Estimating and Understanding the Jewish Population in the United States: A Program of Research


It is inherently difficult to conduct socio-demographic studies of the Jewish population in the United States. This paper describes a multi-stage program of research that addresses the methodological and substantive challenges of providing valid socio-demographic data on the contemporary American Jewish population. The premise is that no single study or approach, and no single dataset, provides sufficient empirical support to understand a complex, ever-changing population. The program of research relies on multiple ways to integrate data sources and uses them in conjunction with one another to develop estimates of the size of the population and its characteristics. It includes data synthesis, targeted surveys, use of data synthesis in weighting of targeted surveys and triangulation. Examples of the application and utility of these methods are provided. It is estimated that as of 2010, there are a total of 6.5 million Jews in the United States. This includes 4.22 million adults who identify as Jewish by religion, and 975,000 Jews who identify as Jewish but do not consider it their religion; in addition, it incorporates 1.3 million children (under 18 years of age) who are being raised exclusively as Jewish. The proposed methods help to overcome many of the limitations and threats to validity that have plagued single studies of the population and, although imperfect, enhance our understanding of the American Jewish population.

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  1. 1.

    This paper describes the overall program of research and includes results from data syntheses. The methods of data synthesis have been described in extensive technical detail in Saxe et al. (in press), Tighe et al. (2010, 2011). Readers are referred to these sources for review of the methods.

  2. 2.

    See Silver (2012c) for a practical perspective and explanation of Bayesian analysis methods.

  3. 3.

    100% of the surveys include the religious identification question. Some surveys include additional questions related to Jewish identification (religion raised, ancestry, ethnicity, etc.). These variables are also included to supplement and compare to the religious identification question.

  4. 4.

    A key challenge in combining data is that each source has its own complex sampling design. If each survey was analyzed on its own, one would create weights to account for the sampling design (cf. Brewer and Gregoire 2009; Heeringa et al. 2010). These weighting adjustments, however, are not optimized for Jewish population estimation. Weighting strategies that fail to account for factors associated with the Jewish population will be biased, depending on how the sample compares to the distribution of the Jewish population as a whole. Model-based estimation techniques (cf. Binder and Roberts 2009; Little 2004), combined with hierarchical analysis methods (Goldstein 1999; Hox 1995; Rabe-Hesketh et al. 2005) are used to account for the clustering of respondents within surveys, and to allow for examination of variance across surveys. Once sampling and design variables that relate to Jewish identification are accounted for, Iterative Proportional Fitting is employed using the Markov-Chain Monte Carlo method to simulate draws from a posterior distribution of cell probabilities obtained under the hierarchical model.

  5. 5.

    Sex of respondent is not included because, once the age by education interaction is included, no differences are found between men and women.

  6. 6.

    Analyses below the state level, such as for major metropolitan areas and counties, can also be estimated using a subset of the surveys that provide sufficient geographic detail.

  7. 7.

    Census data are from the Current Population Survey, Annual Social and Economic Supplement.

  8. 8.

    KnowledgePanel® consists of a representative sample of approximately 50,000 US adults, aged 18 and older, including cell phone-only households. Initial recruitment for the panel was based on traditional RDD telephone methods. Beginning in 2009, an address-based sampling (ABS) frame was added to supplement the RDD panel, and eventually replaced the RDD panel.

  9. 9.

    This is a conservative estimate. Because the survey included the follow-up questions only for those who reported “None” in response to current religious identification, it excludes those of Jewish background who currently identify with another religion.


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Correspondence to Leonard Saxe.

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Saxe, L., Tighe, E. Estimating and Understanding the Jewish Population in the United States: A Program of Research. Cont Jewry 33, 43–62 (2013).

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  • Jewish population
  • US Jewry
  • Socio-demographics
  • Survey methodology
  • Data synthesis
  • American Jewish community