by Dov Fischer

Jewish population statistics fascinate me. As with other kinds of surveys, they tell some truths, misrepresent others. As Mr. Merlis, my yeshiva high school social studies teacher, used to say: “Figures can’t lie, but liars can figure.”

Surveys play a powerful role in influencing public policy. When advocates of a political party wrongly are told by surveys that their candidates will get beaten severely on election day, they are more inclined to stay home, not vote, and consequentially fulfill the once-false prophecy. When they read that large majorities of others disagree with them on an issue, many tone down their views or even change sides.

Statistics also affect public policy. Israel closed down Yamit. A generation later, Israel closed down Gush Katif, expelling 8,600 Jews from their homes and livelihood. From these precedents, governments and NGOs world-wide assume blithely that, one of these days, pressure will coerce Israel to close down Judea and Samaria. Although the underlying policy issues regarding the Jewish claim to Judea and Samaria are fascinating in themselves, the population data actually reflect that the debate is illusory. There are now more than 325,000 Jews in Judea and Samaria (not including the 230,000 who live in East Jerusalem). Thus, there now are more Jews living in Judea and Samaria than live in Russia, Argentina, Australia, or most other countries. The number in Judea and Samaria is virtually identical to the number of Jews in all the United Kingdom (350,000). Add the Jews in East Jerusalem, and those 550,000-plus living in the “occupied Arab territories” exceed the 393,000 in all of Canada, approximate the 600,000 in all of France and the similar Jewish population of Greater Los Angeles or of the entire state of New Jersey or of the combined Jewish populations of Brooklyn and Queens, all the state of Florida, and are twice the Jewish population of Illinois, Maryland, or Massachusetts. In other words, those Jews aren’t going anywhere unless Israel invites armies from around the world to bring their combined forces to expel a population now numbering the size of Louisville, Portland, Cleveland, Kansas City, or Atlanta. And, despite the settlement freeze of last year, the Jewish population of Judea and Samaria grew by 4.5 % in 2010. But that shall remain our secret.

In America, too, the statistics tell much, but the truth tells more. In Israel, it is not difficult to gauge Jewish numbers, and even “denominational” affiliations are accessible. But how do census takers determine Jewish numbers in America? Consider three prime approaches and their flaws:

Surnames – e.g., Goldbergs, Cohens, and the like. Whatever value such nomenclature played a century ago, that value is over. One Shabbat, as my son and I walked by a temple en route to our shul, we saw the marquee listing the day’s Bar Mitzvas: Joshua O’Connor, Steven Rizzo, and Kathy Donaldson. I was depressed, but my son comforted me. Aharon’s insight: “Y’know, Aba, I just realized: when the last names are non-Jewish at this temple, that means the kid is Jewish, and when the surnames are Jewish, that means the kid probably is not.” Paraphrasing the Tannaim who thanked Rabbi Akiva at the Har HaBayit, as reported in the last words of Mesechet Makkot, I said to my son: “Aharon n’chemtan[i], Aharon n’chemtan[i].”

Estimates Reported by Temples and Jewish Organizations – The flaws in presenting definitive data from such sources are self-evident. Those flaws are augmented by temples who count non-Jews as Jews. Nothing more need be said.

“Scientific Data” – This term sometimes is used as a synonym for the more contemporary “Random Digit Dialing” (RDD) and its variations, i.e. making phone calls at random. From these calls and the ensuing phone interviews, statistics emerge that present images of Jewish census numbers and religious affiliations. They, too, carry within themselves profound flaws that give rise to profoundly skewed Jewish public policy and funding priorities.

These data matter because, if they give rise to reporting a smaller Orthodox and larger non-Orthodox demographic than truly exists, they bolster Federation and other institutional inclinations to allocate communal funds accordingly. They impact on organizational policies, whether to conduct outreach to invite Orthodox community leaders to participate on boards that make funding policy, and even subtly impact on the way that some Jews feel about their religious affiliations. Inevitably, these systems dramatically undercount the Orthodox community while overestimating the number of Jews overall. Thus, statistics emerge reflecting a drop in both the quantitative Orthodox population and in the percentage of the overall Jewish population that is Orthodox when, in fact, the Orthodox community never has been more robust. Consider, for example, the Los Angeles Jewish Federation’s first great census of Jews in this millennium. That census geared for the Year 2000 alleged that Observant households had dwindled in the prior two decades from 5.2 to 4.3 percent of Los Angeles Jewry.

