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A new study released by the Steinhardt Social Research Institute (SSRI) at Brandeis University indicates that American Jewry may number as high as 7.4 million.
The figure represents a spectacular jump from the 2000 National Jewish Population Survey (NJPS) figure of some 5.2 million, or even from the 2006 study conducted for the American Jewish Committee's American Jewish Yearbook which counted as many as 6.4 million American Jews.
According to the report, released last week, previous estimates of the American Jewish population have relied "on complex surveys that have become increasingly difficult to conduct. Accumulating evidence suggests that these surveys provide a misleading portrait."
When published in 2001, the NJPS counted some 4.3 million Jews and another 900,000 people who were affiliated with the Jewish community or have a Jewish background.
While the difference in the NJPS and American Jewish Yearbook studies related to their radically different methodologies - the former a comprehensive phone survey of American Jewish communities and the latter a composite of some 50 local community studies conducted over two decades - the new figures come from a reanalysis of NJPS data from 1990 and 2000 and other information collected from over 30 government and foundation-funded studies on religious, ethnic, and cultural identity.
The comparison study, SSRI researchers believe, shows that the NJPS vastly undercounted young American Jews.
"Our analyses tell us that the Jewish community is larger and more diverse than most had thought," said Dr. Len Saxe, Professor of Jewish Community Research at Brandeis University and the current director of SSRI. "In particular, it is clear that there are many more Jews under 55 years of age, including a significantly larger proportion of children and young adults, than NJPS indicated." According to the new study's authors, the "NJPS is the most frequently relied upon source of information about the Jewish community in the United States and errors in its interpretation have very serious policy implications for the Jewish community and for those interested in understanding contemporary Jewry."
According to the research led by Saxe, the NJPS's telephone methods caused an undercount of Jewish young adults and professionals, since they tend not to respond to phone surveys.
Responding to the new findings, philanthropist Michael Steinhardt, who financed the establishment of SSRI and other Jewish identity initiatives such as birthright israel, noted that "a larger Jewish population overall" coupled with an unchanged affiliation level meant that "the percentage of Jews who are being served by the Jewish community is actually less than previously thought. This leads us to an important question: Has the present institutional structure in the Jewish world been responsible for the severe decline in affiliation? ...Should we not explore ways to reinvent the Jewish community in order to reach them?"
For Saxe, the numbers are an optimistic indication of the vitality of the American Jewish community. "Rather than seeing itself in decline," he said, "the organized American Jewish community has an exciting opportunity to serve a larger, more diverse population that feels a connection to Jewish life."