This piece is a brief synopsis of the content from a February 12, 2013, three-part lecture by Dr. Ira Sheskin, Professor Arnold Dashefsky, and Professor Barry Kosmin, at the Sue and Leonard Miller Center for Contemporary Judaic Studies. For more information about Jewish demography, visit www.JewishDataBank.org
AJYB: The American Jewish Year Book
Judaism is many things; it is a religion, a culture, an ethnicity, and a people. Jews, too, are diverse but share a common heritage. In Africa, Asia, and Europe, Jewish history extends thousands of years. In the United States that history stretches less than 500 years. However, much of it was not actively documented until the late 19th Century. Before the American Jewish Year Book (AJYB), little was known about the nature, structure, and direction of American Jewish life.
Since its launch in 1899, AJYB has been the official demographic record of the American Jewish population. Published annually, it contains important statistics about the composition and distribution of America’s Jewish communities. For more than a century, the Year Book was the place where the foremost academics published articles of interest to those communities. It was also a major resource for Jewish leaders until production ceased in 2008.
On February 12, 2013, the Miller Center publicly revealed the Year Book’s revival with the announcement of a new edition. The 2012 AJYB (available here) is the collaborative brainchild of Dr. Ira Sheskin (University of Miami), Professor Arnold Dashefsky (University of Connecticut), and Professor Barry Kosmin (Trinity University). Funded in large part by the University of Miami, AJYB 2012 is the culmination of the Jewish Demography Project. It not only discusses the history of America’s Jewish populations; it uses what is currently known to illustrate their future. Here are some of its key findings:
The Status of America’s Jewry
The Jewish population of the United States has grown significantly since 1654 (see below):
However, the exact size of America’s current Jewish population is still under debate. Official estimates vary between 5.2 million and 6.6 million people. The 2012 AJYB asserts that the number is relatively stable somewhere between 6 and 6.5 million. If that were the case, then the United States has a larger Jewish population than Israel (5.4 million). It would mean that America has the world’s largest Jewish population and is 2% Jewish.
More than half of America’s Jews live in three states. According to the 2012 AJYB, New York has the largest population of American Jews—1.7 million strong. California, at 1.2 million, is second. Florida ranks third with a Jewish population greater than 638,000.
Although the American Jewish population is stable, the American Jewish lifestyle is changing as a product of assimilation. Over the past 20 years, many American Jews have moved away from religion toward cultural Judaism. Tha 2012 AJYB found that almost 2 million American Jews—an increase of 500,000 since 1990—identify themselves as secular members of a community rather than members of a religion. The Year Book references the 2000-2001 National Jewish Population Survey (NPJS) for some of its most relevant findings:
- 32% of Jewish adults (25+) have Bachelor’s Degrees
- 28% of Jewish adults have Graduate Degrees
- 37% of Jews surveyed have visited Israel
- 63% of American Jews are emotionally attached to Israel
- 66% have given to non-Jewish charities
Judaism 101: Why Jewish Population Surveys Are Complicated
Judaism is a religion and an ethnicity. You can be Jewish by religion or Jewish by ethnicity.
Rules of Jewish Inheritance/Identity
|Orthodox||Your mother must be Jewish|
|Conservative||Your mother must be Jewish|
|Reform||Your mother or father must be Jewish|
|Reconstructionist||Your mother or father must be Jewish|
|The State of Israel||You must have one Jewish grandparent|
|Social Scientists Studying American Jewry||“Consider Self Jewish” (and is not Messianic)|
The Fate of America’s Jewry
Over the past few decades, America’s Jewish population has remained relatively stable between 6 million and 6.5 million people. It is likely that the number of American Jews will decrease in the future for a few reasons:
- American Jewish couples raise an average of 1-2 children, which is only enough to keep the population stable at best
- There is a high percentage of elderly individuals (like Boca Raton)
- Although there are 50,000 Jewish births each year, there are at least 60,000 Jewish deaths each year (a net loss of 10,000 people)
- Due to secularization, not all Jewish children are raised as Jews
- Due to assimilation, many Jews “opt out” and marry out of the religion
- Due to intermarriage, many Jewish families have non-Jewish members that can feel excluded from Jewish religious practices. This can alter the way or the extent to which those traditions are observed.
