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World Jewish Community

World Jewish Community

By Byron L. Sherwin

Compared to the population of the world, the Jewish population is quite small. The world population is currently estimated to be about 6.2 billion people (6,234,250,000). Of these, it is estimated that about 13 million (12,950,000) are Jews. This means that only .002 (2 per thousand) or about 1 in every 480 people in the world are Jews. Similarly, compared to the number of adherents of other leading western religions, the number of Jews is quite small. For example, there are about 2 billion Christians (2,019,000,000, including over a billion Catholics), and about 1.2 billion (1,207,000,000) Muslims. Furthermore, of the approximately 13 million Jews in the world, a substantial number consider themselves to be Jews by birth or ethnicity, but not Jews by religion. At present, the major centers of Jewish population are the United States and Israel, with smaller Jewish populations of various sizes in many other countries. The Jewish population of the United States is estimated at between 5.5 and 6 million. The Jewish population of Israel is estimated at about 5.4 million. In Israel, over 80 percent of the population are Jews. In the United States, about 2.2 percent are Jews.

During the 1940s and early 1950s, the world Jewish population experienced major changes, the effects of which are still being felt today. In 1939, when World War II began, the world Jewish population reached its peak at about 18 million. However, the systematic murder during the Holocaust of 6 million European Jews (about one in every three Jews in the world and about two of every three Jews then in Europe) left the world Jewish population at about 12 million in 1945. In the post-World War II period, there has been modest Jewish population growth. However, at present, the world Jewish population is near zero population growth.

Jews in the United States

In the United States, demographic changes have affected the nature of Jewish life in many ways. For example, before World War II, over 80 percent of American Jewry resided in the northeast corridor between Boston and Baltimore, or in Chicago. Since World War II, Jews have become more demographically distributed around the United States, with large Jewish populations developing in Los Angeles, Florida's southeast coast, the San Francisco Bay area, and elsewhere. Today, Las Vegas, Nevada is the fastest growing American Jewish community. Chicago, which was the second largest Jewish community in the United States before World War II (at about 340,000, now about 260,000) currently ranks fifth or sixth in Jewish population.

Recent demographic studies of American Jewry have indicated a number of trends that many find disturbing. For example, of the approximately 6 million people of Jewish parentage in the United States, only about half, or 3 million, consider themselves as "Jews by religion." The other half adhere to a religion other than Judaism (about 1.4 million) or claim to have no religion. At present, the intermarriage rate between Jews and non-Jews is about 50 percent (one in two marriages), though it had been at about 10 percent as recently as the 1960s. The median age of American Jews is much higher than that of other Americans. In the post-World War II period, Jews were almost 4 percent of the American population; currently they are about 2.2 percent, and estimates are that they will only be 1 percent by 2050. The growth rate of American Jewry is under zero population growth. It is also estimated than within a generation, the Israeli Jewish population will exceed the Jewish population in the United States for the first time. In sum, both in absolute and relative terms, the American Jewish population is aging and shrinking. Despite these grim statistics, American Jews continue to make enormous contributions, disproportionate to their numbers, to science, the arts, politics, commerce and scholarship. American Jewry continues to flourish as the freest, most prosperous and most influential Jewish community in Jewish history.

Jews in Israel

In 1948, the state of Israel was founded with about 600,000 Jews. Today, about 5.4 million Jews, or about 38 percent of the world's Jewish population, live in Israel. Since the founding of the state, the major source of population growth has been Jewish immigration (aliyah) from other countries. In the 1950s, the very existence of a Jewish state made Jewish residence untenable in most Arab countries and brought about a major population shift from those countries to Israel. In the 1980s and 1990s, Jews from the Former Soviet Union came to Israel in substantial numbers. As political and economic conditions in various countries have deteriorated, Jews from all over the world have found a haven in the Jewish state.

Throughout its history, Israel has lived with wars and conflicts with its neighboring Arab states, and with the Palestinians. Yet, Israel has established peace-treaties with some of its neighbors like Jordan and Egypt. Internally, political tensions and disputes between Orthodox and non-Orthodox Jews have caused fissures in the social and political fabric of Israeli life. Nonetheless, Israel has absorbed hundreds of thousands of Jewish immigrants, maintained a strong military defense, and created a viable culture and economy. Israel has emerged as a world leader in various areas of science, technology and commerce. Since the founding of the state, the Hebrew language has been reborn and substantial cultural developments in literature, the arts and scholarship have been achieved.

Jews in Other Countries

The Jewish population in countries around the world other than Israel and the United States is of various sizes. For example, there are about 350,000 Jews in Canada but only 100 Jews in the Dominican Republic, about 270,000 in Great Britain and about 4000 in the Czech Republic, about 100,000 in Australia and about 2,000 in Japan, about 500,000 in France and about 5,000 in Panama. Many small communities, despite their size, have vibrant Jewish communities, like San Jose, Costa Rica with about 2,500 Jews. Each Jewish community has characteristics and problems that both sustain and challenge it.

About 1.5 million Jews live in the nations of the European Union, mostly in Western Europe. Many Jewish communities in central and Eastern Europe are exerting great efforts to restore Jewish life in countries devastated by the Holocaust and subsequent Communist domination. In recent years, many Jews from the Former Soviet Union have augmented the Jewish population in Israel, but also in Germany and the United States.

Further Reading

Since Volume One of the American Jewish Yearbook was published in 1900, this annually published series has served as the most reliable source of information about Jewish communities throughout the world. Not only is this resource rich in demographic data, but each volume reviews major events and developments in Jewish communities in many countries throughout the world. In recent decades, lists of all American Jewish organizations, journals and newspapers are included, along with feature in-depth articles about issues of contemporary Jewish interest. You can access American Jewish Yearbookfull text through the website of the American Jewish Committee Archives.