In 2020, with the support of the Jim Joseph Foundation, JIMENA: Jews Indigenous to the Middle East and North Africa commissioned ROSOV consulting to conduct a needs assessment to identify communal goals and priorities for a national study of Sephardic and Mizrahi Jews in the USA. Based on interviews with Sephardic and Mizrahi leaders across America, JIMENA identified foundational goals for its research agenda:
- To ensure that Mizrahi and Sephardic Jewish Americans are carefully included in demographic and Jewish communal research moving forward;
- To provide empirical and anecdotal data and guidance to the larger Jewish community in order to strengthen knowledge, language, and data on Jewish diversity; and
- To use data in order elevate the profile, voices, leadership, needs, and place of Sephardic community leaders, scholars, researchers, and activists in the mainstream Jewish communal world in the United States.
After the completion of this needs assessment and with the support of the Jewish Community Response and Impact Fund, JIMENA was awarded a grant to launch the first-ever demographic study of Sephardic Jewish Americans. With this support, JIMENA commissioned a research team based across NYU and Brandeis under the direction of Dr. Mijal Bitton to conduct research on Sephardic and Mizrahi Jews in the USA.
This project is housed at NYU under the auspices of the Bronfman Center for Jewish Life where Dr. Bitton, who is directing the project and serving as the study’s Principal Investigator (PI) , holds a position. Dr. Bitton is also a Scholar in Residence at the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America and the Rosh Kehilla (communal leader) of the Downtown Minyan in New York City. Mijal, a Wexner Graduate Fellowship alumna, received her PhD from NYU, where she wrote about the Syrian Jewish community in New York to contribute to the growing field of contemporary Sephardic studies.
To carry out this work, a group of international scholars with specific areas of expertise were retained to conduct the research:
- Dr. Angeles Cohen, Postdoctoral Associate, University of Calgary
- Dr. Ilana Horwitz, Assistant Professor of Jewish Studies and Sociology Tulane University
- Dr. Laura Limonic, Assistant Professor of Sociology at the College of Old Westbury of the State University of New York
- Dr. Devin Naar, Isaac Alhadeff Professor of Sephardic Studies and Associate Professor of History and Jewish Studies at the University of Washington
- Elana Riback Rand, Doctoral Fellow at the Azrieli Graduate School of Jewish Education and Administration at Yeshiva University
In addition to this, the Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies and Steinhardt Social Research Institute at Brandeis University is working with Dr. Bitton and Professor Horwitz to review existing demographic data. Professor Leonard Saxe and Dr. Janet Kranser Aronson are leading this effort at the Cohen Center and will produce a white paper on Sephardic and Mizrahi population estimates that will be integrated in the final and full “National Study of Sephardic Jews in the United States” report.
The research team’s work will be strengthened by the oversight and support of a 10-member academic advisory committee team, which is currently in formation and will be finalized by February 2023.
The report will include a literature review exploring the different scholarly approaches to the category of Sephardic (and Mizrahi) Jews, specifically in the United States context. It will also present summaries of current empirical research which already exists on contemporary Sephardic Jews in the United States (using the most expansive definition of Sephardic).
Conducted by the Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies at Brandeis University, the white paper on population estimates (which will be integrated into the general report) has two goals:
- To use currently available data to develop estimates of population size and basic demographics (data sources will include surveys conducted by the Pew Research Center on American Jews, as well as local Jewish community studies conducted by the Cohen Center and other groups).
- To describe the challenges in developing population estimates of the Sephardic/Mizrahi Jews in the US (these challenges include question-wording, sampling and data collection, as well as analysis strategies).
Because each of the available data sources has limitations, the report of analyses conducted by this project will be used to assess the accuracy of the estimates and what additional types of data are needed. For example, some studies (including Pew) ask about identity in a way that may have underestimated the population. Local Jewish community studies that ask more in-depth and comprehensive questions are, at present, available only for some regions of the country. By comparing estimates from Pew and local studies, we will be able to provide population estimates and recommend approaches for future studies.
Qualitative Community Portraits
At the heart of this research project are the community portraits, in which five Sephardic communities will be studied in depth. These community portraits are key for this project for several reasons. First and foremost, they will help researchers understand the world of meaning and categories used within Sephardic communities which are most likely not properly captured in (other) national and community studies. For example, how do Sephardic Jews in these communities describe their religious practice and observance? Do questions about denominations make sense for these populations? In addition, these portraits will highlight the fact that Sephardic (and Mizrahi) Jews are not a monolithic group but quite nuanced in their diversity. This research project is seeking to promote a comprehensive portrait of the variation that exists within Sephardic communities to celebrate its overarching diversity.
