Debate Over the Number of American Jews
The Pew Research Center did an extensive survey of American Jews in 2020, which found that the population was 7.5 million, an increase of 800,000 since 2013. Pew is careful to state that the reported increase may be overestimated due to a change in methodology.
Israeli demographer Sergio DellaPergola has published lower estimates in the American Jewish Year Book. His total for 2020 is 6 million, an increase of only 300,000 since 2013.
A third estimate, of 7.3 million, also appears in the Year Book in an analysis by Professors Ira Sheskin and Arnold Dashefsky. This represents a 600,000 increase in eight years.
The Pew survey broke down Jewish Americans into two categories: “Jews by religion” (those who said their present religion is Jewish); and “Jews of no religion” (those who consider themselves Jewish aside from religion, and have at least one Jewish parent or were raised Jewish). More than one-quarter of U.S. Jews (27 percent) fall into the latter category.
DellaPergola argues that the “core Jewish population” – defined as individuals who identify as Jewish and have no other religion – is a better indicator of the true size of the Jewish community. “Jews of no religion” are only included in calculations of the “core Jewish population” if they have two Jewish parents. Pew includes people who would not be included in Jewish population estimates in other countries.
Because the Pew survey includes Americans who don’t identify exclusively as Jewish, DellaPergola argues, its estimates of the size of the community and its rate of growth in recent years are highly inflated.
Sheskin and Dashefsky’s figure of 7.3 million is within the margin of error of the 7.5 million found by Pew. Similarly, the American Jewish Population Project at Brandeis estimates 7.6 million, also within the margin of error of the Pew study. All three studies use different methodologies and have found very similar numbers. According to Sheskin, “Almost all American social scientists accept these numbers as reasonable estimates of the American Jewish population.”
Sheskin explains that DellaPergola “wants to try to standardize who is counted as a Jew so he can compare the size of the U.S. Jewish population with other countries. He omits 1.5 million persons who identify as ‘Jew of No Religion’ who had only one Jewish parent. Thus, the difference between the estimates of the size of the Jewish population is mostly related to the issue of defining a Jew.”
Sources: Sergio DellaPergola, “World Jewish Population, 2021,” in Arnold Dashefsky and Ira M. Sheskin (eds.), The American Jewish Year Book, 2021, (Cham: Springer Nature, 2021).
“Jewish Americans in 2020,” Pew Research Center, (May 11, 2021).
Judy Maltz, “How many U.S. Jews are there? Israeli expert offers provocative answer,” Haaretz, (November 17, 2021)