HUC-JIR’s Jewish Language Project Releases Major Study of American Jewish Names

Jewish Language Project
The Jewish Language Project, an initiative of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR), will release a significant study of American Jewish names on Monday, September 12. “American Jewish Personal Names: Results from a National Survey,” written by Dr. Sarah Bunin Benor, Vice Provost and Professor of Contemporary Jewish Studies and Linguistics at HUC-JIR, and Alicia B. Chandler, Ph.D., student in Sociology at Wayne State University, offers quantitative data supporting the commonly held understanding that different types of American Jews select different types of names for their babies.

Based on a 2019 survey with over 11,000 responses, the study found that respondents’ and their children’s name categories correlate strongly with personal characteristics, such as decade of birth, religiosity, ancestry, and time spent in Israel. They found correlations between various factors and naming after living or deceased honorees, using Jewish names for pets, and using a “Starbucks name” (an alternative first name used for some service encounters). The findings are discussed in historical context, demonstrating that American Jews are continuing centuries of naming traditions and adding new twists.

Study highlights include:

  • Over the decades, American Jews became more and more likely to give their children names of Jewish origin (English or Hebrew Biblical, Modern Hebrew, etc.), with a major uptick after the 1960s. 14% of Jews in the oldest age group have names of Jewish origin, compared to 63% in the youngest group. The top 10 names for Jewish girls and boys in each decade reflect these changes, such as Ellen and Robert in the 1950s, Rebecca and Joshua in the 1970s, and Noa and Ari in the 2010s.

  • While some Jews have changed their first names for various reasons, hardly any have done so to make their names less Jewish. This contrasts with the common practice of changing family names in the mid-20th century.

  • Jews with distinctively Jewish names are much more likely to sometimes use a “Starbucks name” than Jews with names that are not distinctively Jewish. But some Jews with common American names take on a more Jewish name as their Starbucks name, and some have an “Aroma name” for service encounters in Israel.

  • A sizable minority of Jewish pet owners give their pets Jewish names, including names of foods, biblical and historical figures, Jewish religious concepts, and Yiddish and Hebrew words.

  • Compared to non-Jews, Jews rated most names as more likely to be Jewish. Both groups rated Hebrew Biblical character names – Rivka, Chava, Elisheva, and Eliyahu – most likely to be Jewish. The names with the biggest discrepancies were Eliana, Lila, and Maya, which some Jews interpret as Hebrew.

“Many of our findings are just as I hypothesized, like historical trends and correlations between name choice and personal traits,” stated Dr. Benor. “But other results surprised me, like the popularity of certain names and the fact that so many American Jews, including many with Sephardi heritage and many with non-Jewish spouses, name their babies after deceased honorees,” which historically was an Ashkenazi tradition.

Alicia Chandler shared, “Choosing a name – either for a child or for yourself – is an intensely personal and meaningful act. Seeing how the Jewish community has felt increasingly empowered to choose names that are an outward representation of their Judaism and their heritage is a reflection of the Jewish community finding a home here in America.”

The study will be released immediately following a launch event on Sunday, September 11, 2022, at 10:00 am PT / 1:00 pm ET. “From Rachel and David to Maya and Ezra: Trends in American Jewish Personal Names” will feature presenters and co-authors Dr. Sarah Bunin Benor and Alicia B. Chandler. Respondents include Aaron Demsky, Professor Emeritus of Biblical History, Bar Ilan University, author of These Are the Names – Studies in Jewish Onomastics; Rachel B. Gross, Associate Professor of American Jewish Studies, San Francisco State University, author of Beyond the Synagogue: Jewish Nostalgia as Religious Practice; and Laura Wattenberg, Name Expert and Entrepreneur, author of The Baby Name WizardLearn more and register. The event is co-sponsored by HUC-JIR Jewish Language Project, Judaism Unbound, Kveller, Sholem Aleichem Institute, and Association for the Social Scientific Study of Jewry (ASSJ).

Dr. Benor added, “We’ve been working on this study for over 3 years. COVID certainly delayed it. It was a really labor-intensive project because we had to code every name individually before we could even start the quantitative analysis. It’s a sense of accomplishment to finally be finished with the analysis, and I’m really excited to share the results. People love talking about names, and I think they’ll find a lot of interesting tidbits in our report.”

Click here to register for the launch event. Questions? Contact Dr. Benor at