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It has recently come out that there may be more Jews in America than we previously thought. A new report by the Steinhardt Social Research Institute at Brandeis tells us that there may be up to 7.4 million Americans who are, in some way, Jewish.

This is in contrast to a 2006 study by the AJC which held the number to be 6.4 million

This of course begs the question – Where were 1 million Jews hiding when we were trying to count them the first time around?

Clearly these semi-visible Jews are not easily found for a reason – they are the unaffiliated of the unaffiliated. A fringe so far away we didn’t even know they were there. Either that, or they were too busy on their cell phones to talk to the survey people. Despite the shouts of glee at the sudden boost in population, I am not personally banking on this lost million to suddenly revitalize the Jewish people.

See, all this ballyhoo by the powers that be about how many American Jews there are or aren’t is only serving as smoke and mirrors to distract us from more important questions.

Cause here’s the thing when it comes to Jewish life – and all you pollsters and survey makers – pay attention

Numbers don’t matter.

It really doesn’t matter if there are 6, 7 or 70 million Jews living in America. What matters is the kind of Jews they are and the kind of Jewishness they are creating. Is it alive and vibrant or stagnant and increasingly desperate?

Until we can come up with a successful formula that makes Jews want to be educated about their Jewishness and living fulfilling Jewish lives, obsessing over just how many of us there are is more futile than rearranging the deck chairs on the titanic.

Are we a people with a mission or just a people with a shared heritage trying to live the good life just like everyone else?

If we put all our energy into an education system that worked, into providing more examples of what a committed Jewish life can look like, into Jewish identities based on more than just cultural consumption, into a Judaism with more history than the Lower East Side offers and more richness than a great lox spread can provide, then all this noise about population, intermarriage, assimilation etc. would just fade away.

And what a beautiful sound that would be.

About the author

Laya Millman

12 Comments

  • Brilliant “more futile than rearranging the deck chairs on the titanic.”

    My facination with this new study stems from the fact of its origins. But really and truly they get excited because if numbers are UP as opposed to DOWN then they those Jewish movements that are suffering from the downward spiral of membership numbers can say, hey maybe we are doing something right.

  • These 1 million Jews are easily found by everybody in America except those who willfully ignore them — i.e., the leaders of the American Jewish community, who continue to heap scorn and ridicule on Jews who have integrated into American society. It’s no wonder past methodological instruments were designed to ignore the types of people who don’t read The Jewish Week.

    The new report is important for the very reasons you mentioned. Doomsayers in the community have cited shoddy statistics for years to “prove” the community is in a death spiral, to use such fear-mongering tactics to raise money from guilt-addled Jews, and to claim that the “unaffiliated” are a hopeless lot that isn’t worth wasting our time and energies on. But if there really are more Jews out there, then it’s time the community’s leadership stopped dismissing and deriding the bulk of American Jewry. And it’s also time the community started understanding that “the kind of Jews they are” is far different from “the kind of Judaism” the community’s institutions proffer.

    End of sermon.

  • Laya said,

    “into a Judaism with more history than the Lower East Side offers”

    Oh, please. History for most secular Jewish residents in the Zionist Entity begins with Herzl.

  • Rabbi and EV: One thing that was noted in articles about this new survey was that given the larger number of Jews, we now know that an even smaller percentage are being served by Jewish institutions. The Jpost has Steinhardt saying
    “Has the present institutional structure in the Jewish world been responsible for the severe decline in affiliation? ”

    That having been said, EV, the fact of the matter is, most of the compelling Jewish programing coming out of Jewish institutions these days is all about reaching “the unaffiliated,” leaving the already affiliated with too few opportunities to truthfully grow spiritually and intellectually, outside the orthodox world.

    DK – I could argue that one, but what’s your point?

  • “Are we a people with a mission or just a people with a shared heritage trying to live the good life just like everyone else?”

    Unfortunately, it seems that the vast majority of American Jews would, if they were to be totally honest, answer the latter.

  • So what if we are, though?

    Rabbi Y – “rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic” is a saying that’s been around forever. Maybe, since, well, the Titanic.

  • Sorry to be a grammar nerd but it doesn’t “beg the question,” it raises it. Begging the question is, in rhetorical analysis, a circular flaw in logic.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Begging_the_question

    The common misuse of the phrase is my number one pet peeve and I am trying to stamp it out. Join me, Laya, and together we will rule the universe with a rhetorical flourish!

  • I’g guessing the study that uncovered these
    “Jews” included a criteria which defined someone as a Jew if he watched a majority of all Seinfeld episodes.

  • Brandeis wastes too much money counting Jewish souls. For less than $100, they could have arrived at the same number by just using the equation of…

    simple equation = number of passenger seats sold in 2006 for flights between the USA and Tel Aviv times 70% times 50 (since hoe many Jews actually go to Israel… pretty much only one person a year in each extended family)

    more complex equation = [number of boxes of matza sold in april 2006) divided by 0.8] + [ (number of seinfeld dvd’s purchased) / 2.5 ] + [number of members of aclu times 14] + [number of copies of nyt purchased on a sunday outside of nyc] + [number of people with surnames beginning with silver or gold in the nyc phone book] plus the number of hanukkah candles sold in 2005 less the number of loaves of sliced white bread sold on a wednesday in philadelphia]

  • Laya’s post 4 is interesting: she says “…leaving the already affiliated with too few opportunities to truthfully grow spiritually and intellectually, outside the orthodox world. ”

    There is a lot to that.

    “Orthodox” seems to mean two things. 1) One is being dati, or shomer mitzvah, being vaguely enrolled in a like-minded bunch of people who pray together regularly, but who do not know each other since childhood and are not related.

    And, 2) membership in a very defined social community, probably being born into it, knowing everybody since childhood.

    BOTH of these things are Torah-loyal. There are plenty of ways to be orthodox without being Orthodox!

    THAT is where the study and growth are, Laya. It’s not illegal! You can keep all (well, almost all) of your friends.

    Laya, that is the answer. There is not going to be anything else coming from the non-orhodox streams.. because when there is, they find themselves becoming … orthodox!

    NOBODY has a copyright on the Torah way of life.

    You don’t have to be just like the people who live it whom you are not crazy about. You can do it your way, if you just follow the religous rules not every neighborhood’s custom. You can eat better food. Sefardi food. You can dress attractively. You will still have a good time on Saturday. Your head will not fall off.

    Let us not sit around waiting for Godot. Nobody owns the Torah.

  • I am not for gender destruction however. I am not advocating “you’ve come a long way baby” orthodoxy. No, I think we should keep the two-sexes system. It is pretty, in my opinion. I didn’t mean we should re-invent or re-tool orthodoxy, just that it is available outside the established communities, G-d preserve them.

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