Jewish Achievement

by | Jan 15, 2018


This Saturday I attended the Bar Mitzvah service of the son of a good friend.  I hadn’t been to a Bar Mitzvah since I was 13-14 years old myself. I was once again stunned by the achievement of learning Hebrew, chanting the Torah and leading the congregation in the service. All at the age of 13. Very impressive.  In honor of Brett, the new Bar Mitzvah, here are some stats on Jewish Achievement.

There are only about 15 million Jews worldwide with the largest population of 6.3 million in Israel, followed by 5.7 million in the U.S. No other country has over 500,000 Jews.

Fifteen million people is about 0.2% of the world population and 5.7 million is only 1.8% of the U.S. population. Given those small percentages, the following statistics are astounding:

  • Jews have won 22% of all Nobel Prizes ever awarded
  • They have won 25% of all Fields Medals (awarded to the brightest mathematician under age 40)
  • They constitute 31% of the Forbes 400 (which lists the wealthiest individuals)
  • Jews have held the World Chess Champion title 54% of the time since 1866
  • Jews compose 21% of Ivy League student bodies
  • They have won about 50% of the Pulitzer Prizes for non-fiction
  • 37% of Academy Award winning directors have been Jewish

What accounts for this amazing (partial) list of achievement?  Steven L. Pease (who is not Jewish), who authored the book The Debate Over Jewish Achievement, proposes that Jewish culture (rather than genetics) is the main driver of achievement. He notes the following among possible explanations for Jewish achievement:

  • “The huge premium Jews have placed on literacy and education for more than 2,000 years. Jews graduate from college at more than twice the national average.”
  • “Jews have long maintained very strong family values. They divorce less. They are mostly members of two-parent families. The mother is loving, strong, demanding, and supportive. The father is equally engaged. Most religious holiday events, even for secular Jews, are major family events, as is Shabbat (Friday night dinner). Loyalty to family and kin is highly valued.”
  • “Jewish lifestyle is generally healthy in terms of diet, and the approach to drugs and alcohol is moderate. Kosher conformance has served many purposes, but historically, one of them has been to mandate healthy eating habits.”
  • “Jews typically demonstrate high levels of self-discipline (deferred gratification). We see it in their diet, their commitment to formal education, their careers, and their drive to achieve.”
  • “They encourage and develop their verbal skills and the inclination to speak up, make an argument, debate, and disagree if they feel strongly. Generally, reticence has not been esteemed. The Talmud is a religious tract, but it is also essentially an ongoing academic debate over the evolution of Jewish Law in light of changing circumstances.”
  • Rationality is also embodied in the Talmud and in the lives of most Jews. One must deal with the facts on the ground and adapt. The Diaspora made anything less than this approach unfeasible. For most of 2,000 years, Jews had to exist as a small minority among other cultures, coexisting with countless other peoples, tribes, and cultures with substantially different beliefs and native languages. Staying alive demanded rationality and adaptability.”


  1. Right On, John!! You are a mensch. Feeling so proud of my people. Mazel Tov to Brett and his family.

  2. Mazel Tov to Brett!

  3. Thank you John, as the proud grandparents of Brett, we sincerely appreciate seeing this article.

  4. Mazel Tov John Jennings…you nailed it!


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