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Jewish Community is Graying But Where Are the Kids?

January 14, 2010 By:
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The map shows the area's Jewish population broken down by county. Charts and figures are provided by the 2009 "Jewish Population Study of Greater Philadelphia."

     What does the face of the area's Jewish community look like in the first part of the 21st century?

For one, it's more wrinkled than it's ever been, with far fewer children in its midst than it had even a decade ago.

At the same time, the intermarriage rate has reached 45 percent for Jews under 40, with only 29 percent of intermarried couples of all ages raising their children solely as Jews.

These are among the findings of the 2009 "Jewish Population Study of Greater Philadelphia," commissioned by the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia and released this week.

The third such local survey ever conducted -- the last was dated 1996/97 -- finds that in many ways, the Philadelphia community mirrors American Jewry as a whole. The region is experiencing many of the same trends, including a rising intermarriage rate and lower affiliation among younger Jews.

While many expected the overall population to decline -- it had fallen 14 percent in the years between the last two studies in 1984 and 1997 -- the estimated figure of Jews actually rose, from 206,100 in the previous study to 214,700 today. (Study researchers note that there are problems comparing the two figures, as different methodology was used to reach them.)

Despite the apparent growth, Philadelphia shifted its position from being the fourth largest Jewish community in the country to the seventh largest in terms of Jewish households. (Larger populations are found in New York; Los Angeles; Palm Beach County, Fla.; Chicago; Broward County, Fla.; and San Francisco.)

According to the document, Jewish households -- defined as having at least one Jewish adult over the age of 18 -- make up an estimated 7.5 percent of the 1,551,656 households in the five-county region, up from 7 percent as of 13 years ago.

The growth of the Jewish population in the suburban counties has continued, but for now, the plurality of Jews still reside in the city of Philadelphia. That makes the Delaware Valley one of the few metropolitan areas in the country where Jews reside in such large numbers inside the city limits, as opposed to the suburbs, according to a member of the study committee.

"The good news is, our population went up," Federation CEO Ira M. Schwartz said, adding that many Federation officials expected the numbers to decrease, perhaps to as low as 185,000 people. "We're confident in what's been reported. It obviously answered some questions and raised some questions that frankly we didn't know needed to be asked."

Religious Practice, Affiliation, Israel
Researchers did not have clear answers as to what caused the population to grow in Philadelphia. The fact that many seniors are living longer was put forth as one possible explanation.

In addition to detailed figures about where and how Jews live, the study also delved into religious practice, affiliations and attachment to Israel. It reported on philanthropic trends, the social-service needs of low-income and elderly residents, and raised issues about the declining rates with which younger Jews identify with their religion, heritage and culture.

The results -- sure to spark debate in several arenas -- will lead to further research in some areas, and will weigh heavily when policy decisions are taken up by Federation and other communal organizations, according to Schwartz.

The findings on intermarriage, for example, are likely to set off a new round of debate over whether agencies need to redouble their outreach efforts or hold back, and concentrate fewer resources on this growing demographic.

Ernest Kahn, a member of the study committee who was deeply involved in the 1984 survey, noted that having numbers to work with is vital for making decisions about how to use limited resources.

"To engage in any kind of systematic planning, you need to have data," said Kahn.

He cautioned that all figures, especially those citing population, are estimates based on statistical sampling methodology.

"This is not a census. We didn't count all the Jews in town," Kahn said, adding that the results are "the best estimates based on social research."

The study was conducted by the Einstein Center for Urban Health Policy and Research. A seven-person advisory committee oversaw much of the process during which telephone surveys were conducted with more than 1,200 people between March 16 and June 10 of last year.

The study cites a 3.7 percent margin of error for household-related data; for person-related data, it was 4.1 percent.

Only land lines from several source lists were called, leading the Einstein team to offer the caveat that cell-phone-only individuals -- i.e., younger people -- might have been underrepresented.

Dispersion of the Community
In terms of where Jews live, the study didn't offer any major surprises. In the city itself, the number of Jewish households fell from 47,800 in 1997 to 44,500 today, dipping from 48 percent of the regional population to 36 percent.

In total numbers, Montgomery County is now a close second, with 31,300 households and 31 percent of the area total.

The statistics in Chester County more than doubled, going from 4,200 Jewish households in 1997 to 10,500 today. In Bucks County, that number climbed from 14,600 to 19,300, and in Delaware County from 7,000 to 11,000.

As for demographics, one set of data grabbed the attention of Federation officials and study committee members alike.

Just 22 percent of Jewish households in the area have a child under the age of 18. In addition, the number of Jewish children, 36,900, reflects a 16 percent decrease from 1997.

