Research Recap

Asking Different Questions and Finding Remarkable Answers: A Dive into Our Study Counting Inconsistencies

It was easy to know what to expect when beginning the Q&A. After finishing a talk on the experiences of Jews of Color or the need to create more inclusive Jewish communities and organizations, Ilana Kaufman, JoCI’s Executive Director, would open the conversation up to the room. Each time she ventured into predominantly white Jewish spaces to share knowledge about the JoC community, she was faced with one recurring question: “But how many Jews of Color are there, really?” Kaufman explains that such a question was “framed as if Jews of Color were a figment of our imagination or an anomaly, that somehow we were exceptions versus part of the general population.”

Numbers aren’t everything. They can’t reveal the complexity of the lives of Jews of Color, they can’t capture community or sense of belonging, they can’t reveal the beautiful ways Jews of Color weave together our multifaceted traditions and cultures. Yet, numbers do mean something. Without having the number of Jews of Color in the U.S., we would continue to face that recurring question, continue to be dismissed as just a tiny fraction of the community. Establishing a data-driven analysis of the number of Jews of Color also helps direct resources toward the community.

Although the numbers don’t themselves legitimize our presence—our existence does—statistics do seem to be given a lot of power in convincing the community that we are unquestionably part of the fabric of the Jewish people. In her piece supporting the need for our research study, published in the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, fellow JoC and Director of Marketing for Be’chol Lashon Marcella White Campbell wrote:

“But the question ‘How many Jews of color are there?’ is never a merely academic one. The answer has always directly affected the resources available to help Jews of color and, thus, the amount of attention paid to issues of diversity and inclusion within the Jewish community.” Campbell cuts to the heart of the Jews of Color Initiative’s reasoning for establishing a formal study of the population of Jews of Color in the U.S.

With a desire to assess our JoC community’s population, we undertook our first major research study, Counting Inconsistencies. Our research team, made up of Dr. Ari Y. Kelman, Dr. Aaron Hahn Tapper, Izabel Fonseca, and Dr. Aliya Saperstein, examined 25 population studies of the Jewish community. From those 25, the team focused on the three most reliable studies, one of New York, another from the San Francisco Bay Area, and the third the American Jewish Population Project, a national study housed in Brandeis University.

Using these three studies, the researchers arrived at an incredible conclusion: Jews of Color make up about 12 to 15 percent of Jews in the U.S. That’s around 1 million Jews of Color.

One million of us. It’s quite a remarkable finding. And what’s more, younger Jews are more ethnically and racially diverse, which tells us that this number will grow in years to come.

But how come these numbers are higher than other studies? Jews of Color didn’t suddenly grow in number overnight, and the research team held to rigorous social science methods. In addition to answering our basic question about population estimates, the research team uncovered something perhaps even more revealing about the Jewish community, or at least its researchers: research on Jewish populations has systematically undercounted Jews of Color. Some of the ways this inconsistent counting has occurred include not asking any questions about race or ethnicity, or choosing people to respond to surveys by selecting individuals with “distinctive Jewish names,” which are likely Ashkenazi-specific and not equally representing Sephardi or Mizrahi Jews, Jews of Color from multiracial families, or JoCs who are Jews by Choice.

Kaufman points out that having diverse representation among leadership positions in Jewish institutions directly enables the kind of assessments that are made about the Jewish community and the existing data about who we are. “When you have diverse leaders at this level of the community, the types of questions we ask are different, and I think it’s a real benefit to the community.”

Much of the lack of consistency in previous research has to do with one major, flawed assumption: that Jews are all white Ashkenazim. This inaccurate assumption has remained intact even as the Jewish community changes and diversifies right before our eyes. Forgetting to count or include Jews of Color is one of the ways white supremacy operates in our community.

Even if researchers of past studies did not intentionally decide to undercount Jews of Color, their research choices reveal an underlying prioritization of the majority, and it extends well past a handful of individuals conducting population studies. It echoes in the silence on issues of racial justice in our synagogues and community organizations because those aren’t seen as “Jewish issues.” It is in the belief that you can identify someone as a Jew simply by looking at them. It is in the questions, surprise, and sometimes outright confusion we are met with when we enter predominantly white Jewish spaces. It even showed up in some of the reactions to our study’s findings.

Even though some have challenged the results of our study, emerging research is showing remarkably similar demographics to what we have found. For example, a new study, Unlocking the Future of Jewish Engagement, found that 1 out of every 7 (14%) young adult Jews identify as a race other than white or as more than one race. Kaufman says this new study affirms what Counting Inconsistencies taught us: “the more diverse ‘future’ is actually here now.”

But our story is so much more than instances of negative reception of our research or community. Counting Inconsistencies has broken new ground and is changing the conversation on Jews of Color for the better. In fact, even instances of dismissal of our study were countered with ardent support of the JoCI and the study from some of the major players of Jewish organizations, such as the Union for Reform Judaism, JPRO Network, Bend the Arc, Be’chol Lashon, and many more. Follow-up pieces were published in Jewish Telegraphic Agency (Marcella White Campbell’s piece mentioned above), the Times of Israel, and eJewishPhilanthropy to name a few.

It wasn’t only organizational affirmation of the relevance of Jews of Color and of our study. Jews of Color themselves (virtually) rallied to challenge the dismissal of the study’s findings on social media, particularly on Twitter. April Baskin, a leader among the Jews of Color community, created the hashtag #JOCsCount as well as a community sign-on letter in response, which was widely signed by community members, clergy, and allies. Baskin tweeted the following:

“I hoped after 20 years of organizing, this wouldn’t need to be reaffirmed, but apparently it does: #JOCsCount. Let’s not quibble about data, nor leave out key studies. Questioning our numbers in a time of scarcity is a shameful power play. Listen: We count & we’re here to stay.”

The community’s strength in standing behind our study and the community at large—dedicating your intellectual labor, time, and sharing personal narratives—has been a vital ingredient to spreading the word about the study’s findings, and brought the conversation of counting Jews of Color front and center on the Jewish communal stage and beyond.

The study is already having a major impact on Jews of Color themselves, Kaufman says. She illustrates how Jew of Color in the community have felt “really empowered by knowing how many Jews of Color there are and that our community will get bigger and bigger over time.” Kaufman continues by explaining how “for so long Jews of Color and multiracial Jewish families have felt their stories were underrepresented and untold.”

Even though Kaufman knows numbers don’t mean everything, she recognizes that “having data, and newspaper articles, and tools, and expressions of ideas that are tangible that people value in traditional environments—research, data, statistics, numbers, reports—people have found really validating. And it’s deeply informed how organizations think about JoCs and what it means to have programs that are inclusive and anti-racist.”

Read our study report here.