The United States is home to the largest, or second-largest, Jewish population in the world, depending on sources cited and methods used. The American Jewish community boasts a wide range of Jewish cultural traditions encompassing the full spectrum of Jewish religious strands and traditions. About half of American Jews can be considered religious. There is a sprawling network of Jewish communities, organizations and institutions, and Jews often taken an active interest in public life and debate. Kosher food is widely available.
Jewish Population: 5,300,000 – 6,400,000
With between 5,300,000 and 7,000,000 million Jews, the United States is home to what is considered the largest Jewish population in the world, depending on the sources cited and methods used. The precise population figures vary depending on whether Jews are accounted for based on halachic considerations, or secular, political and ancestral identification factors. With its two million Jews, New York is the largest 'Jewish city' in the world.
About half of American Jews are considered to be religious. A 2003 poll found that 16 percent of American Jews go to synagogue at least once a month, 42 percent go less frequently but at least once a year, and 42 percent attend services less than once a year. Among those who belong to a synagogue, 38 percent are members of Reform, 33 percent of Conservative, 22 percent of Orthodox, and 2 percent of Reconstructionist synagogues.
Jewish Americans are more likely to be atheist or agnostic than those belonging to other faith groups, especially in comparison with Protestants or Catholics. A poll found that while 79 percent of Americans believe in God, only 48 percent of Jewish Americans do.
Jews play an active role in art, media, and entertainment. The proportion of Jewish university graduates is higher than that of the general population, and Jews hold many high positions in government, or are members of Congress. Many of the country's outstanding universities are headed by Jews, and all include a disproportionately large Jewish student population.
Jewish cuisine (particularly the bagel) is widely enjoyed by non-Jews, and Jewish motifs are an integral part of American culture, constituting a distinct sub culture. Moreover, many Yiddish words have crept into the general idiom (e.g. chutzpa, schlep, schlemiel, yenta, meshuga, megilla). Certain Jewish communities form groups that preserve special customs and traditions. These include the Bukharan and Syrian Jews in Queens, NY; Russian Jews in Brighton Beach, Brooklyn, NY; and Iranian Jews in Los Angeles, CA. The United States – particularly Brooklyn – is also the home of many Chassidic groups.
The demographic survey of American Jewry published in 1991 was viewed by many as a redundent watershed. The dramatic revelations on the rate of intermarriage (more than 50 percent) and assimilation aroused a feeling of pessimism in the life of the community. The study, commissioned by the Council of Jewish Federations, estimated the 'core' Jewish population at 4.1 million (or 5.8 million based on local community counts). Only 3.5 million belonged to families in which both parents were Jews.
In the last two to three decades, there has been a double movement of Jews away from the Northeast (and to some extent from the Midwest) to the South and West, and away from the big cities to the suburbs. These changes have served to dissolve established Jewish communities and have increased distances between Jewish centers, creating smaller and more dispersed communities. At the same time, many of the Jewish communities in smaller cities and towns are disappearing as younger Jews leave for the large urban areas.
American States with highest proportion of Jews (in percent):
New York: 8.9
New Jersey: 5.8
District of Columbia: 4.3
Pennsylvania: 2.3 Illinois: 2.3
At the time of the Declaration of Independence (1776), there were already 1,500 to 2,500 Jews in the United States, mostly descendents of Sephardic immigrants from Spain, Portugal or their colonies.
The cultural hegemony of Spanish-Portuguese Jews was slowly reduced in the wake of immigration from Germany, in the middle of the 19th century. The new arrivals bolstered the Jewish population from 6,000 in 1826 to 15,000 in 1840 and 280,000 in 1880. Then, most Jews were part of the educated and largely secular Ashkenazi (German) community, although a minority population of the older Sephardic Jewish families remained influential.
Beginning in 1881, a wave of immigration from the Russian Empire and other parts of eastern Europe started, and by the turn of the century, the American Jewish population had surpassed one million. That immigration continued until the imposition, in 1924, of strict quotas designed to restrict the entry of new immigrants from eastern and southern Europe. Until that time, the United States absorbed about two-thirds of the total number of Jewish emigrants leaving eastern Europe. By 1918, America had become the largest Jewish community in the world.
Most of these new arrivals were also Yiddish-speaking Ashkenazi Jews who came from the poor rural populations of the Russian Empire and what is today Poland, Lithuania, Belarus, Ukraine and Moldova. Over two million Jews arrived between the 1800's century and 1924. Most settled in New York City and its immediate environs, establishing what became one of the world's major concentrations of the Jewish population.
These newly-arrived Jews built support networks consisting of many small synagogues and Ashkenazi "Landsmannschaften", associations of Jews coming from the same town or village in Europe. Jewish writers of the time urged assimilation and integration into the wider American culture, and Jews quickly became part of American life.
