Skip to main content

Jewish Population Shrinking?

The American Jewish population–as defined by religion–continues to decline, according to the just released American Religious Identification Survey. However, as measured by ethnicity, the number of Jews remains relatively stable, say the survey’s principal investigators.

The ARIS 2008 is the third in a series of large-scale surveys conducted by the Institute for the Study of Secularism and Society and Culture at Trinity College in Hartford, Conn. With data culled from more than 54,000 telephone interviews, it has no equal in terms of sample size among American surveys on religion. Even the landmark U.S. Religion Landscape Survey from the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life is based on fewer interviews.

As such, I believe it, and its forebears in 1990 and 2001, provide the best, most accurate portrait of Americans’ religious tendencies over the last two decades. I refer to the book-length report on the 2001 survey, Religion in a Free Market, by study co-authors Barry A. Kosmin and Ariela Keysar, at least a few times a month. But enough about how awesome the study is.

According to the preliminary report, 2.7 million American adults defined themselves as Jewish by religion, down from 2.8 million in 2001 and 3.1 million in 1990. The preliminary report does not say how many adults defined themselves as Jewish by ethnicity, which is ironic given that one of the study’s main funders was the Posen Foundation, a secular Jewish foundation dedicated to promoting the notion of Judaism as a culture. However, I expect the full report–scheduled to be released this afternoon–will address the size of the ethnically defined Jewish population.

On a macro level, the survey documents the ongoing religious polarization of the United States, as an increasing number of people see themselves as evangelical or born-again Christians, while an exploding number say they have no religion. In 1990, one in 10 adults did not identify with any religion; in 2008, the number was one in five. Roughly a third of American adults see themselves as “born again,” while 25-30 percent reject the idea of a personal God.

The portrait of Jews in America shows a population that is aging, highly educated and more family-oriented than the rest of the population. Among major and minor religions in the U.S., Judaism is one of only two religions with a majority of adult adherents aged 50 and over. My guess is this is partially due to low Jewish birthrates, and partially due to a decline in religious belief and affiliation among young Jews. Given that the preliminary report only focuses on Jews who define themselves by religion, we should take its statistics on marital status with a grain of salt. (For example, according to the survey, Jews are the least-divorced/separated population in the U.S., at 8 percent of adults. I have little doubt that the inclusion of Jews by ethnicity would revise this number upwards.)

As rich as the the preliminary report is, I expect the full report to be a treasure chest of useful data on the Jewish population. The ARIS from 2001 (and presumably, from 1990) remains the only study I know of to provide comprehensive data about the number of intermarried adults and households in the U.S. In 2001, 22 percent of married or co-habitating American adults were in mixed-religion households–how high will that number be now?

Micah Sachs


Author: Micah Sachs