No More than Barely 4 Million Halachic American Jews

by Mordecai Plaut

(Page 1)

Appeared in "Yated Ne'eman," Pesach Edition.

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.

[However, according to The 1995 Survey of Interfaith Families by Egon Mayer, Ph.D. and Ron Miller, Ph.D, the proportion was almost half (46 percent).]

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: WWW.GC.CUNY.EDU/STUDIES/STUDIES_INDEX.HTM)

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 constituency.

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 all religious.

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).

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