2013 was a good year for prognostications about the American Jewish future. The Pew Research Center released findings of a national survey of Jews, and the data were rich enough to spark intense wrangling over their implications. For those trying to make sense of the current debates, or for those who think about the future by first considering the past, the Berman Jewish Policy Archive presents this guide to demographic debates of yore. In the pages that follow, readers will find discussions of method and interpretation dating back to the first half of the 20th century, but with a special focus on the three major National Jewish Population Surveys of 1970, 1990 and 2000-1.
Considered together, the readings prompt questions about the degree to which conversations about Jewish American demography exist in linear or cyclical time. As social science, the population surveys help build knowledge cumulatively. The conversations around them can and should move forward from decade to decade.
But the surveys and their reports also serve as Jewish communal documents. They enter into the Jewish textual tradition, with its midrashic interpretations and ritualized readings. Just as the Jewish holy days are marked by the chanting and study of particular texts - the Scroll of Esther on Purim, the Book of Jonah on the Day of Atonement - the publication of a new Jewish American demographic survey every decade or so punctuates time, creating a moment for the community to take stock and look ahead. A Rosh Hashanah for statistics, so to speak.
In cyclical time, the American Jewish conversations around each new survey appear as ritual reenactments of the biblical story of the Israelite spies reporting back from Canaan. Having glimpsed a future filled with opportunity and peril, they give voice to the competing pulls of hope and trepidation. The tension between the two is enduring, and fundamental to the human experience of change. Hence its recapitulation, time and again.
Readers of the biblical spy story have the benefit of knowing what happens later in the book, and evaluating the spies’ reports based on the subsequent unfolding of the narrative. No such luxury is afforded to those in the midst of the conversations around new demographic studies. This BJPA sourcebook will help readers evaluate the reports of the future proffered in earlier rounds of the American Jewish demographic debates. Their future, after all, is our present, and in some cases already our past.
As for our future, however, it remains to be written.