Are We Growing or Shrinking?

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The National Jewish Population Survey 2000-01 may have undercounted the American Jewish population by more than 1 million, says a new study just released by Brandeis University’s Steinhardt Social Research Institute. A preliminary picture of the study’s results had been reported more than a month ago, but the new figures are in: the “core Jewish” population is 6 to 6.4 million–as compared to the NJPS’s estimate of 5.2 million.

Why the huge disparity? Before the NJPS was even released, the architects of that study admitted there were numerous flaws that would tend toward undercounting the population. The authors of the new study, Leonard Saxe, Elizabeth Tighe, Benjamin Phillips and Charles Kadushin, ignored the NJPS and based their findings on a synthesis of results of 37 government and independent surveys that addressed religious identification. Their general conclusion was that the NJPS significantly undercounted the non-Orthodox and the young.

This may seem like mere mental calisthenics, but there are important ramifications from the Brandeis survey. For one, if the American Jewish population increased, not decreased, since 1990 (as the NJPS 2000-01 would have us believe), then the American Jewish community is not quite in the kind of trouble that allows advocates of aliyah to argue that assimilation and intermarriage have “ravaged” American Jewry. Secondly, if there are larger numbers of non-Orthodox Jews than previously thought, the argument that Orthodox Judaism provides the only guarantor of Jewish continuity is also diminished. Further, as the authors note, the underestimation of the population may have led to an overestimation of the success of programs–and a misunderstanding of what populations they should reach.

The authors of the study also feel that the NJPS undercounted children of intermarriage who identify as Jewish. They point to demographer Bruce Phillips’ studies that say that the NJPS identified more than 1 million children of interfaith couples who should be counted as Jewish but were not. “Including these individuals would bring our estimate to between 7 and 7.4 million individuals,” say the new study’s authors. “More broadly, the present static analysis does not take account of the dynamic impact of intermarriage. One needs to understand the cumulative effect of intermarriage, as well as to track changes in the Jewish engagement of intermarried families.There is increasing evidence, for example, that more intermarried families are choosing to raise children Jewishly. If that trend continues, it portends an increase in the Jewish population.”

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