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20 Teves 5763 - December 25, 2002 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly









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There Are Only 2,300,000 Hardcore American Jews
by Mordecai Plaut

The "official" statistics that most people quote, based on the "National Jewish Population Survey -- 1990" put the American Jewish population at 5.5 million. A new study, "American Jewish Identity Survey, 2001" conducted (as was the first) by respected demographers and social scientists and published last February, says that this number has declined to less than 5.3 million. The "National Jewish Population Survey -- 2000-01" says 5.2 million. The big question is: 5.2 million WHAT?

The number of 5.2 million is supposed to count what the authors of the studies call the "Core Jewish Population" of the United States. This group includes, the authors of the Identity study (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) write, "those whom most Jewish communal bodies accept without qualification as potential members of their communities."

A fuller analysis of who exactly is included in this group leaves one wondering whether this is merely a description of the current situation or a prescription for whom the authors think should be included. However, it is clear that religious Jewish communal bodies do not regard much of this group as their constituency, as will soon be shown. (A report of the study is available electronically at: WWW.GC.CUNY.EDU/STUDIES/STUDIES_INDEX.HTM)

This core Jewish population is divided by the authors into three major groups: BJR (Born into the Jewish Religion), that is people 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 all religious. A major group not included in the core population is JOR (Jew of Other Religions) that is those born Jewish but now professing another religion.

It is very important to realize that these groups are self- defined. Thus, survey respondents are asked questions and their answers are simply written down and counted, 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.

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. If you ask someone what his native tongue is and he answers "Russian," you do not ask him to say "comrade" in Russian to prove it. If someone says that she uses Detergent X, you do not ask to see her ring-around-the- collar. You just take people's word for it.

For most concepts and groups, this works fine. They are well- defined and there is no uncertainty about who is in and who is out. With regard to other social questions, often it is the attitude itself that is of interest and being measured ("What is your opinion on the death penalty?"), or else, they are groups in which you are what you say you are (more or less) unless you are lying. If you say you are a Democrat, you are a Democrat. If you say you are a Methodist, you are a Methodist.

The situation with Jews is much more complex.

Nonetheless, in times past this approach gave a reasonable approximation of those who were actually Jewish. If someone said they were Jewish, they probably were. But in these assimilationist times, and after three to four previous assimilationist generations, that is no longer so.

The meaning of "Jew" is not agreed upon. Some people "feel Jewish" but may not be. It depends on what you mean by "Jewish." Is it someone born of a Jewish mother? Or also someone born of a Jewish father? Or also someone who identifies with the Jewish people?

In the previous study in 1990, no questions were asked about parentage. Last year in the new study, those interviewed were asked about their parents and their answers were recorded. The results are interesting indeed.

Jews and Halachic Jews

The total of the Core Jewish Population that claims to be halachically Jewish, in the sense of claiming to have at least a Jewish mother, is only 4,041,000.

Based on the classifications in the Core Population, they divide up as follows: of the BJR Jews (of the Jewish religion), 84 percent say they meet the classic Jewish identity test of a Jewish mother (2,461,200), and of the JNR (no religion), 58 percent say they have Jewish mothers (649,600). These are the adults in the "Core" population, a total of 3.1 million. The rest are the children in the Core.

In addition, 34 percent of the JOR (having another religion -- not part of the Core) claimed a Jewish mother (499,800).

How Jewish is the Core Jewish Population?

The short answer to this question is "Not as Jewish as anyone would like." This means that, of the 3.1 million adults who claim to have Jewish mothers, many are quite distant from the Jewish people.

Even in the terms of the social scientists, the quality of the Jewish population has been declining very sharply. 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 (BJR+JBC, adults+children) was 80 percent. Only 11 years later, in 2001, the proportion was only 68 percent of a slightly smaller total. This means that the number of Jews with no religion has risen sharply and now about a third of the "Core Jewish Population" do not identify themselves as Jews.

Who are the Jews with no religion? The authors report: "This category consists of persons of Jewish parentage/upbringing who report they have `no religion,' or replied atheist, agnostic, secular or humanist. In addition, those qualified Jewish respondents who reported being of Jewish parentage and/or upbringing but replied `don't know' or refused the religion item, were included in this category since they, too, reported no current religious preference."

Obviously, this is a group of people who, for the most part, are not close to the Jewish people. They have a Jewish background, but no longer identify as Jewish. At least they do not identify as being part of a different religious group, like the JOR Jews, but they are still not willing to be counted as Jews.

