Dei'ah veDibur - Information & Insight

A Window into the Chareidi World

7 Nissan 5762 - March 20, 2002 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly









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No More than Barely 4 Million Halachic American Jews
by Mordecai Plaut

According to a new study, there are no more than 4 million people in the United States who are halachically Jewish. This figure itself should be viewed as an upper bound rather than an exact number. The true figure is probably significantly lower. The results of the American Jewish Identity Survey, 2001 have already been reported from various perspectives. The following report highlights the findings that are interesting from a chareidi perspective.

Other important findings:

* Close to 10,000,000 people from America are probably eligible to enter the State of Israel under its Law of Return as currently formulated.

* Nearly half of all those describing themselves as Reform said that their outlook is "secular" (30 percent) or "somewhat secular" (18) indicating that their affiliation with Reform is explicitly not a religious one. This seriously undermines the Reform claim to be a "stream" of Judaism comparable to so-called Orthodoxy, unless we also grant that organizations such as Hadassah Women are also a stream of Judaism and can convert Jews. More than a third of Conservative are secular (35 percent = 21+14).

* The overall intermarriage rate is 51 percent. That is, 51 percent of the 505,000 Jews who got married within the last decade married spouses who were avowedly not Jewish. 40 percent married a Jewish spouse and 9 percent married someone who had converted. Of those who married before 1965, 89 percent married a Jewish spouse. At least a third of all American Jews who are married, are married to a non-Jew.

The recently-released American Jewish Identity Survey, 2001 by Egon Mayer, Barry A. Kosmin and Ariela Keysar, of the Institute for Jewish Studies of the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, included, for the first time, an attempt to address the halachic criteria of Jewishness. However the limitations of the study and the underlying sociological approach tend to inflate the resulting figure considerably. (A report of the study is available electronically at: WWW.GC.CUNY.EDU/STUDIES/STUDIES_INDEX.HTM)

According to the study, the "Core Jewish Population" of the United States was 5.34 million in 2001, a decline of more than 3 percent since the last such survey was taken in 1990. This group includes, according to the authors of the study, "those whom most Jewish communal bodies accept without qualification as potential members of their communities." However, it is immediately clear that all religious Jewish communal bodies do not regard much of this group as their constituency.

This population in turn is divided by the authors into three major groups: BJR (Born into the Jewish Religion), born into the Jewish religion and still there, JBC (Jews by choice), meaning those who have converted or "otherwise" become committed to being Jewish, JNR (Jews with No Religion), those who said they had an ethnic Jewish background but were not at all religious.

In all cases (including the approximation of halachic Judaism as discussed below) the groups are self-defined. This is standard for academic surveys, and gives a result that is valid for their purposes. Most social groups are simply made up that way.

Thus, survey respondents are asked questions and their answers are accepted, without any attempt to challenge or verify them. If a respondent says that both his or her parents were Jewish, for example, he or she is marked as a person born of two Jewish parents. There is not even a follow- up question asking if either of them converted or not. In times past this approach gave reasonable approximation for those who are actually Jewish, but in these assimilationist times, and after three to four previous assimilationist generations, that is not so.

In the previous study in 1990, no questions were asked about parentage. This time, those interviewed were simply asked about their parents and their answers are recorded. It is standard sociology but not halachah.

As the authors state: "The current survey sought, as did NJPS 1990, to spread the widest possible net in sampling so as to provide an opportunity for respondents to indicate in what way if any they might be Jewish themselves or whether another member of their household might be Jewish in some way. This study . . . tried to detect by means of the four screening questions whether or not any members of the household would regard themselves as having some connection to either the Jewish religion, a Jewish family or the Jewish people, either on the basis of current identification or on the basis of ancestry, or both."

There are good reasons for them to cast as wide a net as possible. The bigger the Jewish population, the more important it makes the organizations that represent the Jewish community generally. Also, by now, since many of the leaders of secular Jewish organizations are intermarried or are the children of intermarriages, it is obviously important to them to be defined as within the Jewish community.

Still the new study is very valuable for it does provide an upper bound. It is more than reasonable to assume that there are no more halachic Jews than those who responded that their mother was Jewish (plus sincere converts).

One interesting finding of the survey is that even according to their standards, the "Core Jewish Population" is rapidly becoming less overtly Jewish. In 1990, the total proportion of those in the Core who considered themselves Jewish (JBR+JBC, adults+children) was 80 percent. Only 11 years later, in 2001, the proportion was only 68 percent.

Interpreting the Findings about Halachic Jews

The Jewish people who had at least a Jewish mother are divided into the various classifications as follows: JBR Jews (of the Jewish religion) 84 percent say they meet the classic Jewish identity test (2,461,200), and of the JNR, 58 percent say they have Jewish mothers (649,600). These are the adults in the "Core" population, a total of 3.1 million. In addition, 34 percent of the JOR (having another religion) claimed a Jewish mother (499,800).

It should be noted that almost 500,000 of those who consider themselves Jewish by religion do not even claim to have a Jewish mother. This does not include converts who are measured in a separate category.

If we assume that the children of the Core are divided up the same way there are 588,000 such children who are JBR, and 342,200 children in JNR.

Thus the total of the Core Jewish Population that claims to be halachically Jewish is 4,041,000.

The authors use a figure of 3.6 million adult halachic Jews, which is the total of all three categories (JBR+JNR+JOR). It is not clear who they think is interested in that total. Religious as well as secular organizations do not consider those who identify with other religions (JOR) as their population of interest. The figure of 3.1 million in the Core who are halachically Jewish is more important, and perhaps the 2.5 million who are Jewish and are willing to identify as Jewish by religion are the most important, of the groups studied.

Correlation with Other Studies

According to a survey of all Jewish educational institutions performed by Dr. Marvin Schick, there are 138,000 students in the U.S. enrolled in Orthodox Jewish day schools. This compares to 47,000 enrolled in non-Orthodox Jewish day schools. These students attended a total of 676 different schools that were surveyed. Dr. Schick's survey was conducted as an actual census, not a statistical projection as was the AJIS.

Putting the two together, those enrolled in the Orthodox schools are almost a quarter of the total population of Jewish children (JBR) in the U.S. (23.5 percent)!

Relationship to Israel

The authors of the study were surprised, perhaps mystified is a better word, to find that there is a very close correlation between a Jewish person's feelings on Israel and his or her feelings towards religion. They write:

"Surprisingly, there is nearly a linear relationship between where American Jews locate themselves on the religious- secular spectrum with respect to their outlook and their attachment to Israel. Those who are more religious are more likely to have visited and are more emotionally attached to Israel; the more secular are less likely to have visited and are less emotionally attached to Israel. Twice as many of those who describe themselves as "religious" have visited Israel than those who describe themselves as "secular" (47% compared with 23%). Similarly, more than three times as many of those who describe themselves as "religious" say they are "very attached" to Israel as compared with those who describe themselves as "secular" (58% compared with 15%).

"The reason there appears to be such a consistent disconnection between secularism and Israel is obviously a lot more difficult to understand than the disconnection between secularism and affiliation with Jewish communal institutions. But, the facts are plain enough to warrant a serious search for the underlying mechanisms that appear to weaken the social bonds that link Jews to one another among those whose outlook is secular or somewhat secular."

A fruitful search can be mounted in the sayings of HaRav Shach zt"l, who was fond of quoting Rav Saadiah Gaon who said, "The Jewish people are united by the Torah." That is the underlying mechanism.


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