However, the census had been conducted by telephone interviews, demanding a documented average of twenty-six minutes per interview. Questionnaires bore as many as 291 questions, including branching and modular components. Of more than 70,000 people called randomly – Jewish and non-Jewish – only 2,640 were tallied. The overwhelming majority of those reached by phone refused to sit for the half-hour interview. Therefore, population subgroups particularly disinclined to participate inexorably were undercounted.

Orthodox Jews with young children at home would be less inclined to sit for half an hour with a faceless phone interviewer from the Federation than would be, say, a Reform convert eager and excited to be counted for the first time as a Jew. Similarly, senior citizens would have more time to schmooze for half an hour, while younger people would have job and familial responsibilities, skewing the generational numbers and census age median higher, making the community seem older than it is and, as we shall see, disorienting and warping the results to seem like young Jews abandon Orthodoxy in ridiculously high numbers.

Phone calls for that census were made by a company that then prominently advertised its specialty as polling the Asian-American community. The company represented commercially that it had a unique ability to count Chinese-, Korean-, Japanese- and other Asian-American communities because it had cultivated an expertise in that subgroup’s demographic nuances, sensitivities, and in overcoming suspicions of interviewees. By contrast, when the same company polled citizens of western Tennessee in evening calls, the October 23, 1998 issue of the Memphis Commercial Appeal quoted the county transportation manager as acknowledging that “[w]e have had people call the hotline and say it is a scam, and someone is just trying to find out where they live and where their children are, and similar things.” Thus, around the same time they were calling Jews in Los Angeles, we know from a documented 1998 census taken by the same interviewers when they were not practicing their Asian-American expertise, that they actually were unsuccessful with numbers of potential interviewees, scaring them away.

In the Federation census, calls were made during day and night hours. But Jews are unique census targets, particularly the Orthodox. Members of Sabbath-observant households do not sit on the phone twenty-six minutes with census-takers on Thursday evenings, Fridays, or Saturday evenings. (Calls were not made on Shabbat.) Most Sabbath-observant Jewish women are busy preparing for Shabbat on Thursday evening and on Friday, and no Sabbath-observant Jewish man is going to sit on the phone half an hour during that time with a Federation census taker.

In addition, Sabbath-observant families average more children per household than do non-observant families. Parents in households with several young children are less inclined to sit half an hour on a phone being interviewed by a Federation census-taker. By contrast, Reform converts, for example, are more inclined to be counted. For them, understandably, “It’s fun” — they get to be Jewish and counted with the Tribe. Again, retired people, too, have disproportionately more time to talk.

As with most efforts to count the Jewish community, the census counted households, not individuals, further skewing results. Household-counting is a methodology that structurally underreports the Torah-observant community because Observant Jews (1) number more people per household, but (2) comprise fewer households per capita. More people per household: (1) there are more children in Torah-observant homes; (2) Torah-observant Jews sustain a moderately lower divorce rate (so there are more adults and children in the same one household, rather than divided into two); (3) more young Torah-observant adults remain with their parents longer before moving out to get an apartment and create an additional “household.” Fewer households per capita: (1) the lower divorce rate makes two adults more likely to comprise one household rather than two; (2) by discouraging our singles, especially daughters, from living away from parents, there necessarily are fewer Torah-observant households (because every single living alone in her own apartment is a household); and (3) more conservative social practices among the Torah-observant encourage our singles to marry sooner and unite households.

The census absurdly “found” several thousand African-American Jews in Los Angeles, a group that we were told was nearly one-quarter the population size of the Torah-observant in Los Angeles. There were not several thousand Black Jews in Los Angeles.