Moreover, correlating these categories with parentage shows how loose they are. Even in the best category, almost 500,000 of those who consider themselves Jewish by religion (16%) do not even claim to have a Jewish mother. This does not include converts who are measured in a separate category and in any case the total number of converts is small.

Hardcore Jewish Population

The "Core Jewish Population" is thus much too loose a grouping for our purposes.

For one, we want to define within this population the subset that is simply the Jewish Population. Then we will want to narrow down the definition further to arrive at what we will call the "Hardcore Jewish Population."

The halachically Jewish Population is no more than about 4 million. We are not really excluding the extra 1.3 million people who are counted as part of the "Core Jewish Population," since those people were never really part of the Jewish people. This, it should be noted, is an upper bound, since there is no doubt that many of those claiming to have a Jewish mother do not have a mother who is halachically Jewish.

First of all in trying to arrive at the "Hardcore Jewish Population" we will exclude all those who do not identify as Jewish (JNR Jews, as explained above). Although for some purposes they may be included (kiruv organizations must evaluate if it is an efficient use of their resources to target them, for example), for most social and conceptual purposes this group would, as per its own selection, be left out of the "Hardcore Jewish." If they are not willing, for the purposes of a benign, noncommittal survey, to identify as Jews, they cannot be counted on for much and, simply using their own alienation, we leave them out.

According to "Exhibit 6" of the study, the BJR adults number 2,760,000. Of these, 84 percent are self-claimed to be Jewish, or 2,318,400. With half of the 170,000 JBC converts (a generous assumption), we get 2,403,400. Since one who is intermarried can hardly be called a Hardcore Jew we should exclude the intermarried from this category. According to "Exhibit 7," 23 percent of the JBR group are married to a non- Jewish spouse, and assuming the same proportion among the halachically Jewish, we are left with 1,850,618 (exactly!).

There are, according to the sampling of the survey, 700,000 children of parents in the combined BJR and JBC categories (called JBR). If we just assume that the children divide up in the same proportion as the parents, we are left with only 470,000 children who are part of the Hardcore Jews.

The grand total (estimated) of Hardcore Jews in the U.S.: 2,320,618. It should be stressed that this is a rough estimate based on the data of AJIS.

(By the way, assuming the same proportions on the NJIS- 1990 data we find that there were 2,830,238 Hardcore Jews -- 2,256,278 adults and 573,960 children -- in 1990. This is a decline of 18% in only 11 years. The real number was probably higher in 1990.)

So What?

There are three very important consequences of this. 1] The religious Jews are a much more important part of American Jewry than is generally acknowledged; 2] This is another argument that the Israeli Law of Return should be tightened; 3] It may be that most of the world's Jews are already in Israel.

1] The religious Jewish population is often belittled. The Reform and Conservative claim that we are a tiny proportion of America's Jews: 5-9% at most. However we make up at least a quarter of the Hardcore Jewish Population. That is not a proportion that can be dismissed, and by most objective measures of commitment, we are extremely committed to being Jewish, much more so than other sectors.

2] Though there are only 2.32 million Hardcore American Jews, the current Law of Return would probably recognize close to 10 million as entitled to full rights ("Total Persons in Qualifying Jewish Households"). The experience with well over a quarter of a million Russian non-Jews has not made us eager to try hundreds of thousands of American non-Jews. It should be recalled that in the mid-80s the chance of 850,000 people immigrating to Israel from the Soviet Union looked no more likely than the chances of a similar immigration from America look now.

3] We are talking about Hardcore Jews. There are 5 million Jews in Israel (according to the Israeli government's Central Bureau of Statistics). Virtually all of these are Hardcore Jews, without question including Meretz and Shinui Jews who are virulently anti-religious. Calculating quickly, using the numbers given by Professor Sergio DellaPergola for 2001: Outside of America the total Jewish population (C.I.S. (.5), U.K. (.5), France (.5), Argentina (.2), Canada (.36), all other (.5)) is 2.56 million. Even if we just assume these are all Hardcore Jews (a strongly optimistic assumption) we have a total of only 4.88 million Hardcore Jews outside of Israel. If we guess that only about half the non-American Jews are Hardcore, then it is clear that Israel has well over half of the Hardcore Jews in the world today.

This gives a total of less than 10 million Hardcore Jews in the entire world, much lower than the 12.9 million Jews claimed by a recent conference organized by the Jewish Agency.

A version of the article appears in the November issue of the Jewish Observer.


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