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Number of Jews living in US may be near 8 million; Census Bureau statistics are difficult to substantiate

There are differences between rabbinic law regarding Jewish identity vs. Jewish as an ethnic identity

JERUSALEM-OCT 02 2007:American woman waving the flags of Israel and United States in Jerusalem March.It's a traditional procession held every year during Sukkot Jewish holiday in Jerusalem, Israel.

A study published by Brandeis University’s American Jewish Population Project group found that 7.6 million Jews were living in the United States in 2020, a number that is projected to grow to more than 8 million over the next few years. 

Estimates of the country’s total Jewish population are difficult to substantiate as the U.S. Census Bureau does not ask citizens about their religious affiliation, following the “separation of church and state” legal concept. The Census Bureau also does not ask questions about ethnicity to specifically identify the Jewish population. 

As a result, different methods of estimating the Jewish population of the U.S. are used, often resulting in varying figures. 

One example of this is seen in the much lower figure used by the Israeli Central Bureau of Statistics, which estimates that there are only around 6 million Jews currently living in the U.S. 

The Brandeis study, similar to the Pew Research Center study released the same year, found a much higher population, with 7.5 million enumerated in the Pew study and 7.6 million in the Brandeis study. Both concluded that Jews make up approximately 2.4% of the total U.S. population. 

The Brandeis and Pew studies accepted as Jewish all adults who self-identified as religiously Jewish, as well as adults who described themselves as ethnically Jewish but not religious.

The Israel Central Bureau’s figures are only based on work done by Hebrew University of Jerusalem researcher Professor Sergio Della Pergola, former chairman of the university’s Harman Institute of Contemporary Jewry. 

Della Pergola’s definition of “Jewish” included only adults “who consider Judaism their mutually exclusive identification framework, including both those who do see or do not see religion as a major avenue for identification.” 

According to Prof. Leonard Saxe, director of the Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies, “It’s hard to estimate the exact number since there are no official counting standards.” 

“Many identify as Jewish but aren’t counted as such. We need to strengthen the bond with such people to make them part of the Jewish identity,” Saxe said. 

One of the problems, according to Saxe, is that “plenty of Jews aren’t part of the community and have little knowledge about Judaism.” 

“Many don’t like putting themselves in a box, but just because they don’t attend a synagogue or have Shabbat dinners doesn’t mean they’re not at least culturally connected to Judaism. They might view Israel as an anchor to their sense of belonging, even if it’s not religious by nature.” 

Complicating studies like these is the issue of Messianic Jews, particularly those who are ethnically Jewish but consider Yeshua (Jesus) to be their Messiah, and thus their primary religious identifier. Most of the studies mentioned above would exclude Messianic Jews from the count, even though they would be eligible to immigrate to Israel through the Law of Return. 

Also complicating the studies are differences between rabbinic law regarding Jewish identity, and Jewishness as an ethnic identity. This complicated issue is still debated in Israel today. 

The All Israel News Staff is a team of journalists in Israel.

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