"The single finding that is most significant is the rather low number of Jewish children," said Kahn. "That's an issue of obvious concern and raises lots of questions about how you deal with it."

Philadelphia Jewry also appears to be older, with fewer kids than several communities of similar size. The percentage of families with children is higher in the Washington, D.C., area (serving southern Maryland, northern Virginia and the District of Columbia), where it is 31 percent, and the San Francisco area, where it was 29 percent. (Those figures, however, are reported in different years.)

Schwartz predicted that the figures on children would play a large role in how Federation, synagogues, religious schools and day schools plan for the future.

"In the long term, it has implications for whether or not the Jewish community can sustain itself," added Schwartz.

The report found 45 percent of the population is over the age of 50, and 10 percent is older than 75. In Philadelphia County, 25 percent of Jews are over 65, the highest rate of any of the counties. The figure was lowest in Chester County, where it was 5 percent.

Allen Glicksman, a member of the study committee who is also the director of research for the Philadelphia Corporation for Aging, said, "You have people living longer, at greater rates of impairment -- I think it comes out in the data."

The numbers will also be used to determine how to meet the needs of an elderly population, especially as demand for both affordable housing and long-term care is already outstripping supply.

Schwartz said that this demographic breakdown highlights the necessity of finding ways to allow more residents to remain in their current homes -- and still have access to needed services -- rather than move into a facility.

When it comes to issues of identity and affiliation, committee members and Federation officials say that they are still parsing the details, and will most likely need further research to determine the implications.

While 69 percent of respondents overall reported that being Jewish was very important to them, just 32 percent cited being part of the local Jewish community as very important.

The percentage of households that belong to synagogues remained nearly unchanged, dipping from 37 percent to 35 percent.

The number of households that donated to Federation fell by 8 percent.

In many instances, the answers to the identity-related questions varied with age and depended on whether one was inmarried or intermarried.

For example, 25 percent of respondents under 40 said they felt very attached to Israel, while 18 percent reported feeling not very attached at all.

Among 40- to 61-year-olds, 45 percent replied that they were very attached to Israel. Only 7 percent of this same age group responded that they were not at all attached.

Another national trend reflected by the new local data is the growth of the Reform movement and the contraction of the Conservative movement, which was long the most popular denomination in this region.

In 1997, 38 percent of Jewish respondents identified as Conservative, making it the dominant denomination here. The movement's piece of the pie fell to 30 percent, while the Reform movement grew from 28 percent to 41 percent.

While that's been happening in communities across the country, it was particularly striking to see it in an historic stronghold of Conservative Judaism, said Rela Mintz Geffen, a sociologist who sat on the study committee.

"The mother city of the Conservative movement is no longer mostly Conservative," she said.

According to the study, 6 percent of area Jews identify as Orthodox, up from 4 percent in 1997; 3 percent as Reconstructionist, down from 4 percent; 3 percent as secular, down from 4 percent; and 10 percent answered no-denomination, or just Jewish, compared to 12 percent last time.

In terms of intermarriage, the findings suggest that intermarried individuals do not possess as strong a Jewish identity as inmarried individuals.

The Philadelphia numbers are sure to provide more fodder for the national debate about the impact of intermarriage on American Jewry.

The estimated intermarriage rate -- based on the number of couples where a Jewish person is married to a non-Jew -- is 28 percent, up 6 percentage points from 13 years ago.

But that figure climbs to 45 percent for respondents under 40. That percentage is lowest in Montgomery County, with 22 percent, and highest in Chester County, at 60 percent.

Inmarriage and Identity
Kahn contended that it's nearly impossible to stem the intermarriage tide, and that communal planners need to concentrate on bringing non-Jewish spouses and the children of intermarried parents into the communal fold.

"To say that we must try to eliminate, or reduce, is not a very practical suggestion," he said.

Geffen stated that while the percentage of intermarried households has clearly risen, Philadelphia has a smaller percentage than other cities with sizable Jewish populations, such as Boston, Atlanta and Denver.

"It is clear that inmarriage leads to much stronger Jewish identity; it's not ambiguous," she said.

While 46 percent of inmarried respondents said that it was very important to be part of the Jewish community, just 13 percent of intermarried individuals expressed this sentiment. When it came to feeling very attached to Israel, 51 percent of inmarrieds responded positively, while only 21 percent of intermarrieds did so.

Glicksman said that the data in 2009 population study makes strong cases for everything from funding more services for the elderly to working to create stronger ties to Israel in the community. But clearly, not everything can be a top priority, he noted.

"It's a policy decision now about how to sort that out because the data doesn't tell you what the most important thing is," he added.

"It tells you where the needs are, but how you rank those needs is more complicated." 

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