Star of David Judaism
Star of David JudaismISTOCK

Rabbi Prof. Dov Fischer’s June 8 op-ed (Almost Half of American Jews Are Not Actually ‘Jewish’) contains some misleading statements that require correction. For example, he claims that Pew Research Center surveys undercount Orthodox Jews in the U.S. because the surveys rely on phone calls made on the Sabbath. This is false. The most recent Pew study of Jewish Americans, conducted in 2020, did not involve any phone calling. It was conducted by mail, not by phone. A prior study, in 2013, was indeed conducted by phone, but no calls were made on Shabbat. That was an intentional element of the survey’s careful design.

In addition, the op-ed suggests that Pew Research Center data on American Jews cannot be trusted because it is based on self-reports by survey respondents. But self-reporting is at the core of virtually all surveys and censuses, including the Israeli census and the surveys conducted by all of Israel’s leading polling organizations. While reputable researchers make efforts to detect falsification and encourage truthfulness, there is no practical alternative to self-reporting.

More to the point, there is absolutely no evidence that large numbers of Americans are pretending to be Jewish in Pew surveys. Using different methods, other independent research organizations, including the American Jewish Population Project at Brandeis University, consistently arrive at similar estimates of the percentage of U.S. adults who are Jewish: roughly 2%.

At root, Rabbi Prof. Dov Fischer’s contention isn’t that Pew’s surveys are wrong, it’s that many of the people surveyed are wrong: they may think they are Jewish, but by a halakhic definition, they are not. The op-ed even derives a number, asserting that “almost half” of Americans who consider themselves Jewish do not meet the halakhic definition.

In reality, no one knows what the number would be.

As Rabbi Prof. Dov Fischer correctly notes, when an Orthodox rabbi in the United States wants to determine whether someone from outside his community is halakhically Jewish, he undertakes an individual examination, scrutinizing evidence like ketubot, birth certificates and conversion records. To determine what percentage of all U.S. adults who consider themselves Jewish are actually Jewish in terms that would satisfy Rabbi Prof. Dov Fisher, legions of Orthodox rabbis would need to put millions of people through a case-by-case examination. That has never happened, and it’s hard to imagine that it could. Certainly, it’s not a task that Pew Research Center should be expected to undertake.

Moreover, Rabbi Prof. Dov Fischer omitted one side of the equation. While there are Americans who consider themselves Jewish but would not meet the halakhic definition, there are also Americans who don’t consider themselves Jewish but would meet the traditional definition: people who had Jewish mothers and grandmothers in an unbroken line through the generations but who aren’t observant and, in some cases, don’t view themselves as Jewish at all.

Once again, no one knows how many such people there are. But here’s a clue: in the 2013 study, Pew Research Center estimated there were 1.3 million U.S. adults who said they had a Jewish mother but who were not classified in the study as Jewish, either because they did not consider themselves Jewish in any way or because they follow some other religion (in most cases, Christianity).

The fact that Pew Research Center excludes such a large number of people from its Jewish population estimates should make it clear that the Center is not engaged in “fanciful maximizing of Jewish demographics.”

In our reports, you will see that we take no normative position on the question, “Who is a Jew?” We do present a working definition of Jewish identity, which is in keeping with decades of sociological studies in the U.S., but we clearly acknowledge that it’s not the only definition. And we show how the size of the Jewish population might be larger or smaller, depending on which definition you choose.

Of course, we didn’t ask the survey respondents to show us their mother’s ketubah or to verify that the matrilineal line was unbroken. That’s a job for a rabbi.

Alan Cooperman is the Director of Religion Research at the Pew Research Center, Washington, D.C.