In the 1930s, only a small fraction of the Jewish refugees clamoring to escape the threat of Nazism were admitted. Still, by 1940, the Jewish population had risen to 4,500,000, and that number increased after the war when many Holocaust survivors arrived on American shores. Half a million American Jews (half of all Jewish men aged between 18 and 50) fought in World War II, and after the war, younger families joined the new trend of suburbanization.
The suburbs facilitated the formation of new centers, as Jewish day school enrollment more than doubled between the end of World War II and the mid-1950s, while synagogue affiliation jumped from 20 percent in 1930 to 60 percent thirty years later; the fastest growth occurred in Reform and Conservative congregations. More recent waves of Jewish immigration from Russia and other regions have largely joined the mainstream American Jewish community.
Over the last decades, some 250,000 Israelis immigrated to the United States, as have 150,000 Soviet Jews, 30,000 Jews from Iran, and thousands of others from Latin America, South Africa, and elsewhere. This immigration has offset the community's low birth rate and strong tendency toward assimilation.
Jewish immigrants dreamed of the United States as a promised land, a "goldene medina", but the reality was often harsh. Most newcomers worked at manual labor in appalling conditions. The largest concentration was in New York's Lower East Side, which at one time was home to over 350,000 Jews crammed into a single square mile.
With the passage of time, the patterns of education and occupation changed. Ever greater numbers of Jews entered the free professions, and Jews distinguished themselves in commerce, industry, and science.
Today, Jews are a distinctive and influential group in American politics. Although their political influence or financial clout is often exaggerated, the group has shown distinct voting patterns. While only a tiny proportion of the US population is Jewish, 94 of Jews live in 13 key electoral college states, which combined have enough electors to elect the president. Although Jews tend to overwhelmingly favor the Democratic Party, there have been recent examples showing that the Republicans can obtain their support, too.
It is difficult to keep track of the more than 2,000 organizations and 700 federations that operate in many cities, towns, and neighborhoods, and of course, the thousands of synagogues. The Jewish community finds expression and fulfillment in a tremendous range of associations and institutions. Many of these inevitably overlap, so there is a considerable degree of duplication.
The Jewish Federations of North America network, formerly known as United Jewish Communities, is the strongest umbrella organization in terms of allocation of funds and national planning. Various education and welfare boards are connected to it, and it also embraces Canada. Jewish Federations currently comprise 157 local Jewish federations and 400 independent Jewish communities. Together, they raise and distribute more than US$ 3 billion annually for social welfare services and Jewish educational activities. The federation movement ranks among the top 10 charities on the continent.
Each of the three main religious denominators – Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform – has its own national association of synagogues and rabbis. The Orthodox Union (OU) also manages the supervision of much of the kosher food produced in the United States. The union has its own rabbinical conference, the Rabbinical Council of America (RCA), and a youth movement. The RCA is ideologically close to the religious Zionist stream.
There is also a Union of Orthodox Rabbis (Agudath Harabonim) as well as other Orthodox rabbinical groups identified with the Satmar, Chabad Lubavitch and other Chassidic groups.
The Conservative movement is led by the Rabbinical Assembly, which has around 1,600 rabbis world-wide as members.
The small Reconstructionist stream has its own federation, the Jewish Reconstructionist Federation, and a college of rabbis, the Rabbinical School of Reconstructionist Judaism, which is based in Philadelphia, PA.
Among the leading voluntary Jewish organizations in the United States are two Jewish advocacy groups: the American Jewish Committee, established by Jews of Russian origin in 1906, and the American Jewish Congress, which was founded in 1918 by Rabbi Stephen Wise, who in 1936 co-founded the World Jewish Congress, together with Nahum Goldmann. The B'nai B'rith Jewish brotherhood was founded in 1843 by German immigrants and today focuses on mainly social and welfare activities. There is a large variety of Jewish organizations focusing on specific issues.
On university campuses across the US, there are active Hillel chapters.
The Anti-Defamation League (ADL) was founded in 1913 as a B'nai B'rith committee to combat anti-Semitism, and today operates as an independent organization. In terms of membership, the largest organization is Hadassah, the Women's Zionist Organization of America, which has some 270,000 members world-wide, mostly women.The community's main fundraising instrument is the annual campaign of the Jewish Federation system. Today, the majority of money that is collected is used to meet the domestic needs of American Jewry. About 30 percent is donated to Israel through the Jewish Agency for Israel. The Jewish Federations also finance the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC), which alleviates the hardships of many Jews and Jewish communities around the world.
As a group, American Jews have been very active in civil rights movements. In the mid-20th century, Jews were among the most active participants and supporters of the black civil rights movement.
Moreover, Betty Friedan wrote her 1963 book 'The Feminine Mystique', which is sometimes credited with sparking the second wave of feminism, and was the first of many prominent American Jewish feminists which extended into the feminist third wave. American Jews have also since its founding been largely supportive of, and active figures in, the struggle for gay rights in America.
