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The challenge of taking an American Jewish head count

December 5, 2011

This Houses of Worship column by Brandeis professor Jonathan Sarna in the WSJ highlights a very real problem: We don’t have a solid grasp of the Jewish population in the U.S. Maybe most folks aren’t too concerned about whether we have an accurate count of American Jews. Maybe most American Jews aren’t even too concerned. But as a religion reporter, having real numbers always seemed very important. Some people are surprised to learn how large the worldwide Muslim population is or how few Episcopalians there are in the U.S. Having these figures helps reporters provide their readers with some perspective.

And of course, other folks have their reasons for wanting a good religious head count.

The problem is that religious organizations have different ways of counting their people. And some tend to pad the numbers. A problem particular to the Jewish population, as Sarna notes, is the lack of consensus on who should be counted as a Jew.

Whereas many Christian churches calculate membership as the sum of all those they have baptized or who have made public declarations of their faith, Jews see themselves as a people embracing religious and nonreligious members alike. Thus life-cycle ceremonies and synagogue membership are insufficient proxies for membership in the Jewish community.

Exactly. One might self-identify as Jewish even though he or she is not religious. And with the rates of interfaith marriages in which the offspring are raised with two religions — or no religion — how do we label those children? And what of the more traditional matrilineal view — that children born to a Jewish mother are automatically Jewish?

As a reporter, I always used the 5-6 million figure for American Jews. That was the generally accepted statistic. But according to Sarna, the last Jewish “census” (conducted 10 years ago) was considered by many to be inaccurate. And today, the challenges of obtaining reliable information are even greater.

Methodologically, the challenge of surveying the small Jewish population scattered across the United States remains formidable. Even if every American responded to a random survey of home telephone numbers, it would still require some 50 calls to find a single Jewish respondent. Owing to caller ID, “survey fatigue” and the growing number of people who don’t possess home telephones (but only cell phones), locating Jews in this way is less and less practical. And a survey conducted via “random digit dialing” also threatens to be highly unrepresentative, for young professional Jews are far less likely to be located through such techniques than older retired ones.

Frustrating indeed.
One Comment leave one →
  1. Jack Wirtz permalink
    December 5, 2011 7:09 pm

    Sarna’s numbers problems seems self inflicted as the
    data is readily available by both State and National

    The 2012 U.S. Census of Jewish religious adherents:

    or the total of Ethnic Jews: 34,258,000…

    with /population/religion.html for religious adherents

    with /population.html for ethnic population

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