April 17, 2023
The Jewish People are an ethno-religious group and nation originating in the Land of Israel, which is the current location of the State of Israel. Jews lived under Jewish self-rule in the Land of Israel off and on for many centuries in ancient times. However, as various empires conquered the land, they engaged in mass expulsions of Jewish residents, the final and most comprehensive of which was carried out by the Roman Empire in 70 CE. While a small number of Jews always remained in the Land of Israel, as a result of these expulsions from the Land of Israel, Jews settled throughout the Middle East, Northern Africa, Asia, and Europe. In later centuries, they made their way in significant numbers to North and South America as well. These communities of Jews outside of the Land of Israel are known as the Jewish Diaspora. From the Middle Ages until the mid-twentieth century, Jews were periodically expelled from some of these places of diaspora settlement as well. Until there was a State of Israel, such Jews often had no place to go.
Despite being scattered throughout the world, Jews remained, and continue to remain, connected to one another and to the Land of Israel through shared history, liturgy, customs, religious practices, literature, and familial ties. Jews also share a common language of Hebrew, which through most of history was only used for prayer, Bible study, and rabbinic discourse. Today, Hebrew is the national language of the modern State of Israel, which was founded in 1948. Although few diaspora Jews are fluent in Hebrew, Jewish educational institutions throughout the Jewish Diaspora continue to teach it as a modern spoken and written language as well as a sacred tongue.
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Today, world Jewry numbers a mere 15.3 million people, accounting for 0.2% of the world’s population. (It is sobering to note that the Jewish people have not yet regained their pre-Holocaust numbers of 16.5 million people worldwide.) Jews live in many places around the world and represent incredible racial, ethnic, socioeconomic, and political diversity. Jews are not only white, European Ashkenazi Jews. There are Black Jews from Ethiopia, brown Jews from India, and Sephardic and Mizrahi Jews from North Africa, the Middle East, Turkey, and Iran. There are also Jews by choice of every race and ethnicity who have converted to Judaism. Today, over 80% of world Jewry lives in either Israel or the United States. Most American Jews are Ashkenazi, with families who trace their ancestry to Eastern and Central Europe. Over half of Israeli Jews are Sephardi and Mizrahi.
The American Jewish community dates back to 1654 when a group of 23 Jews fleeing persecution at the hands of the Portuguese Inquisition fled Brazil and found refuge in New Amsterdam (now New York). From that tiny group, the American Jewish community has grown to over six million, representing approximately 2% of the American population today.
The Pew Research Center’s study of Jewish Americans in 2020 gives an unparalleled lens into today’s American Jewish community. It shows that, while the majority of American Jews identify as Jews by religion (meaning they see Judaism as their faith), a growing number identify as Jews of no religion, meaning they identify as Jewish, but do not believe in Judaism as a religion. Therefore, it is important to note that Jews are not just a religious group. They often speak of themselves as a People. The Pew study also shows that over 80% of American Jews see caring about Israel as an essential or important part of what Judaism means to them.
Jews have faced incredible hatred and hostility, even genocide, throughout their history. Nonetheless, they have survived and thrived, and continue to contribute to the world with their resilience, creativity, and innovative spirit.