Jewish population of U.S. is estimated at 5.2 million

Discrepancies of surveys underscore classic debate

October 09, 2002|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

A survey released yesterday estimated the Jewish population in the United States at 5.2 million, a decline of 300,000 from 10 years earlier. Other studies last month had reported figures of more than 6 million.

That demographic estimates vary is no surprise. But the numbers underscore passionate arguments not just about who is a Jew, but about what is Jewishness and why it matters.

The National Jewish Population Survey described an aging population whose women are having children relatively late.

According to the survey, the median age of Jews in America rose to 41 in 2000 from 37 in 1990, compared with the national average of 35. The proportion of children in the Jewish community dipped to 19 percent from 21 percent, compared with 26 percent nationally. People older than 75 are 9 percent of the Jewish population, compared with 6 percent nationally.

Of Jewish women between 30 and 34 years old, the survey found, 52 percent have not given birth, compared with 27 percent of all women. Jewish women ages 40 to 44 have a birth rate of 1.8 children, compared with the 2.1 children needed to replace the current population, it said.

The survey, which had a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 1.4 percent, was sponsored by United Jewish Communities, an umbrella group of Jewish federations and communities. Researchers contacted 177,000 randomly chosen people and conducted more than 9,000 interviews.

"It's utter nonsense," Dr. Gary Tobin, who released his own survey last month, said of the figures. He is president of the Institute for Jewish and Community Research in San Francisco, which receives grants from foundations.

Tobin's survey put the number of Jews at 6.7 million, though with its margin of sampling error of 9 percent, the number could be as low as 6.1 million or as high as 7.3 million. He arrived at a higher figure, he said, partly by taking into account the rate of people who decline to say they are Jewish, possibly from fear of anti-Semitism.

Another study released last month, by the Glenmary Research Center, put the number of people who described themselves as ethnically Jewish at 6.1 million. Yesterday, Glenmary said the figure was a yearly estimate provided by United Jewish Communities researchers, who based it on reports from Jewish communities and leaders around the country. Those researchers, though, said yesterday's number was more accurate because it was based on a scientific survey.

Tobin said his definition of Jews included people who said they were Jewish even if they adhered to other religions (which he said was a "minute" amount); if they gave no religion but said they were ethnically or culturally Jewish; or if they gave no religion but said they had been raised as Jews, had a Jewish parent or practiced Judaism.

That definition was somewhat broader than the new survey's, which included as Jews those who said they had no religion but had a Jewish parent or a Jewish upbringing.

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