The census invited interviewees to self-define their and their progenitors’ “streams” of Judaism. Thus, it reported that, among respondents who affiliate differently from their parents, 42% of children from Orthodox homes switched, and 10.8% switched to Reform. But the census inherently failed to recognize that lesser educated, non-observant interviewees often erroneously characterize their progenitors’ practice as “Orthodox” when it never was. Throughout a rabbinic career of more than twenty years, I often encountered young people who told me about their “Orthodox” parents or grandparents – describing in all their naivete the “Orthodoxy” of people who had one set of dishes and flatware at home, ate shellfish, drove on Shabbat . . . but who attended an Orthodox synagogue for an hour on Yom Kippur and perhaps sent their children for bar mitzvah study at an afternoon Talmud Torah Hebrew school housed at an Orthodox shul. When such interviewees told their callers that they had become Reform children of Orthodox progenitors, the statements had no basis, but the Federation reported the data to show Orthodox numbers receding.

The census reported that twenty percent of the Los Angeles population was over 65. Again, older people have more time than younger people to sit on the phone and be counted. Many of our West Coast senior population arrived in Los Angeles as pioneers before Torah observance established institutional roots and a critical mass in the late 1970s and 1980s. The pioneers primarily were non-Orthodox going “out West” and away from the landed populations and institutions. They arrived before mechitzah partitions were demanded and installed in several prominent Orthodox synagogues. Before the establishment of dozens of yeshivas that now dot Los Angeles. Before the explosion of a plethora of mikvahs, eruvin, kosher restaurants, pizza stores. (Think “Frisco Kid.”) Certainly, many of those abandoning Orthodoxy a century earlier descended from Torah-observant grandparents from the “Old Country.” (Think “Hester Street.”) That twenty percent – “non-Orthodox children of Orthodox parents” – included a disproportionate number of elderly Reform residents who indeed had come from Orthodox households. But those numbers were utterly irrelevant for charting demographic trends among the young, and they masked the burgeoning trend of youthful Orthodoxy’s renaissance in Los Angeles.

Moreover, the Orthodox of twenty years ago qualitatively were less educated Jewishly, less pious, more willing to worship without a mechitzah and to eat in halakhically challenged establishments, to drive to shul on Shabbat and then gab throughout services. Today’s Torah-observant community, educated at any of the booming yeshivas that burst at their seams and that continually have expanded into newer, bigger buildings throughout the decade – Emek, Yavneh, Hillel, Toras Emes, West Valley, YUHSLA, Valley Torah, Shalhevet, etc. – do not compromise on seating partitions, and they demand and patronize rabbinically supervised establishments with expectations of the highest standards of kashrut, down to the lettuce and the yoshon flour.

If the quantitative number of Reform homes, ravaged by assimilation and intermarriage, is lower now than twenty years ago, any effort to project denominational shifts from Orthodoxy to Reform necessarily is skewed because a perceived proportional increase of Reform Jews coming from observant homes more logically reflects the quantitative decrease through assimilation in the Reform population base of those coming from non-Orthodox homes. The fewer who are quantitatively left from one group, the proportionally greater the presence of the other. Thus, if there used to be 100 Reform Jews, five hailing from “Orthodox homes” and 95 from Reform homes, those from “Orthodox homes” would comprise 5% of the total Reform group. But if 50 of those from Reform homes have disappeared, marrying out and assimilating away, the same group hailing from “Orthodox homes” suddenly becomes 10% of the remaining Reform group. It is not that there are more “Orthodox homes” losing their children to Reform — just fewer people from Reform homes staying in the fold at all.

