In examining the American Jewish community, we need to examine both the number of Jews as well as the quality of the community.
Estimates of the number of American Jews range from about 5.4 million (1.7 percent of all Americans) to about 6.5 million (2.1%). The reasons for the varying estimates, as discussed in the academic literature and in the press, including in The Jerusalem Post, are the use by different researchers of different survey methodologies and definitions of “who is a Jew.”
The latest estimate of the number of Jews in Israel is 6 million, so if the 5.4 million estimate of American Jews is correct, then Israel has the largest Jewish population in the world; if the 6.5 million is correct, the US has the largest.
In addition, some researchers believe that, over the past decade, the number of American Jews has, perhaps, increased very slowly, whereas others believe it has increased significantly. Most agree that the American Jewish population will decrease in the future in both absolute numbers and as a percentage. Some of the decrease is due to low birth rates; much is due to intermarriage and assimilation.
Are the numbers and changes in those numbers all that important? Yes and no. Certainly, if the number of Jews decreases, it will be a challenge to maintain certain Jewish institutions, at least in some locations. Compare, for example, the Jewish community in Miami, home to 113,000 Jews, with San Antonio, Texas, home to about 9,000. If the Jewish community in Miami shrinks (as it has been doing), the Jewish population will, for the foreseeable future, still be large enough to support the existing Jewish institutional structure.
Any significant decrease in the Jewish population of San Antonio, however, could endanger the existence of a number of Jewish institutions in that community, which would degrade the quality of Jewish life in San Antonio, leading to further decreases. So the impact of a decreasing population will have differential impacts on different local geographic areas.
Nationally, even if the percentage of Jews in the US were to decrease to the 1.0%-1.5% range over the next few decades, the political influence of the Jewish community will probably not decrease in any significant way. Jewish political influence in presidential elections derives not from Jews being perhaps 3.5%-4.0% of the national electorate (American Jews tend to vote at a much higher rate than non-Jews), but rather from the US Electoral College system, which has the effect of making one’s vote “worth more” in more populous states with more electoral votes.
Two hundred and seventy electoral votes are needed to be elected president. For the 1972 presidential election, 73% of Jews lived in five states (New York, California, Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Illinois) with 119 electoral votes, In 2013, 70% of Jews live in six states (New York, California, Florida, New Jersey, Illinois and Pennsylvania) with 147 electoral votes. Thus, the concentration of Jews in states with many electoral votes has increased over the past four decades, despite a somewhat lessening of the overall geographic concentration of Jews.
Other reasons exist for the influence of the American Jewish community on the American electoral process. Jews are very active in the political process, writing letters, attending political meetings, and working on campaigns. The latest National Jewish Population Survey (NJPS 2000-01) showed that 33% of Jewish adults are politically active.
Jews also are responsible for (according to various accounts) between one-third and twothirds of the money contributed to the Democratic Party and a significant percentage of the money contributed to the Republican Party, particularly in light of Sheldon Adelson’s 2012 contributions.
The number of Jews is important in assessing the strength and influence of the American Jewish community, but the importance, impact and strength of a community can be measured in other ways as well. The American Jewish Year Book (AJYB) inventories various aspects of the institutional structure of the American Jewish community, including: • More than 150 local Jewish federations, which raise funds for the needs of Jews locally, in Israel and around the world and act as central coordinating bodies for their communities.
Combined, the Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA) raise and distribute more than $3 billion annually, making JFNA one of the largest US charities.
• More than 200 local Jewish community centers, which provide cultural, educational, recreational, social and Israel oriented activities.
• More than 750 national Jewish organizations, including Jewish denominational, Jewish clergy-related, Jewish education, Israel-related, Holocaust- related, Jewish community relations, overseas aid, Russian/FSU, Jewish cultural, and social welfare organizations, among others.
• More than 200 local Jewish family service and related agencies.
• About 3,500 synagogues.
• Over 140 national Jewish publications.
• About 200 local Jewish publications.
• Over 100 Jewish museums.
• Over 160 Holocaust Museums and Memorials.
• Over 150 Jewish overnight camps for children and teenagers.
• Four Jewish Internet/cable TV stations.
• Thousands of Jewish and Israel-oriented websites.
• A Taglit-Birthright Israel program that has taken more than 250,000 North American Jewish youth to Israel.
• More than 100 Chabad houses and hundreds of Hillels on US college campuses.
• About 40 Florence Melton Adult Mini-Schools. NJPS 2000-01 showed that 25% of adult Jews took an adult Jewish education course or attended an adult Jewish education program in the past year.
• About 260 college-level Judaic Studies programs. NJPS 2000-01 showed that 37% of Jewish adults age 18-34 had taken at least one Judaic Studies course while in college.
• More than 1,000 scholars from American universities gather each year for the threeday meeting of the Association for Jewish Studies.
• About 25 college-level Holocaust and Genocide Studies programs.
• About 10 graduate programs in Jewish social work.
• Hundreds of local Jewish book fairs, Jewish film festivals, Jewish music festivals and Israel Independence Day celebrations that attract hundreds of thousands of participants annually.
Most impressively, much of the above (at least from number eight on) did not exist, or barely existed, 50 years ago.
On the negative side, the community is losing members and synagogues. The former is due to intermarriage and assimilation. The latter is because many in the younger generation choose to associate Jewishly in alternative ways, including via social media.
However, on May 5, 1964, Look magazine, in a cover story, opined that Jews would disappear from the US by the year 2000. The doomsayers were wrong then, and they are wrong now.
The author is professor of geography and director of the Jewish Demography Project of the Sue and Leonard Miller Center for Contemporary Judaic Studies at the University of Miami. Along with Arnold Dashefsky, his is the editor of theAmerican Jewish Year Book.