Assimilation—the source of secularization and intermarriage—is the chief threat to the continuity of American Jewish communities. The first chapter of the 2012 American Jewish Year Book (AJYB) addresses the implications of this trend:
“While Jews feared that they would assimilate into America, it was actually America that was becoming more Jewish… And yet in reality and practice there is no distinct Jewish community but rather an assortment of communities…
…Jewish secular institutions are open to everybody—unlike the religious institutions, which may claim to be open and inclusive, but generally are not. This lack of need to show a mother’s Ketubah (religious marriage certificate) to join or participate is particularly relevant and important when so many Jews now live together with non-Jewish family and household members.”
The tug of secular culture has been reinforced by the rise of the Internet, which has made sacred texts accessible to the public. The democratization of religious knowledge undermines the power and purpose of synagogues—the very foundation of the Jewish community. The Year Book and NPJS reflect this change:
- 48% of Jewish couples are intermarried
- 21% of Jews keep kosher at home
- 60% of Jews fasted on Yom Kippur
Furthermore, 46% of American Jews are members of synagogues. Due to secularization, that number is getting smaller. Many Jews, who have themselves chosen to become less involved in Jewish life, feel that the “correctness” or “inevitability” of their choice has been confirmed by the fact that many others have followed the same path.
However, other Jews have taken charge to reverse the trends of secularization and intermarriage. Across the country, many Jewish communities have made continuity a priority. This has led to extra funding for formal and informal Jewish education. Additional sources of continuity and optimism are Jewish day camps, Hillel, Chabad, and Birthright trips to Israel. These institutions—especially Birthright—strengthen the younger Jewish generations and, according to AJYB numbers below, boost participation in the global Jewish community:
AJYB explains that the Jewish community is still incredibly strong. As of 2012, North America currently has:
- 157 Jewish Federations
- 200 Jewish Community Centers
- 330 National Jewish Organizations
- 105 Jewish Museums
- 104 Holocaust Museums and Memorials
- 155 Jewish overnight camps (Foundation for Jewish Camp)
- 74 national Jewish publications
- 153 local Jewish publications
Furthermore, the number of synagogues has actually increased from 2,851 in 1936 to 3,727 in 2001. There is still great potential for change.
My Take: Our Choice, Your Choice
“The Jew is the symbol of eternity. He is the one who for so long had guarded the prophetic message and transmitted it to all mankind. A people such as this can never disappear.”
–Leo Tolstoy (War and Peace)
For centuries, people have claimed that the Jews were a dying race. They were wrong. When the Jews did not disappear, numerous groups tried to deliver them to extinction (Crusades, Holocaust, Jihad, etc.). They failed.
Assimilation, an old threat, can be overcome as it has been throughout history. We can wallow in depression over this trend or we can be strong and do something about it. If we want the motivation to protect our Jewish identity, then we should look no further than the story of Purim (see here).
The lessons of Esther and Mordecai are timeless; they empower us to take charge of our personal circumstances. In doing so, we can take advantage of our obstacles, our enemies, and our threats. We can profoundly change them. We can reverse them. However, in order to accomplish these feats, we must act swiftly.
The choice to act belongs to us. It belongs to you. Judaism is as much a birthright, as much a gift, as it is a choice. How will you use it?
Dr. Ira M. Sheskin of the University of Miami’s Department of Geography is the Director of the Jewish Demography Project; this project culminated with The American Jewish Year Book. He has been a member of the Judaic Studies Faculty for 25 years.
Dr. Sheskin has completed or is currently working on 31 major demographic studies for Jewish Federations throughout the country and has been a consultant to numerous synagogues, day schools, Jewish agencies, and Jewish Community Centers throughout the country. Dr. Sheskin has been a member since 1988 of the National Technical Advisory Committee of United Jewish Communities, which completed both the 1990 and 2000 National Jewish Population Surveys.
