Counting Jewish communities

By Cindy Weiss, CLAS Today

Arnold Dashefsky Photography by Daniel Buttrey

Arnold Dashefsky
Photography by Daniel Buttrey

Counting the Jewish population in the U.S. and uncovering previously unknown Jewish communities has become an annual project for Arnold Dashefsky, his graduate students, and his colleagues.

Dashefsky, the Doris and Simon Konover Chair of Judaic Studies, and his colleague Ira Sheskin, a human geographer at the University of Miami, recently found that there are about 6.6 million Jews in the U.S., a figure 20 percent higher than the one reported in a 2000 National Jewish Population Survey.

The exact figure is hard to establish – defining who is a Jew is one elusive feature of a population count – but Dashefsky and Sheskin have been refining their project for five years. Each year, they are discovering new, previously unreported Jewish communities.

“People who follow this issue are intrigued by it,” says Dashefsky, a sociologist who is director of the North American Jewish Data Bank, which is housed at UConn.

For many years the American Jewish Yearbook had published a crude estimate of the number of U.S. Jews, he says. The publication, now out of business, dropped its estimates in 2009. Dashefsky and Sheskin decided to take on the project. Sheskin had previously done many local Jewish population studies.

Their latest figure, published online in December, included more than 900 communities around the U.S. Some of these are counted through informed estimates. The majority of the Jewish population, which is often found in urban areas, has been counted in more scientific surveys done over the past decade.

“It’s really an aggregation of a variety of different estimates,” says Dashefsky.

A 2010 survey of New Haven, Conn., for instance, used a variety of methods, including random digit dialing, and it found 23,000 Jewish persons living in 11,000 Jewish households. A wealth of other information was obtained, too, such as the median age (52), religious practices (15 percent kept a kosher home), intermarriage rates (34 percent) and health needs.

Dashefsky and Sheskin acknowledge that their 6.6 million figure for the U.S. Jewish population may be an overestimate, but it is close to what is reported by other social scientists, 6.4 million to 6.5 million. Most scholars set the number closer to 6 million than 5 million, Dashefsky notes.

Two master’s degree students at UConn, Allen Hyde (sociology) and Pamela Weathers (Judaic Studies) are working on the population project this semester. They research references to Jews in municipalities where they haven’t previously been counted, such as the resort community of North Conway, N.H., where the retirement population is growing. While Jews are known to be concentrated in major metropolitan areas, the researchers are also looking at more sparsely populated areas that were previously unexamined, such as Wyoming, Vermont, Mississippi, and North Dakota.

jewish-communitiesMany new Jewish communities are found each year, Dashefsky says.

The social scientist’s definition of a Jew is used in the survey – that is, one who asserts he or she is Jewish and who is accepted by others as a Jew. The religious definition varies, Dashefsky points out. The traditional view defines a Jew as one born of a Jewish mother, for example, while the Reform view is broader, identifying a Jew as one born of a Jewish parent. What constitutes conversion also has different interpretations.

Why do the survey? It is part of the data bank’s function to acquire and archive data on North American Jewry, and the survey fulfills a scholarly agenda of gathering new information about this community.

“The quantitative data available at the North American Jewish Data Bank may be unique among religious and ethnic groups in the U.S., and it is freely accessible,” Dashefky says.

“In a broader sense, from the point of view of the Jewish community, the larger, fundamental goal is to help its members enhance their Jewish identity and to improve the cohesiveness of the community,” he adds.

Knowing where the Jewish community is located and how large it is will help Jewish organizations develop policies to meet its needs. If a particular population is older, it might need aging programs; if younger, it might need pre-school programs.

For more information, visit the website of the North American Jewish Databank, housed in the Center for Judaic Studies and Contemporary Jewish Life at UConn. You can view Jewish population statistics and a community archive by state.

Learn more about the Center for Judaic Studies and Contemporary Jewish Life

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