Northern Virginia has edged out the Maryland suburbs as having the largest population in a rapidly growing Greater Washington Jewish community, according to a demographic study released Sunday.
The study found the Jewish community has grown 37 percent in the 15 years since the last survey was made in 2003. Of the 295,500 Jewish residents of Greater Washington, 41 percent live in Northern Virginia, 39 percent live in the Maryland suburbs and 19 percent in the District of Columbia.
The Maryland suburbs have long been the center of gravity for the Jewish community. And while Northern Virginia’s rapid growth is no secret, its overtaking the Maryland suburbs in population was among the biggest surprises of the study.
“I think that has to be one of the biggest stories overall,” said Gil Preuss, CEO of the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington, which executed the study. “I mean, 120,000 Jews in Northern Virginia. That is more than most metropolitan [Jewish] communities in this country.”
The study describes a community that is young, diverse and overwhelmingly Democratic, often more so than the national average. And despite the perception of Washington as a region of transients, 94 percent of area Jews say the Washington area is their home base.
The community is less classically affiliated, with fewer Jews belonging to synagogues and other Jewish organizations — what Preuss and other Jewish community professionals call “engaged.”
“If people feel this is their home, how do we help them engage in the community with which they live?” Preuss said. “People may feel that Washington is their home, but the degree to which the Jewish community is their home is still a question.”
The Greater Washington, DC Jewish Community Study, 2017 was conducted by Brandeis University’s Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies and funded by The Morningstar Foundation established by Susie and Michael Gelman. (Susie and Michael Gelman are members of the ownership group of Mid-Atlantic Media, which publishes Washington Jewish Week.)
The study was based on a representative sample of more than 6,600 Jewish households in the area, said Janet Aronson, the associate director of the Cohen Center. Researchers randomly selected these households from a series of lists provided by community organizations and others with “distinctive Jewish names.” To determine the overall population, Aronson said, researchers extrapolated data from hundreds of surveys about religion that Brandeis researchers had already conducted nationally.
The sample size used in the Washington study is reportedly the largest of any Jewish community study in North America.
Aronson said she thinks the Northern Virginia Jewish population was underestimated in the 2003 study.
“Since the Jews of Northern Virginia are generally less engaged with the community, they can be harder to include in surveys of the Jewish community,” she said. “Our new methods do a much better job than past surveys do in reaching less engaged community members, so we are able to estimate their numbers more accurately.”
Aronson was one of four Brandeis researchers who worked on the study, and they all presented the data Sunday night at an event held at the Federation’s headquarters in Rockville. Leonard Saxe, a co-author of the report, said they conducted the study in the wake of a 2013 report from the Pew Research Center that stated Jews have become increasingly disengaged from their community. The goal of the study, he said, is to “expand your way of thinking about the community.”
“I’m hoping that for some of you, that data breaks some stereotypes,” he said. “Not all Israelis are the same. Not all intermarried families are the same. The diversity of where people fall out when you look at what they actually do and when they engage is extraordinary.”
Aronson told attendees on Sunday that although many Jews do not attend synagogue regularly or even belong to one, many are still engaged in the community through various means such as keeping kosher, observing holidays or volunteering with community organizations.
“No denomination does not mean no Judaism,” she said.
The study’s findings will help guide the Federation’s future allocations and outreach efforts, Preuss said. Other conversations in coming days will introduce other stakeholders to the study’s results.
“On one hand this is incredibly positive news, on the other hand it also says we have a lot of work ahead of us,” Preuss said.
The study found that 7 percent of Washington’s Jewish population identifies as LGBT. Another 7 percent are Jews of color.
When it comes to Israel, two-thirds of area Jews have been or lived there. Israelis make up 4 percent of the Washington Jewish population.
Politically, almost three-quarters of area Jews identify as Democrats, slightly above the national average. Six percent identify as Republicans and the remaining 22 percent identify as Independents or members of another party.
Preuss said that to the surprise of many, the majority of Jews in Northern Virginia live “close in” in Alexandria and Arlington, rather than in outlying areas. That raises the question of where Jewish institutions should be sited. The Jewish Community of Northern Virginia is located in Fairfax. Its executive director, Jeff Dannick, was a member of the study’s advisory committee.
“People ask me if the JCC is located in the right spot in Northern Virginia, and my answer is that there is no right spot in Northern Virginia,” he said.
Among Northern Virginia’s adult Jewish residents, half are younger than 50. Dannick said that in order to better target the community’s younger residents, the JCC will hold a number of cultural events, coffees, small group conversations and other activities.
“We’re going to need to understand the community specifically,” he said.
Preuss said the Federation’s challenge in the coming months will be to determine the many ways different households define the Jewish community.
“People vary on the parts of Judaism that they find most meaningful and through which they connect,” he said. “And so for us to think about how we build Jewish life, we need to understand as a starting point where people are and then how we connect them to the fabric of Jewish life.”
While the report shows that the Jewish population in Maryland and the District also have grown, the growth in Northern Virginia will prompt new thinking, Preuss said.
“As we start to think about the Federation budget for next year, as we start to think about allocations for next year, we have to think about how we increase investment for Northern Virginia.”
This sudden focus on Northern Virginia was exhilarating to some at the Sunday meeting from Northern Virginia. Rabbi Evan Ravski of Congregation Olam Tikvah in Fairfax thrust his fists into the air at the news.
“It speaks strongly for the richness and breadth of Jewish life in Northern Virginia,” he said later. “We’re there, and there’s a lot of us.”
Dan Finkel, head of Gesher Day School in Fairfax, said the news came as a surprise. “The assumption was that most Jews live in Maryland,” he said.
“I’ve heard the jokes about having to take a passport to Virginia. I hope the study brings more focus to the people in Northern Virginia.”
Managing Editor David Holzel contributed to this article.