Jewish Studies Demography
Chaim I. Waxman
  • LAST REVIEWED: 26 August 2014
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 August 2014
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199840731-0074


Demography is the quantitative study of human populations. There remains a question as to whether it is an autonomous social science. In any case, it draws from and serves the social sciences and a variety of other disciplines, including history, geography, epidemiology, and public health. Demography’s roots go back to the earliest recorded history, when censuses were conducted for such essential purposes as taxation and military service, among others. Jewish demography or demography of the Jews can be of the world Jewish population or of the Jewish population in a particular place. Most studies are of Jewish populations in particular places. Though the ultimate purposes for which the studies were undertaken may have differed, the immediate objective has almost always been to measure the group’s size. As the discipline of demography developed and continues to develop, it is increasingly apparent that a group’s size is affected by, and can have an effect on, a complex of factors including, migration, fertility, and mortality patterns; marriage and divorce patterns; education, occupation, and income patterns; and communal identification patterns. Jewish tradition, as well as those of many other cultures, condemns the counting of individuals, and the Bible explicitly asserts plagues as punishments for carrying out censuses by counting heads (Exodus 30:12 and 2 Samuel 24). In his study Folk-Lore in the Old Testament, the Scottish social anthropologist James G. Frazer (b. 1854–d. 1941) suggests that the biblical objection to a census is part of a widespread aversion “many ignorant people feel” toward being counted, and is also common among blacks in Africa as well as among others in North Africa, the Western Pacific, various Native American tribes in North America, and also in several European countries. Be that as it may, a census was necessary for the military draft and for the distribution of land (Numbers 1 and 26), and the Bible prescribes an indirect method, via the half-shekel, to obtain the necessary count (Exodus 30). While not necessarily counting heads, Jews have a long history of interest in the numbers and well-being of the group. The counting apparently posed no ideological problem because any censuses that were conducted were undertaken under non-Jewish auspices. Demographic data on Jews have been the most readily available in counties such as those in eastern Europe, where the national censuses included information concerning religion. In countries such as the United States and a number in western Europe, where separation of religion precludes government inquiry into religious affiliation, information is now typically obtained from self-studies conducted by organized local Jewish communities. Canada is an exception, and the Canadian census has included a question on religion since at least the beginning of the 20th century.

Origins and General Overviews

Scholars point to the German Jewish historian Leopold Zunz (b. 1794–d. 1886) as the forerunner of Jewish demography. He and several colleagues founded the first organization of what came to be the field of academic Jewish studies, the Verein fur Cultur und Wissenschaft der Juden (The Society for the Culture and Science of the Jews), and he edited its journal, the Zeitschrift fur die Wissenschaft des Judenthums (Journal for the Science of Judaism), in one issue of which he published a detailed listing of his vision of the components of a demography (“statistic”) of the Jews (Zunz 1823). A subsequent impetus for a demography of the Jews was the effort to gain social and political rights for European Jewry and Zionism’s assertion of the need for a homeland. A major step in this direction was in the work of a sociologist who was appointed director of the Bureau for Jewish Statistics and Demography in Berlin, Arthur Ruppin (b. 1876–d. 1943), who wrote the first major demographic and sociological study of the impact of emancipation upon the Jews (Ruppin 1913). He provided a perspective on assimilation which was later echoed by many American sociologists. In the decades after the establishment of the Bureau in Berlin, numerous other Jewish demographic and social scientific endeavors were undertaken. Notable among these were the establishment by the American Jewish Committee of the Bureau of Jewish Statistics and Research, in 1914, and the establishment in 1925 of the Yidisher Visnshaftlekher Institut (Yiddish Scientific Institute), now known as YIVO Institute for Jewish Research, in Vilna (Wilno or Vilnius––now Lithuania, then Poland). One of YIVO’s founders was Jacob Lestchinsky, a social scientist and demographer who developed and headed its Economic-Statistical Section and edited YIVO’s Bleter far idisher demografye, statistik, un ekonomik from 1923–1925, and its Shriftn far ekonomik un statistik from 1928 to 1932. After immigrating to New York in 1938, he continued to conduct studies for YIVO and other Jewish organizations, especially the Institute of Jewish Affairs of the World Jewish Congress. In 1914, the American Jewish Committee (AJC) established the Bureau of Jewish Statistics and Research to collect and study data on the social, cultural and religious aspects of Jews in the United States. In 1919, the AJC Bureau merged with the Bureau of Philanthropic Research and the Field Bureau of the National Conference of Jewish Charities, and became the Bureau of Jewish Social Research. Its goal was to study the condition of American Jewry, to improve its philanthropic administration, and to serve as a data bank and clearing house for sociological information on Jews around the world. In addition to the works Zunz 1823 and Ruppin 1913, Bachi 1997, DellaPergola 2002, DellaPergola 2011, and Goldscheider and Zuckerman 1984 are the richest introductions to the broad field of Jewish demography, whereas Hart 2000 provides an analysis of the field’s ideological origins and development.

  • Bachi, Roberto. “Personal Recollections on the History of Research in Jewish Demography.” In Papers in Jewish Demography 1993. Paper presented at the 11th World Congress of Jewish Studies, Jerusalem, June 1993. Edited by Sergio DellaPergola and Judith Even, 33–37. Jerusalem: Hebrew University, 1997.

    The founder of Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics and the Department of Demography and Statistics at Hebrew University’s Institute of Contemporary Jewry reflects on the development of Jewish demography during the 20th century.

  • DellaPergola, Sergio. “Demography.” In The Oxford Handbook of Jewish Studies. Edited by Martin Goodman, 797–823. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002.

    A comprehensive overview of the field, Jewish patterns around the world, and the key definitional, perspective, and ideological issues.

  • DellaPergola, Sergio. Jewish Demographic Policies: Population Trends and Options in Israel and in the Diaspora. Jerusalem: Jewish People Policy Planning Institute, 2011.

    Surveys major Jewish demographic trends worldwide and presents policy recommendations to meet what the author views as the major contemporary demographic challenges.

  • Goldscheider, Calvin, and Alan S. Zuckerman. The Transformation of the Jews. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984.

    The authors analyze Jewish communal patterns in various historical and national contexts, and emphasize the structural rather than cultural factors which contributed to the successful adaptation of the immigrant Jews upon their arrival in the United States.

  • Hart, Mitchell B. Social Science and the Politics of Modern Jewish Identity. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2000.

    This is the most comprehensive analysis of the origins of and developments within Jewish demography and Jewish social science.

  • Ruppin, Arthur. The Jews of To-day. Translated by Margery Bentwich. New York: Henry Holt, 1913.

    The first major demographic and sociological study of the impact of emancipation upon the Jews, it provided a perspective on assimilation which was later echoed by many American sociologists. Introduced by Joseph Jacobs.

  • Zunz, Leopold. “Grundlinien zu einer Künftigen Statistik der Juden.” Zeitschrift fur die Wissenschaft des Judenthums 1.3 (1823): 523–532.

    A detailed listing of the author’s vision of the components of a demography (“statistic”) of the Jews. Although grandiose, his outline planted the seeds for the field of Jewish demography.

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