Three teens stand together — one Latina, one Asian, one black — the Asian one is wearing a t-shirt that reads "This is what Jewish looks like."
Danielle Natelson, Rebekkah Scharf and Lindsey Newman led a program for teen Jews of color at the Contemporary Jewish Museum in November 2018 . (Photo/Rob Gloster)

Study finds Jews of color have been chronically undercounted

A new study from four Bay Area researchers posits that there has been “a systematic undercounting” of Jews of color in local and national Jewish community studies.

“Counting Inconsistencies,” an 18-page paper published last month and available at tinyurl.com/count-in-study, is the work of two professors and a graduate student at Stanford University and one professor at the University of San Francisco.

Subtitled “An Analysis of American Jewish Population Studies, with a Focus on Jews of Color,” the report argues that “grave inconsistencies” in the questions and the collection of data about American Jews’ racial backgrounds mean that we “know little about the composition and size of the population of Jews of Color” in the United States.

The study analyzed the data, and the strategies used to collect it, in 25 national and local Jewish population studies, mostly over the last two decades, including the 2018 “Portrait of Bay Area Jewish Life and Communities” commissioned by the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation.

Using data from three large studies that included inquiries about race and ethnicity, the new analysis approximated that Jews of color comprise at least 12 to 15 percent of the American Jewish population.

The Bay Area is an anomaly, with fully 25 percent of Jewish households including an adult who is “Hispanic, Asian American, African American, mixed or other racial background,” according to the 2018 portrait. That number jumps to 38 percent for respondents ages 18 to 34.

“Jewish community and population studies direct millions of dollars in philanthropic assets and thousands of hours of human labor annually,” Stanford’s Ari Y. Kelman, an author of the paper, told J. by email. “To fail to account for the diversity of American Jewish communities is to misrepresent those very communities and can result in poorly informed decisions about how best to serve or represent them.”

The paper identifies four main problems with questioning strategies in some studies: Some did not ask about race or ethnicity at all; some sampled respondents “in ways that likely undercounted” Jews of color; some included questions about race and ethnicity that were not comparable across studies and often “confused multiple types of identity”; and some used “nonstandard questions” that created mismatches with reference studies.


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For example, a 2014 Seattle Jewish community study asked respondents: “Regarding your Jewish ethnicity, do you consider yourself to be Ashkenazi, Sephardi, Mizrachi or something else?” A similar question in a 2007 study of the Denver-area Jewish community asked: “Regarding your ethnicity, do you consider yourself to be White, Hispanic, Black or African American, Asian or Pacific Islander, bi- or multiracial, or something else?”

Disparities like these made it nearly impossible to “generate reliable comparisons” among surveys, researchers wrote.

Despite the finding that a quarter of Bay Area Jewish households include a person of color, the paper noted that research methodologies included sampling “Federation-provided lists and Distinctive Jewish Names. These methods likely undercount Jews of Color.”

In part, problematic questions nationwide stem from “the assumption that the vast majority of American Jews identify as white,” the researchers concluded. “This has been the default position of most American Jews for decades. This assumption obscures the diversity of the American Jewish community and, in the process, it directs energy, attention and resources in ways that do not represent the range of experiences and identities of American Jews.”

The conclusions also noted that since younger Jews identify as non-white more than Jews in previous generations, “the future of American Jewry is diverse” and the population of Jews of color is “one that will likely grow in size and significance in the coming years.”

The study was conducted by Kelman, an associate professor at Stanford, where he is the Jim Joseph Professor of Education and Jewish Studies; Aaron Hahn Tapper, the Mae and Benjamin Swig Professor in Jewish Studies and the founding director of the Swig Program in Jewish Studies and Social Justice at USF; Aliya Saperstein, an associate professor of sociology at Stanford; and Izabel Fonseca, a Ph.D. candidate at Stanford.

The research resulted from a partnership among the Jews of Color Field Building Initiative directed and founded by Ilana Kaufman, the Stanford Graduate School of Education’s Concentration in Education and Jewish Studies, and the Swig Program in Jewish Studies and Social Justice at USF. It was supported by the Maryland-based Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Foundation.

Gabe Stutman
Gabe Stutman

Gabe Stutman is a J. staff writer. Follow him on Twitter @jnewsgabe.