Counting Jews of Color in the United States

The Changing Nature of Jewish Identity
Americans are increasingly characterized by switching their religions, mixed religious marriages, “recombined” religions and inter-racial marriage. The Jewish community, including Jews of color, are part of these national phenomena. The Jewish community is often too quick to reject Jews who are on these paths and journeys, looking to who is “in” and “out,” rather than where individuals are on a continuum. Like many others in all religious groups across the American spectrum, many Jews of color are on their own spiritual and religious paths, sometimes resulting in conversion after living as a Jew for many years. Some may bring with them religious practices from their former religion until identity transformation to being Jewish is complete. Furthermore, conventional wisdom about race and religion do not necessarily apply (i.e., “Asians are Buddhist” or “Blacks are Christian”). The images of Jews are similarly inaccurate.

All of these issues are pressed even harder upon ethnically and racially diverse Jews. In the same way that Jews of color are a microcosm of the ways that Jewish organizations and institutions alienate many Jews, so is this population a microcosm for the “who is a Jew” issue. The constant questioning of the legitimacy of others now characterizes much of the rhetoric and behavior of the Jewish community. Has someone converted properly? When a child is adopted, are all the rituals followed? What is the nature of someone‘s lineage? Is the mother “really” Jewish? Halakah is important and so are standards. But the Jewish community has different and evolving standards. Are they applied uniformly and fairly?

We estimate at least 20% of the Jewish population is racially and ethnically diverse, including African, African American, Latino (Hispanic), Asian, Native American, Sephardic, Mizrahi and mixed-race Jews by heritage, adoption, and marriage. Calculating this number is challenging and requires examining a number of different sources.

First, according to the 2002 IJCR study and the 2000 NJPS study, a little over 7% of America's 6 million Jews say that they are African American, Asian, Latino/Hispanic, or Native American or mixed-race, for a total of about 435,000 individuals. This includes 85,000 who say that they are some race other than white but do not classify themselves more specifically. Second, the NJPS 2000 found 120,000 Jewish adults living in the United States who were born in Latin America, the Middle East, Asia, and the Caribbean (not including Israel). We estimate that over half of this foreign-born population (not including children) is comprised of diverse Jews, adding another 65,000.

Third, the number of Israelis living in the United States is under great dispute, including those of diverse backgrounds. For example, the NJPS found only 70,000-93,000 Israelis living in the United States, while the most recent New York demographic study showed about 50,000 Israelis in New York alone. The U.S. Census reports almost 200,000 people who speak Hebrew at home. A 2003 study by the Israeli Foreign Ministry showed almost a half million (500,000) Israelis living in the U.S.

Therefore, based on the U.S. Census, we are conservatively estimating the total number of Israelis in the United States at 200,000. Because approximately half of the population in Israel is of Mizrahi, Sephardic, and African heritage (before the migration from the former Soviet Union), it stands to reason that about 50% of Israelis in the United States could be Mizrahi, Sephardic, or African Jews (who are not included in the other categories listed). Therefore, we conservatively estimate that 100,000 Israelis living in the United States are of diverse backgrounds, or 1.7% of American Jews. This brings the total to 600,000 diverse Jews, or about 10% of the population.

Fourth, a question regarding Sephardic heritage was not asked in the 2000 NJPS, although the 1990 National Jewish Population Study showed that 8% of American Jews said they were Sephardic. Is the real percentage 10%? More? We do not know, other than to surmise it is considerably higher than is reported.

The number of Jews with some Sephardic heritage is likely to be grossly underestimated in many Jewish surveys, including the NJPS. Sephardic heritage is especially apt to be lost in individuals' self-reporting. Many people do not know about their Sephardic background, especially given the propensity of different groups of Jews to intermarry over generations throughout the Diaspora. Taking into consideration all these factors, we are conservatively estimating 10% of the United States population has some Sephardic heritage, in addition to those who say their race is Latino/Hispanic. We have taken into account potential overlap in this reporting and adjusted our estimate accordingly.

Adding 600,000 Sephardic Jews or 10% of the Jewish population together with 600,000 or 10% of Black, Asian, Latino and mixed-race Jews means 1.2 million or 20% of the Jewish population in the United States is diverse. This includes individuals who have converted to Judaism, individuals who have been adopted into Jewish families and raised as Jews, the multiracial children of partnerships between Ashkenazi Jews and people of color, and those who are themselves the generational descendants of Jews of color and those of Sephardic and Mizrahi heritage. (See Table 1)

Table 1