
questions whether or not any members of the household would
regard themselves as having some connection to either the
Jewish religion, a Jewish family or the Jewish people, either
on the basis of current identification or on the basis of
ancestry, or both."
There are good reasons for them to cast as wide a net as possible.
The bigger the Jewish population, the more important it makes
the organizations that represent the Jewish community
generally. Also, by now, since many of the leaders of secular
Jewish organizations are intermarried or are the children of
intermarriages, it is obviously important to them to be
defined as within the Jewish community.
Still the new study is very valuable for it does provide an
upper bound. It is more than reasonable to assume that there
are no more halachic Jews than those who responded that their
mother was Jewish (plus sincere converts).
One interesting finding of the survey is that even according
to their standards, the "Core Jewish Population" is rapidly
becoming less overtly Jewish. In 1990, the total proportion
of those in the Core who considered themselves Jewish
(JBR+JBC, adults+children) was 80 percent. Only 11 years
later, in 2001, the proportion was only 68 percent.
Interpreting the Findings about Halachic Jews
The Jewish people who had at least a Jewish mother are divided into
the various classifications as follows: JBR Jews (of the
Jewish religion) 84 percent say they meet the classic Jewish
identity test (2,461,200), and of the JNR, 58 percent say
they have Jewish mothers (649,600). These are the adults in
the "Core" population, a total of 3.1 million. In addition,
34 percent of the JOR (having another religion) claimed a
Jewish mother (499,800).
It should be noted that almost 500,000 of those who consider
themselves Jewish by religion do not even claim to have a
Jewish mother. This does not include converts who are measured
in a separate category.
If we assume that the children of the Core are divided up the
same way there are 588,000 such children who are JBR, and
342,200 children in JNR.
Thus the total of the Core Jewish Population that claims to
be halachically Jewish is 4,041,000.
The authors use a figure of 3.6 million adult halachic Jews,
which is the total of all three categories (JBR+JNR+JOR). It
is not clear who they think is interested in that total.
Religious as well as secular organizations do not consider
those who identify with other religions (JOR) as their population
of interest. The figure of 3.1 million in the Core who are
halachically Jewish is more important, and perhaps the 2.5
million who are Jewish and are willing to identify as Jewish by religion
are the most important, of the groups studied.
Correlation with Other Studies
According to a survey of all Jewish educational institutions
performed by Dr. Marvin Schick, there are 138,000 students in the
U.S. enrolled in Orthodox Jewish day schools. This compares
to 47,000 enrolled in non-Orthodox Jewish day schools. These
students attended a total of 676 different schools that were
surveyed. Dr. Schick's survey was conducted as an actual census,
not a statistical projection as was the AJIS.
Putting the two together, those enrolled in the Orthodox
schools are almost a quarter of the total population of
Jewish children (JBR) in the U.S. (23.5 percent)!
Relationship to Israel
The authors of the study were surprised, perhaps mystified is
a better word, to find that there is a very close correlation
between a Jewish person's feelings on Israel and his or her
feelings towards religion. They write:
"Surprisingly, there is nearly a linear relationship between
where American Jews locate themselves on the religious-
secular spectrum with respect to their outlook and their
attachment to Israel. Those who are more religious are more
likely to have visited and are more emotionally attached to
Israel; the more secular are less likely to have visited and
are less emotionally attached to Israel. Twice as many of
those who describe themselves as "religious" have visited
Israel than those who describe themselves as "secular" (47%
compared with 23%). Similarly, more than three times as many
of those who describe themselves as "religious" say they are
"very attached" to Israel as compared with those who describe
themselves as "secular" (58% compared with 15%).
"The reason there appears to be such a consistent
disconnection between secularism and Israel is obviously a
lot more difficult to understand than the disconnection
between secularism and affiliation with Jewish communal
institutions. But, the facts are plain enough to warrant a
serious search for the underlying mechanisms that appear to
weaken the social bonds that link Jews to one another among
those whose outlook is secular or somewhat secular."
A fruitful search can be mounted in the sayings of HaRav Shach
zt"l, who was fond of quoting Rav Saadiah Gaon who said,
"The Jewish people are united by the Torah." That is the underlying