Nebulous numbers leave Jewish identity up for debate

new york | A major study of American Jewry may undercount the number of Jews and overestimate their Jewish activity.

Those are among the leading conclusions of an independent review of the National Jewish Population Survey 2000-01, which was published two weeks ago by the United Jewish Communities federation umbrella group.

While the NJPS said the U.S. Jewish population declined 5 percent to 5.2 million since the last NJPS in 1990 — a period when the overall U.S. population swelled 11 percent — that number is “slightly lower” than those found in similar studies, says Mark Schulman, founding partner of Schulman, Ronca & Bucuvalas, a prominent polling firm.

Schulman’s assessment seemed likely to fuel what has become a highly public debate over the validity of the NJPS, a $6 million, five-year project that UJC billed as the most comprehensive study of American Jewry to date but has been beset by controversy.

The latest NJPS battlefront erupted last week when J.J. Goldberg, editor of the weekly Forward, wrote an editorial blasting as a “fraud” the 1990 report’s intermarriage statistics, then attacked the population figures in an Op-Ed piece in The New York Times.

Goldberg’s allegations provoked anger at UJC and stoked debate among Jewish social scientists.

Most demographers say there is little dispute over the fact that the U.S. Jewish population — depending on how you define a Jew — has remained relatively stable.

Egon Mayer, who co-authored a 2001 study called the American Jewish Identity Survey, found 5.3 million people born or raised Jewish, down 200,000 from 1990.

If you add their non-Jewish spouses or family members, that totals 10 million people, he found.

“Depending how you want to define the population, you’ll get a higher or lower number.”

The real problem is not strictly numerical, said Steven Bayme, national director of the American Jewish Committee’s contemporary Jewish life department.

For half a century, Bayme said, most social scientists have agreed that the Jewish population has been relative stable, between 5 million and 5.5 million.

The problem, he said, is that the majority of Jews have “no connection” to actual Judaism.

While Jewish numbers won’t likely drop sharply for 15 to 20 years, he said, Jewish ignorance “heralds a serious long-term erosion in the future.”

Problems began dogging the NJPS one year ago, when its New York- based sponsors, the UJC, released initial population figures but quickly pulled the full report from publication after discovering that the polling firm that conducted the survey between August 2000 and 2001, RoperASW, had lost some of the data.

Despite the less-than-glowing review, the UJC’s chief executive officer and president, Stephen Hoffman, said he was confident the survey will yield important information about American Jewry.

“I don’t need a ringing endorsement. All I need is that we’re in the ballpark, and we are,” Hoffman said.

Several demographers said the discrepancies fall within the statistical margin of error of such studies.

Once NJPS identified Jews, it went on to identified 4.3 million as more actively Jewish — from holiday observance to keeping kosher to belonging to Jewish institutions.

But Schulman warned the study could also “skew toward Jews who are more religiously identified,” because those Jews are the ones who would more likely agree to a longer questionnaire.

Schulman was not available to discuss his findings.

Even before the NJPS was delayed last year, disagreement surfaced over the population counts.

Among the study’s chief critics was Gary Tobin, president of the Institute for Jewish & Community Research in San Francisco, who issued his own report counting 6.7 million U.S. Jews, tied to a wider circle of 13.3 million Americans with at least some Jewish ties.

Besides the population problem, Tobin said, synagogue membership figures in the NJPS were inflated. The NJPS found that 46 percent of the 4.3 million connected Jews belong to a house of worship.

That figure was based on a single question, and “studies of religion have shown that people don’t report accurately,” he said. “People give the answer they think you want to hear.”

He estimated the synagogue rolls at half that rate, based on figures from local Jewish community studies.

For their part, UJC officials dismissed the criticism.

“There are all kinds of numbers thrown around,” said the project director of NJPS, Lorraine Blass.

Of Tobin’s study, she said, “The methodology was never made public.”

Tobin responded by saying he was readying a full report on his study, which he first made public shortly before the initial NJPS rollout last year.