Forward Thinking

Measuring the American Jewish Population Today

By Lillian Swanson

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Oy, the perils of random telephone dialing, one of the tried and true methods of accurately measuring population trends. Sometimes, you hear the most unexpected replies.

“We have 50 women all married to the same Jew,” said the respondent who answered the phone in St. Petersburg, Fla., during a demographic survey. What?!

“We had called a convent,” explained Ira Sheskin, a national demographer who presented a comprehensive look at recent trends in the American Jewish community this morning at the American Jewish Press Association conference in Dallas. Sheskin, a professor of geography at the University of Miami, helped create the National Jewish Population Survey in 1990 and 2000, and has researched the makeup of dozens of Jewish communities across the nation.

Funny anecdotes aside, the absence of the NJPS since 2000 has meant demographers who try to paint a picture of the American Jewish community today have had to rely on multiple sets of data.

Sheskin says the research shows there are between 6 million and 6.4 million Jews living in America today, representing about 2.1 percent of the U.S. population. But no one knows the exact number.

He believes there has been relatively little change in the number since the 2000 NJPS, which found 5.2 million American Jews. Sheskin thinks this figure may have been too low, and that 6 million to 6.4 million Jews is most likely the correct number today, which is about the same over the last decade.

Other highlights:

The influx of Jews from the former Soviet Union has helped keep the population about the same as in 2000. The research shows that there are about 400,000 to 500,000 FSU Jews in the U.S., he says.

The American Jewish population skews much older than the rest of the country’s population. In 2000, about 12 percent of the U.S. population was 65 and over, while 19 percent of American Jews were in that age bracket.

Where Jews live has shifted dramatically over the last 40 years. In 1970, 42 percent of American Jews lived in New York. That share dropped to 25 percent in 2010. The decline is part of the overall shift of Jews out of the Northeast, declining to 44 percent in 2010, down from 63 percent in 1970.

Meanwhile, the percentage of American Jews who live in the South grew to 21 percent in 2010, up from only 12 percent in 1970. And it rose to 25 percent in the west in 2010, up from 13 percent in 1970.

During the same period, the percentage of Jews who live in the Midwest stayed about the same, about 12 percent.

Over the last 40 years, New York has lost about 900,000 Jews, and Florida has gained about 350,000 Jews, exclusive of the snowbirds.

For more about the changing face of the American Jewish population, go to the North American Jewish Data Bank at www.jewishdatabank.org.


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