Statistically Speaking: What’s New in Jewish Community Demographics
It’s been said that, Statistics are like witnesses—they will testify for either side.” Of course, if one conducts a statistical study with a pre-conceived conclusion, that adage is appropriate. However, statistics, properly gathered and interpreted, can be very helpful. Those of us in the messianic community who are interested in understanding trends in the Jewish community at large have several studies that can instruct us.
The most extensive and most costly study of the American Jewish community, called the National Jewish Population Survey (NJPS) of 2000-01, reported a U.S. Jewish population estimate of 5.2 million, down slightly from the 5.5 million figure they came up with in a similar study ten years ago. This figure is based on the NJPS definition of who is a Jew—people who identified themselves as Jewish, were born to a Jewish parent or were raised Jewish and who didn’t convert to another religion. The NJPS researchers pointed out that if they broadened their definition to include anyone from a Jewish background, the number would go up to 6.9 million.
Another study, the American Jewish Identity Survey (AJIS) 2001, sponsored by the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, was released in February of 2002. Barry Kosmin, who also conducted the NJPS study of 1990, headed this up. AJIS broke down Jewish identity by religion, parentage, upbringing and self-definition and came up with a 5.5 million figure. However, when they added in Jews who follow other religions but are still regarded as Jews in some sense and their children, as well as Jews with no religion, their figure increased to 7.7 million. Kosmin criticized the methodology in the 2000-2001 NJPS survey, saying they failed to “adequately count ‘fringe’ or ‘marginal’ Jews—the intermarried, the secular, the unaffiliated and those living outside the large metropolitan areas.”
In still another survey conducted by Gary Tobin’s Institute for Jewish and Community Research, it was maintained that the Jewish population stands at 6.7 million using a similarly restrictive definition as NJPS. However, if broadened to include people who practice Judaism in addition to another religion, who were raised Jewish but now practice another religion, or have a Jewish partner or spouse, the figure goes up to 9.2 million. Then if you add those with a Jewish grandparent or beyond, the number of Jews in the U.S. becomes 13.3 million. Says Tobin, “Jews are not disappearing, they are transforming.”
Do these three survey results sound contradictory or at least a little confusing? Ironically, when, as a movement, we are asked how many Jewish believers in Jesus there are, we seem to have as many answers as the mainstream Jewish community.
Our detractors, like Jews for Judaism cite figures such as a quarter of a million, however they haven’t even conducted a statistical survey. And if the figure is truly that high, where are all these Jewish believers? Groups like the Union of Messianic Jewish Congregations (UMJC) point to 150 messianic Jewish congregations, but do not offer a number of Jews who believe. Other groups have been quoted in reputable publications as saying that there are more Jews who believe in Jesus today than in any other time in history. What are they basing such statements on?
Those of you who receive Havurah make up approximately 14,400 Jewish believing households. Couple that fact with anecdotal information about Jewish believers at conferences and in congregations, and we have come up with an educated guess of anywhere from 30,000-75,000 Jewish believers in the U.S. However, we just don’t know and neither does anyone else. We’d like to do better.
There have been some surveys done, one conducted by Jews for Jesus in 1982, in which questionnaires were sent to Jewish believers like you who receive our Jews for Jesus mailings. Sixteen percent of 8,000 Jewish-believing households responded back then. Thousands of surveys continued coming in over the next decade and these were tabulated for a 1992 follow-up survey. The information gathered was helpful to our understanding of our community and to that of the larger Jewish world with whom we look to interact.
Dr. Philip Abramovitz, head of the Jewish Community Relations Council’s Task Force on Missionaries and Jews, understood its value as recently as three years ago. He made an impassioned plea to Jewish leaders to do what they could to motivate “core” Jews to reach out to marginalized Jews on a one-on-one basis. Dr. Abramovitz cited our Jewish Believer Survey as significant in its finding that most Jewish believers come to faith in Jesus through the efforts of individuals, whether they are friends, relatives, neighbors or business associates. If that is still true, then there are implications for us as well in how we motivate, instruct and encourage individual believers in their witness to Jews. Some other results of note included our assessment that the intermarriage rate of Jewish believers was on a par with the rest of the Jewish community and that education levels and Jewish holiday observance were similar.
Having said this, our data needs to be updated and we’d like to compare current information with current Jewish community surveys now available to us. To do this, we need your help. Enclosed with this edition of Havurah is a preliminary survey. Would you consider filling it out? If there is more than one member of your household who should fill out the survey, would you copy it so that there are enough to go around? And if there are others we should mail the survey to, would you give us their names and addresses? We will share the results with all who fill out the survey and hopefully, together we can find out more about our Jewish believing community and how we can be a stronger story to other Jews about our Messiah.
One final note. The NJPS results were only published in part. They discovered that most of the computer data was lost and are not publishing the rest, at least for now. Some demographers in the Jewish community have speculated that perhaps the NJPS team just didn’t like the results they got. Whatever results we get, we promise to publish the Jews for Jesus study and let the statistics speak for themselves.
Director of Communications, Missionary
Susan Perlman is one of the co-founders of Jews for Jesus. Susan is the associate executive director of Jews for Jesus and also director of communications for the organization. She also serves as the editor in chief of ISSUES, their evangelistic publication for Jewish seekers. She left a career track in New York City to help launch Jews for Jesus in San Francisco in the early 1970s. See more here.