Only about 15 percent of Jewish children attend Jewish day schools. There are more than 300 Orthodox day schools and more than 50 Conservative ones. Most of the schools of the Reform movement are affiliated with synagogues and only have classes on Sunday. There are two major institutions of higher learning under Jewish auspices: Yeshiva University in New York City and Brandeis University in Waltham, Massachusetts.
There are also several smaller Jewish colleges and specialized institutes. Many non-sectarian and Christian universities also have programs of Jewish studies. Moreover, there are a number of rabbinical seminaries and teacher-training institutions. Of the former, the most noteworthy are the Isaac Elchanan Seminary connected to Yeshiva University (Orthodox), the Jewish Theological Seminary (Conservative), and the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (Reform). Some of the most outstanding Jewish libraries in the world are located in the United States.
The American Jewish press is characterized by its great diversity. Virtually every organization has its own organ or bulletin. The Jewish Telegraphic Agency (JTA) has correspondents around the world and services many local Jewish monthlies or weeklies and produces free online news bulletins on its website.
Of the once great Yiddish press only a scant number of publications remains. A number of publishers specialize in Jewish works, and many of the non-Jewish publishing houses also print books on Jewish themes. In almost all large Jewish communities there are Jewish radio and television programs, e.g. 'Shalom TV'. However, the leading source of Jewish and Israeli news is the general American media and its major newspapers.
American Cities with Largest Jewish Populations
New York City, NY: 2,000,000
Los Angeles, CA: 662,000
Miami, FL: 555,000
Philadelphia, PA: 275,000
Chicago, IL: 294,000
Boston, MA: 250,000
San Francisco, CA: 304,000
Washington, DC & Baltimore, MY: 217,000
Jews began taking a special interest in international affairs in the early twentieth century, especially regarding pogroms in Imperial Russia, and restrictions on immigration in the 1920s. This period is also synchronous with the development of political Zionism and the Balfour Declaration. Large-scale boycotts of German merchandise were organized during the 1930s, which was synchronous with the rise of Fascism in Europe.
President Franklin Roosevelt's domestic policies ('New Deal') received strong Jewish support in the 1930s and 1940s, as did his foreign policies and his support for founding the United Nations. Support for Zionism in this period, although growing in influence, remained a minority opinion. However, the founding of Israel in 1948 propelled the Middle East into a focus of attention; the immediate recognition of Israel by the American government was an indication of both its intrinsic support and the influence of political Zionism.
This attention initially was based on a natural and religious affinity toward and support for Israel and world Jewry. The attention is also because of the ensuing and unresolved conflicts regarding the founding of Israel and Zionism itself. A lively internal debate commenced following the Six-Day War in 1967. The American Jewish community was divided over whether or not they agreed with the Israeli response; the great majority came to accept the war as necessary.
Similar debates were aroused by the 1977 election of Menachem Begin as Israeli prime minister and the 1982 Lebanon War. Disagreement over Israel's 1993 acceptance of the Oslo Accords caused a further split among American Jews; this mirrored a similar split among Israelis and led to a parallel rift within the pro-Israel lobby.
The American-Israeli relationship has been characterized as "special." Washington's relations with Jerusalem have had an important strategic significance for Israel and have prevented its total isolation during critical periods of political pressure, especially during economic and political boycotts. Since 1985 American aid to Israel has amounted to US$ 3 billion per annum, of which $1.8 billion represents military assistance and US$ 1.2 billion is used for the repayment of Israel's debts to Washington.
Apart from its Embassy in Washington, Israel has a consulate general in New York and consulates in Atlanta, Boston, Chicago, Houston, Los Angeles, Miami, Philadelphia, and San Francisco.
Aliya: Since 1948, over 100,000 American Jews have emigrated to Israel.
Consulate General of Israel in New York
800 Second Avenue
New York, NY 10017
Tel: +1 212 499 50 00
Fax: +1 212 499 53 55
In New York City, the Jewish Museum, the Lower East Side, and the Chassidic neighborhoods such as Boro Park, Williamsburg, and Crown Heights are leading stops on any Jewish visitor's itinerary. The story of immigrants to the US, both Jewish and non-Jewish, is also chronicled at Ellis Island, which once served as a reception center for new arrivals. There are also many historic synagogues – first and foremost Touro Synagogue in Newport, RI, which is the oldest surviving synagogue building in North America and a fine example of American colonial architecture.
In distinct contrast is the ultra-modern Beth Sholom Synagogue of Elkins Park, PA, which was designed by the famous American architect Frank Lloyd Wright. Nearly all of the larger communities have their own Jewish museum.
New York, NY 10024
For up to date information on Kosher restaurants and locations please see the Shamash Kosher Database
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