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The Vanishing Jews

by Andrew Beveridge, Jul 08, 2003
 
 

The number of Jews in New York City fell below one million by 2002, according to the 2002 Community Study by the United Jewish Appeal-Federation of New York. But the real decline may be higher. The recent survey used methods for finding and defining Jews that were different than those used in the 1991 UJA-Federation survey. Indeed, several researchers resigned from the survey's Technical Advisory Committee from the survey, including Bethamie Horowitz, the director of the 1991 study; Charles Kadushin, an emeritus CUNY professor and researcher with the Cohen Center for Jewish Studies at Brandeis, and me. Each concluded that a direct comparison of 1991 and 2002 studies ignores the change in methods. Such an analysis would yield misleading conclusions.

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Often such problems are written off as "merely technical," not affecting either the results or conclusions of the study. Here however, the technical disputes go to the heart of the survey. They revolve around two central questions: Who is a Jew? and How many Jews are there in New York City? Though downplayed somewhat in the new survey, which is not called a "population study" but rather a "community study," the fact of the matter is what determines Jewish identity and the size of the population remain central concerns of the organized Jewish community. In earlier topic page updates I discussed counting Muslims, gays, and the population of New York City. It is clear that when groups are put in charge of analyzing their own population, there is a temptation to overestimate their own size and thus their own importance.

WHO IS JEWISH?

Measuring religious or ethnic identification through a survey is not simple. The US Census Bureau, itself, experiences enough difficulty trying to disentangle the concepts of race, national origin, ethnicity and language. The First Amendment bars the Census asking questions about religion. In Great Britain, where the census used self-identification to classify religious affiliation, 390,000 people claimed their religious affiliation to be "Jedi Knight" in 2001. Sparked in part by an internet campaign, this Star Wars religion was just behind Hinduism and just ahead of Sikhism according to census returns in Great Britain.

People who belong to churches, synagogues or mosques usually know their religion. Religious identification becomes problematic for those with a lower level of affiliation. According to the 2002 Jewish Community study only 43 percent of Jewish households in the New York area belonged to a synagogue. For the 2002 study, when telephone interviews were conducted, the interviewer would tell the respondent that they were conducting the Jewish population study sponsored by the Jewish Federation, and then the respondent was asked if he or she were Jewish.

Some researchers think that this introduction and first question would make it more likely that those who considered themselves Jewish would continue the survey, while non-Jews would not continue. If such were the case, then the number of Jews would be overestimated by the survey. The screening introduction and first question were much more neutral in 1991 and thus may have led to a lower number of self-identified Jews in that survey.

HOW MANY JEWS?

According to the 2002 survey Jews make up about 12 percent of the eight million people who live in New York City. To arrive at this number the survey used a very complex set of techniques to "stratify" the sample (One of the four groups to which they divided up their sample was names taken from UJA membership lists). To complete the 4500 interviews used for the survey, they dialed 174,000 different phone numbers a total of 578,000 times. They contacted about 70,000 of these households, and 30,000 provided enough information to classify them as either Jewish or non-Jewish. Of these about 6,000 were classified as Jewish. Interviews were completed with about 75 percent of these. In 1991 the overall response rate was much higher than it was in 2002 if one uses the method for computing response rates favored by the American Association of Public Opinion Research.

To get to the estimates, the group carrying out the UJA Federation survey had to assume that they knew how many people were in each strata, and that the people that they contacted (about 1/5 of those they tried to contact) were the same as those they did not reach. This assumption is unlikely to be true. In fact, of course, they only really knew the size of the stratum made from the federation's list. To figure out how to weight all of the other respondents required using a combination of assumptions and updated census estimates. In summary, as those running the survey in 2002 have argued, it may very well be the case that the 2002 survey provided a better and higher estimate of the Jews living in New York than did the 1991 survey. However, if such is the case, it means that comparing the two surveys underestimates the decline in the Jewish population in New York City.

Despite the significant doubts about how comparable the new survey is to the old one, and how much the Jewish population has declined in New York City, the new study has much valuable information. Even if one is not exactly sure how many Jews there are, one can still learn a great deal about the Jewish community. One can only hope that the survey that the UJA Federation does in 2012 will be comparable to the one done in 2002. Then we will be able to accurately measure how much further the Jewish population may have declined in NYC.

Andrew A. Beveridge has taught sociology at Queens College since 1981. Since 1993 he has done demographic analyses and consulted for the New York Times. He has provided expert testimony in districting and redistricting, housing discrimination, and numerous other civil rights cases in the metropolitan area and elsewhere. The opinions expressed in Topics are his alone.


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