Census calls were made as many as six times each to those nearly 70,000 households. Of the 2,640 respondents who sat half an hour to answer their share of the 291 questions, 41% (1,080) were identified by random-digit dialing. Wealthier homes with more phone numbers available for modem, cellular, and multi-line communications would have been numerically overcounted beyond those with more modest spending on single phone lines; Torah-observant Jews typically have tighter access to discretionary income. The other 1,560 respondents (comprising three-fifths of the poll database – 59%) were obtained from Federation lists. Under this “dual-frame sampling” process, the census numbers further undercounted discrete communities that participated less heavily in Federation-list organizations. Imagine if the United States Census worked that way: If 59% of the United States census were projected through dual-frame sampling from lists culled from those maintained by the Community Chest and United Way, the numbers would undercount discrete and insular minority groups who do not participate as robustly in those charities. It is no way to count a population.

Moreover, for explicit religious reasons, Orthodox Jews abhor being counted in the first instance, and many therefore politely but consciously evade people-counters altogether. Person-counting is repugnant to many halakhic Jews, even when counted by phone, much as certain American population groups skew American census results by evading census-takers in mistaken fear that information as to their whereabouts will be shared with the Immigration and Naturalization Service.

The Jewish Federation census, then, grossly undercounted Torah-observant Jews, demonstratively so. During the two decades since I arrived on the West Coast, I have seen what every Orthodox Jew and every other observer has seen here with her own two eyes. The Orthodox shuls are bursting, and they all have had major expansions, with growth further leading to break-off shuls. There are so many elegant high-class kosher restaurants in a city that once counted only two or three such choices that many locals are perplexed by the Baskin-Robbins-like choice of flavors. There are more yeshiva day schools, more yeshiva high schools, more Kollel programs, more and more shuls. To say that our Orthodox numbers actually had decreased from 5.2% to 4.3% — a 17% drop in the proportion of the total Jewish population in a region otherwise ravaged outside our ranks by rampant assimilation and intermarriage – was beyond false. It was delusional.

The same problems, in one form or another, continue to mar census efforts undertaken by other Federation counters in other cities. The problems are endemic in the systems. Yet these miscounts continue, flawed though they be, to serve as foundational decisors in allocating critical communal Jewish funds in their millions. If yeshivas are decreasing and Orthodox Jews are disappearing, they presumably deserve reduced communal funding. Until the Torah-observant community evolves the sophistication to recognize that the numbers consistently are skewed, from city to city and from state to state, that the methodologies inherently are faulty, that the skewing is part of a subtle process that, deliberately or otherwise, steers away Federation funding from services and programs that serve the Torah-observant community, and that the solution for Orthodoxy is not rhetoric but statistical analysis and input not from trained statisticians sensitive to our inclusion, the non-census will continue skewing not only numbers but communal agendas and priorities for another millennium.

Rabbi Dov Fischer, adjunct professor of law at Loyola Law School, is a columnist for several online magazines and is rav of Young Israel of Orange County. He blogs at rabbidov.com

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Steve Brizel
4 years 7 months ago

Reb Yid-Orthodoxy is hardly a monolithic category. It ranges from LW MO to Charedi in its views on a wide variety of issues. OTOH, it has been subjected to more than a few books, magazine articles and demographic studies by academics. The facts are that the Orthodox community benefits from Federation re assistance with busing and secular textbooks. However, given that there are hashkafic lines of demarcation even between MO and the Federation view of inclusion and pluralism, one cannot and should not expect the Torah observant world to simplysupport institutions and programs that the community views as anathema to its hashkafa. Given the poll numbers and studies that are generated of the heterodox community and the need to justify spending Jewish communal dollars on institutions and programs that cannot be justified as enhancing Jewish continuity in its most pristine sense, it is no small wonder that we see either no surveys of the Orthodox world or minimization of its role in American Jewry by the professional demographers.

4 years 7 months ago

Riverdale is a wonderful community and an extremely important one from a symbolic point of view. When I lived there 10 years ago, people were proud that this was the one and only Jewish neighborhood left in the Bronx that not only survived the arson and destruction years of 1960-1990, but survived as a flourishing center of middle class and Jewish life with a politically conscious citizenry. And make no mistake about it, it was the Orthodox community that preserved this neighborhood when the Grand Concourse went down the toilet bowl.

