New survey of American Jews provides a wealth of data—and proves more research is needed in Canada

A Jewish family in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. (Credit: Zac Ong/Unsplash)

On May 11, the Pew Research Center in the United States released a report on its landmark survey, Jewish Americans in 2020. The poll of 4,718 adults is a treasury that will provide social welfare agencies, schools and academic researchers with useful insights for many years.

One finding that will be disputed, however, concerns the size of the “core” U.S. Jewish population, consisting of those who identify as Jewish by religion or otherwise. According to Pew, there were 5.8 million “core” American Jews in 2020, a 7.4 percent increase from 2013. That’s an implausibly large jump. After all, the U.S. population as a whole grew just 4.4 percent during that period, about 2.4 percent from immigration and the rest from natural increase. Since American Jews have a lower birthrate than the U.S. population as a whole, a massive immigration wave of perhaps 300,000 Jews over the seven-year period would have been required to bring the Jewish population up to 5.8 million. No such wave took place.

Other findings at a glance

Pew is on safer ground in its other main conclusions.

American Jewry is becoming more racially and ethnically diverse, with eight percent of American Jewry not identifying as “non-Hispanic White”—a figure that rises to 15 percent among Jews aged 18–29.

U.S. Jews are less likely than American adults overall to say that religion is very important to them (21 percent vs. 41 percent).

LISTEN: Hear Robert Brym discuss the Pew study on The CJN’s weekly current affairs podcast, Bonjour Chai

Seventy-one percent of American Jews support the Democratic Party, although the figure is just 25 percent among the Orthodox.

Three-quarters of American Jews believe there is more anti-Semitism in the United States than five years ago, and 82 percent say that caring about Israel is essential or important to what being Jewish means to them. 

The proportion of Jews who are Orthodox and the proportion who say they belong to no particular branch of Judaism are highest among young adults. This finding points to a growing community bifurcation that is likely due to the relatively high birthrate among the Orthodox, and the drift of the children of non-Orthodox and especially Reform Jews to the “no particular branch” category. (That’s my interpretation, not Pew’s.)

Perhaps surprisingly, while more than four in 10 married Jews have a non-Jewish spouse, the tendency of intermarried couple to raise their children as Jews is increasing over time.

Implications for Canada

The Pew survey was released just as Canadians were in the middle of the 2021 census. Unfortunately, the census provides much less information about the Jewish population than a well-constructed purpose-built survey can. In fact, in recent years, the census has imperiled the statistical basis for understanding Canada’s Jewish community.

In 2016, for the first time since 1941, the census did not list “Jewish” as an example of an ethnic group in the ethnic question. Statistics Canada has acknowledged that this omission was largely responsible for a precipitous drop of nearly 54 percent in the count of Canadian Jews by ethnicity, from 309,650 in 2011 to just 143,665 five years later. Adding Jews by religion to the 2011 count yields a total of 385,345, but the religion question did not appear in the 2016 census.

The 2021 census may partially rectify matters. First, the religion question reappeared. Second, the “long form” census, distributed to 25 percent of Canadian households, dropped all examples of ethnic groups from the ethnic question, instead allowing respondents to click on a link where they could find a list of 264 ethnic labels, including “Jewish.” This change in question wording will make it difficult to compare the 2021 census count with the census count from previous years. Moreover, many people are likely to find poring over the list tedious, so it is possible that the count of Canadian Jews by ethnicity will be somewhere between the 2016 and 2011 estimate. 

Meanwhile, the Israel Central Bureau of Statistics estimates Canada’s 2021 Jewish population (by religion or ethnicity) at 393,000, or 1.03 percent of all Canadians. This seems to be a reasonable estimate given what we know about the mortality, fertility, immigration and emigration rates of Canadian Jewry.

A nationwide survey of Canadian Jews was conducted for the first time in 2018. While the survey provided useful knowledge about Canada’s Jews, especially because it covered behavioural and attitudinal issues that the census ignores, it also had shortcomings. Notably, because of budgetary constraints, it sampled just 82 percent of the country’s Jewish population: community members residing in metropolitan Toronto, Montreal, Vancouver and Winnipeg.

Remarkably, the 2018 survey was the first of its kind in Canada. Given that the U.S. Jewish population is nearly 15 times larger than that of Canada, it is hardly surprising that seven major national surveys of American Jews have been conducted over the past half-century. It is surprising that, with a Jewish population only about three-quarters the size of Canada’s, the United Kingdom’s Institute for Jewish Policy Research in London is able to mount several national and Western Europe–wide surveys annually. It is downright startling that Australia’s Jewish community, less than one-third the size of Canada’s, may have a better record of survey research than its Canadian counterpart does.

Especially because of the mounting difficulties facing census-based research on Canadian Jews, it now seems imperative for the country’s Jewish community to take responsibility for sponsoring regular nationwide surveys like those conducted in other diaspora communities. 

Robert Brym is the S.D. Clark Professor of Sociology at the University of Toronto and co-author of the 2018 Survey of Jews in Canada.