U.S. Jewish Population Growing?

It’s been accepted wisdom that the American Jewish community is shrinking ever since the initial findings of the National Jewish Population Survey 2000-01 revealed that the Jewish population in the U.S. was 5.2 million–a 300,000-person drop from the 1990 NJPS.

This has had important ramifications for the debate on intermarriage, as many–if not most–observers have blamed assimilation and intermarriage as the twin evils behind the assumed population decline. (Meanwhile, few have noted that the Jewish birthrate is below replacement-level. But why blame our educated men and women who choose to have few children when we can so easily blame those “bad” Jews who go off and intermarry?)

The population decrease has also been fodder for some Israeli pols, who have increasingly been talking about the doomed American Jewish pouplation, “ravaged” by intermarriage and assimilation. That’s allowed them to hold up their own country as the ultimate model of Jewish continuity (although one might argue that massive Russian immigration has more to do with Israel’s population growth than any kind of intrinsic strength).

Despite the widespread use of the 5.2 million number, the NJPS was attacked by a host of demographers before its results were even released. All suspected that the NJPS’s methodology may have severely undercounted the American Jewish population.

Now, four years after the preliminary results of the NJPS were released, two separate groups of demographers are coming out with estimates of the American Jewish population at over 6 million. In the just-released 2006 American Jewish Yearbook, demographers Ira Sheskin and Arnold Dashefsky say there are 6.4 million Jews, while Leonard Saxe is soon to release a study that shows there are between 6 and 8 million Jews.

As the Forward article indicates, these are not estimates from the fringes of the demographer community:

“The buzz among social scientists — on the e-mails and over the coffee tables — has been, ‘We all know the number is higher,’” said sociologist Steven M. Cohen, who helped oversee the release of the 2001 National Jewish Population Survey. “We just don’t know exactly how much higher. This is the first post-NJPS effort to come out.”

And apparently, only one prominent demographer still has confidence in the 5.2 million number: Sergio Della Pergola, Israel’s most esteemed demographer. I know nothing about him, but the Forward article suggests there may be some political value for him sticking to the older figure since he has personally organized several conferences to discuss the “crisis” of declining American Jewry. Plus, there’s no doubt that Israelis like having the bragging rights of having the largest Jewish population in the world.

Regardless of the Israel-Diaspora politics involved, these new numbers should have significant ramifications for the intermarriage debate. No longer will folks like Samuel Klagsbrun be able to talk about “the problem of a shrinking Jewish community,” as he did in yesterday’s anti-outreach op-ed for the Jewish Week or be able to say that “shrinking is the norm” in other American Jewish communities besides Boston.

I am not claiming that intermarried families raising their children Jewish are responsible for the population increase, but I think the revelation of these new numbers greatly weakens the conclusion that rising intermarriage leads to decreasing Jewish population. I have no doubt, however, that the staunchest critics of intermarriage will still find clever ways to blame intermarriage for all the community’s ills.

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