Liberal Jewish leaders and organizations supported social policies that literally destroyed the old ethnic neighborhoods of the Bronx, and then they decamped with their money and their limosine snobbism to Westchester, leaving behind the Jewish elderly and the Orthodox. If not for the small but tenacious orthodox community, Riverdale would have gone down the drain too. They stayed and built institutions and made it clear they were not going to run away. And because of that, other people, secular Jews and gentiles remained there to preserve it as a middle class enclave in an otherwise disintegrating borough.

Now the orthodox community is growing and flourishing, while the secular Jewish population is slowing declining, but it is a stable community that represents the best of Jewish communal life. No thanks to the liberal movements or the liberal Jews.

Reb Yid
4 years 7 months ago


I disagree with your description of the other religious movements, insofar as it relates to their research activities. The Reform and Conservative movements have conducted many studies of themselves, both qualitative and quantitative, availing themselves of scholars both inside and outside their movements. They have also utilized the research of Federations, National Jewish Population studies, etc. in this process.

You mentioned Riverdale, which I also know well. This is Exhibit A in what Charlie Hall and I have been talking about. You must know from comparing the 2002 and 1990 New York studies that there has been a significant decline in the Jewish population of the Bronx in general and even in Riverdale, the Orthodox influx notwithstanding. My prediction is that the current New York population study now in the field will show an end to this hemorraging in Riverdale due to what you are describing. Only now will we really begin to see the Orthodox numbers and especially proportions begin to grow, since many of the older Orthodox have moved on.

4 years 7 months ago

Reb Yid,

I agree that the change in the definition of Orthodox makes comparisons between 2010 and 1960 largely meaningless. Both sets of my grandparents would have been considered orthodox in 1960, but by our definitions today would definitely not be. This is always a problem when making historic comparisons. So, while the “practicing” orthodox population was rapidly growing since the 1980’s, the “nominal” population may have been shrinking into the late 1990’s.

Nonetheless, the more important point here is qualitative, not quantitative. As a trained scientist, I firmly believe that anecdotal evidence of Jewish communal life tells you a lot more than any survey because of the inherent methodological limitations of these surveys and because of a point you made above. The Orthodox community is fragmented, uninterested in being counted and has shown no willingness to cooperate in these endeavors. This made sense in czarist Russia, where the explosive growth of the traditional Jewish population in 19th century Russia caused a desire to reduce the Jewish numbers (in a variety of ways short of genocide) by the authorities. Jewish communities had every reason to hide their population growth, rather than count it accurately.

It also made sense for the Orthodox during the century and a half when the number of its adherents was declining drastically. No group anywhere, ever wants an accurate accounting of their numeric and qualitative decline. Witness the efforts today of the Reform and Conservative movements as well as other religious groups like the Greek Orthodox Church who engage in all sorts of statistical trickery to hide their largely irreversible decline. It makes no sense at all for the Orthodox today, though, to not accurately account for what is their biggest asset – their youthfulness, high birth rate, low intermarriage rate, and prodigious rate of population growth that is practically sui generis in the United States for any religious group other than the Amish.

I rely on my local evidence from the NY area which I am aware of in fairly great detail. Count the growth in the number of Orthodox shuls, members and day school students in any county of greater NY and the picture is the same and very clear. There is huge population growth going on, probably 2-3% per year in many places. This is literally changing the cultural and demographic landscape in many Jewish communities that used to be secular and Liberal and are now mostly religious. Riverdale in the Bronx is an example, so is Teaneck and Englewood, and West Orange NJ and Passaic, etc. This doesn’t include such boomtowns as Lakewood NJ or Kiryas Joel, which are entirely haredi and produce a number of births each year that exceeds that of a secular Jewish population 4 times as large. This is incontrovertible evidence and you don’t need Gallup Poll to ratify that.

Reb Yid
4 years 7 months ago


I agree with your point that some of the earlier surveys undercounted the Orthodox, at least relative to the more recent ones.

However, I return to the point that Charlie Hall and I have both made–do not underestimate the number of older self-reported Orthodox Jews who were no longer part of the particular local community, either because they moved to a warmer climate, or because they passed away.