His publications include a book entitled Survey Research for Geographers. Survey research is a major tool in the study of Jewish demography. He is the author of numerous articles on Jewish demography. His latest book, How Jewish Communities Differ, has just been published by the North American Jewish Data Bank at the City University of New York. He is a member of the Board of the Association for the Social Scientific Study of Jewry, serves on the Editorial Board of Contemporary Jewry, and is the current Chair of the Ethnic Geography Specialty Group.
Dr. Arnold Dashefsky earned his B.A. and M.A. degrees at Temple University and a Ph.D. in sociology at the University of Minnesota as well as a B.H.L. at Gratz College (Philadelphia). He also studied at the Hebrew University and Hayim Greenberg College in Jerusalem. Prior to his position at the University of Connecticut, Arnie taught at Temple, Penn State-Ogontz, and Minnesota. In addition to the monographs cited below, he is also the editor of several volumes: Ethnic Identity in Society (published by Rand-McNally, 1976) and Contemporary Jewry, Volumes 7 and 8 (edited for the Association for the Social Scientific Study of Jewry and published by Transaction Books, 1986 and 1987). He is currently working on a book: Jewish Options (with J. A. Winter), which analyzes contemporary patterns in American Jewish life and a second edition ofAmericans Abroad, with a new introduction identifying current trends in U.S. emigration (with Karen Woodrow-Lafield). He has been honored by being named a distinguished alumnus of Gratz College at its Centennial Convocation and elected to the Connecticut Academy of Arts and Sciences (New Haven) just prior to its Bicentennial. Arnie is past president of the Association for the Social Scientific Study of Jewry, an international organization, and is also past editor of its journal, Contemporary Jewry. He also served on the Board of Directors and as Secretary-Treasurer of the Association for Jewish Studies, an international organization. A former Associate Head of the Sociology Department, he currently serves as the founding Director of the Center for Judaic Studies and Contemporary Jewish Life at the University of Connecticut as well as the Director of the Berman Institute – North American Jewish Data Bank, along with being the inaugural holder of the Doris and Simon Konover Chair of Judaic Studies.
Dr. Barry A. Kosmin has been a Principal Investigator of the American Religious Identification Survey (ARIS) series 1990-2008 since its inception. He has directed many other large national social surveys and opinion polls in Europe, Africa and the U.S., including the CJF 1990 US National Jewish Population Survey.
Dr Kosmin has taught at Universities in Europe, Africa and North America. Prior to coming to Trinity he was on the faculty of the Ph.D. Program in Sociology, CUNY Graduate School and was a Visiting Professor at the University of Cape Town and University College Chichester, UK. His leadership of research institutes has included: Founding Director, Mandell L. Berman Institute-North American Jewish Data Bank, Graduate Center of the City University of New York: Associate Director, AHRB Parkes Centre for the Study of Jewish/Non-Jewish Relations, University of Southampton, UK; Executive Director, of the London-based think tank, Institute for Jewish Policy Research.
Dr. Kosmin is the author of over 20 books and research monographs and more than 50 scholarly articles in the areas of sociology, demography, politics, philanthropy, and policy research. His scholarship includes being (1993-99) Joint Series Editor (with Dr Sidney Goldstein) of the monograph series, American Jewish Society in the 1990s for State University of New York Press and Joint Editor of the journal, Patterns of Prejudice (1999-2004).
Learn more about the Institute for the Study of Secularism in Society and Culture at www.trincoll.edu/secularisminstitute/.
The Sue and Leonard Miller Center for Contemporary Judaic Studies at the University of Miami is a UM-wide Center. It provides an objective, in-depth exploration of the issues and trends which have affected the Jewish people over the last 100 years. The Center is engaged in outreach activities – such as lectures, conferences and symposia – to which the public is also invited; supporting the teaching done by the University’s George Feldenkreis Program in Judaic Studies Program; research and publications; and fund raising for Judaic Studies at UM.