The research design is based on interviews and ethnographic fieldwork in community institutions. The research team will interview 150+ lay and professional Sephardic leaders in the Iranian Jewish community in Los Angeles, CA, the Syrian Jewish community in Brooklyn, NY, the Sephardic community in Seattle, WA, the Hispanic/Sephardic community in Miami, FL, and the Bukharin community in Queens, NY. The qualitative interviews will center around key questions related to categories of ethnic, racial and religious self-identification used internally within these communities; immigration histories, estimated sizes of the community, political and socioeconomic characteristics of their communities, Jewish communal institutions, and perceived barriers for better representation/integration in the broader Jewish community.
Final Reports and Communication
While this research will be methodologically approached from an academic perspective, it will be framed and presented in a way to help inform professionals, educators, leaders and scholars serving American Jews about who Sephardic and Mizrahi Jews in America are. The final report, which will be published by both NYU and JIMENA, will include an overview of the state of knowledge on Sephardic Jews in America both in terms of identity categories and general empirical information about self-identified Sephardim, a working definition of Sephardic/Mizrahi, at least four community portraits, the national population estimate of Sephardic/Mizrahi Jews conducted by the Cohn Center, a distillation of recommendations for the representation and inclusion of Sephardic Jews, and a discussion of the ethical concerns around research informed by community stakeholders and the ways in which the researchers balanced this with their goal of academic rigor and objectivity.
Phase One Findings
During phase one of the Sephardic Jewish American Research Study which was completed in 2021, JIMENA assembled a 40-member Sephardic Study Advisory Committee composed of Sephardic communal leaders, scholars, rabbis, educators, and advocates representing diverse Sephardic communities from across the United States. The committee includes scholars of Sephardic Jews from UCLA, University of Washington, SUNY, Brandeis University, George Washington University, the Shalom Hartman Institute, the Orthodox Union, and the Berman Jewish Databank. Senior leadership from every single major Sephardic organization in the United States joined the advisory board in addition to heads of Jewish Day Schools, philanthropists, and emerging young Sephardic lay leaders.
During phase one of the research, Rosov Consulting and Dr. Mijal Bitton developed standardized research questionnaires for Sephardic Study Advisory Committee participants in an effort to build an understanding of Sephardic communal leaders’ needs and priorities for data. Rosov interviewed ten Sephardic Advisory Committee participants and twenty participants completed the survey prepared by Dr. Mijal Bitton. From the sampling of the surveys prepared by Dr. Mijal Bitton we learned the following:
- 70% of the leaders identify as Sephardic and 75% as Mizrahi
- 15% of the leaders surveyed identify as a Jew of Color, 10% as a Persons of Color, 20% as Hispanic, 30% as white, and 50% as Middle Eastern
- 50% of the leaders surveyed identify as Traditional, 20% identify as Orthodox, 20% as Reform, 15% as Conservative, 10% as Secular, and 55% as other
- 100% of participants recognized a dearth of standardized, high-quality, qualitative and quantitative data on Sephardic Jewish Americans
- 100% of participants recognized the need for a significant investment in Sephardic communal leadership infrastructure and community engagement and education models
- In response to the question, “As a Sephardic Jew, do you feel represented and included in mainstream Jewish communities across America? “80% of the leaders said they do not feel included and 15% said they do.
Questions that emerged during phase one that need to be addressed in further research:
- What does the term Sephardic mean and who does it apply to?
- What does the term Mizrahi mean and who does it apply to?
- What is the size and location of the Sephardic/Mizrahi populations in the United States?
- What are religious, socio-economic and political characteristics of the Sephardic/Mizrahi population in the United States?
- What is the relationship between the identity of Sephardic/Mizrahi and racial identities such as ‘white Jews,’ or ‘Jews of Color’?
- What is the self-understanding of Sephardic Jews vis-a-vis the Ashkenazi-majority institutional Jewish community in America?
- What are barriers for Sephardic representation and integration in broader American institutional life?
These are but some of the questions for which we have no data or any infrastructure to begin collecting this data on Sephardic Jewish Americans. The most significant barrier for answering these questions is that Sephardic Jews are underrepresented in social scientific studies of Jewry and in the centers of institutional life which collect these types of data. A significant effort is necessary to begin collecting information that will allow for an accurate and inclusive portrait of the full U.S. Jewish population, including Sephardic Jews.