Jews of Color and who counts in the Jewish community

Our new study shows US Jewry is a whole lot less white than you might think and helps ensure everyone is being honored and served

(Courtesy Jews of Color Field Building Initiative)
(Courtesy Jews of Color Field Building Initiative)

The most important purpose of a census is to impress upon each one of us the value and sterling worth of our soul.

The census is not for the census takers. It is for those being counted, so that they know they matter to someone.

–The Wisdom of Nachmanides

We have had Jewish community census takers since Exodus 30:11. And over the generations we have had various moments to develop new perspectives that sometimes resulted in expanding the Jewish people. We saw this in the book of Bamidbar 27:1-11 when the Daughters of Zelophehad petitioned God and Moses for the right of women to be counted as part of the community. We see a similar opportunity in 2019 with “Counting Inconsistencies,” a new report commissioned to answer two simple questions: how many Jews of Color are there in the US, and in the coming decades, how many will there be?

The project began with an attempt to obtain a reliable accounting of Jews of Color in the United States. Yet when the research team began systematically examining Jewish population studies and the means by which those studies collected data on American Jews, they found population studies with persistent shortcomings resulting in Jews of Color being undercounted, miscounted, or not counted at all.

This dearth of reliable findings surprised us. For all of our efforts to count US Jews, and all that we know about American Jews through the numerous population studies, both national and local, we learned that we know very little about the internal racial and ethnic diversity of the American Jewish community.

How did we find ourselves in a situation where the data we have doesn’t fully capture who we are as US Jews? The answer is simple: So far, population studies, designed by and for a Jewish community that largely expresses as “white,” have generally neglected to ask systematic and reliable questions about race and ethnicity. As a result, numerous important studies contain either inconsistent data on the racial or ethnic identities of American Jews—very problematic when trying to compare one study to another—or in the aforementioned undercounting of Jews of Color in general.

However, even with the challenging data and the undercount, there is good news. We estimate that of the United States’ 7.2 million Jews, at least 12-15%, just over 1,000,000, are Jews of Color. One in seven. And that’s probably an undercount! And we learned that in some communities, at least 20% of Jewish households are multiracial. We also know that the demographics of the US Jewish community trends along the same lines as the larger US community in which it exists, helping us to see that in some decades from now we too may be a majority of people of color. Our US Jewish community is larger than we know, than we can see, and than we can imagine – and this moment can be a catalyst to connect with and embrace the whole of our Jewish community.

There’s more good news! The findings of Counting Inconsistencies wouldn’t exist if not for the work that informs our report, and that gives us the insights to refine our understandings of American Jewry in the future.

And let’s be real, writing and implementing population studies is a tremendously important and complicated undertaking, especially when trying to study American Jews. One big reason: the US largely operates in (constructed) neat and tidy racial categories with People of Color falling into the groups of Non-White Hispanic or Latinx, Black or African American, American Indian or Alaska Native, Asian, Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islander, and Multiracial. And Jews, as part of the US race construct, don’t always elegantly fit in. For example, the US Census counts those from the Middle East as White. What does that mean when trying to racially categorize Mizrahi Jews? The work of conducting community studies is hard, complex, and not neat-and-tidy.

And still, the question of “who counts” – both who gets counted and who does the counting – in American Jewish population studies is crucial. Community studies are enormous investments that are supposed to inform planning processes. They direct significant resources that influence the development of new programs and even reshape how a community understands itself. Community organizations and philanthropies spend millions of dollars to best measure their communities, which makes the absence of consistency with respect to Jews of Color that much more concerning and urgent. It is vital that research – our community studies – adequately and consistently account for all Jews and Jewish households. We want to help leaders avoid making significant decisions based on inaccurate data, and we want accurate and excellent data because we rely on that data to inform whom we serve and how we do the work of our community.

So if our day school, shul, yeshiva or Jewish non-profit is filled with almost exclusively white colleagues, students, and leaders, and, as we now know, at a minimum one in every minyan should be a Jew of Color, there is a clear lack of alignment between who is engaged in our Jewish organizations and the true racial diversity of the Jewish community. To make sure that who we see and count in our Jewish community includes the full range of who we know is in our Jewish community, it’s time to make changes. Counting Inconsistencies provides all of us with data, learnings, and clear recommendations about what we know, what we don’t know, and how to develop better informed, more sensitive, and more robust surveys, questions and sets of data to help us understand who we are, and who we are becoming as a US Jewish community.

Ilana Kaufman is Director of the Jews of Color Field Building Initiative. Dr. Ari Kelman is the Jim Joseph Professor of Education and Jewish Studies in the Graduate School of Education at Stanford University, and was the lead researcher of Counting Inconsistencies.

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