New portrait of D.C. Jewish community

From the 2015 community survey commissioned by the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington
From the 2015 community survey commissioned by the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington

A study of the greater Washington Jewish community released Wednesday paints a portrait of a community where being Jewish is important, but acting Jewishly is less so.

The study, commissioned by the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington, found that most Jews do not feel strongly connected to the Jewish community but view it favorably. And it discovered significant differences in participation rates between Jews in suburban Maryland, Northern Virginia and the District of Columbia.

The findings will be shared with local Jewish organizations to prompt internal discussions and dialogues between agencies, said Steven Rakitt, Federation CEO.

“The goal was that Federation as a convener could provide data to all organizations so they can sit down together and say, ‘Now what?’ ”

The study was conducted by the Mellman Group, led by public opinion researcher Mark Mellman. It comes 12 years after the last study of the Washington Jewish community and one year after the Pew Research Center’s Portrait of Jewish Americans.

Unlike those earlier studies, the Mellman survey did not aim to measure the size of the Jewish population.  Instead, its goal was to determine what Washington Jews want from their community.

“Even if you knew exact numbers, you wouldn’t know people’s motivation,” Rakitt said. “They told us a lot of what interests them and we have to be creative as a community to keep them engaged with the community.”

“Engagement” is a term of art that federations and other Jewish agencies use to mean involvement in Jewish activities and connection to Jewish institutions.

Rakitt said another reason the Federation did not opt for a full-blown demographic study was cost. A study like the one in 2003 costs between $350,000 and $500,000, he said. The recent study, funded with a grant from the Federation’s United Jewish Endowment Fund, cost $100,000.

Mellman surveyed 1,000 Jewish residents of greater Washington between Nov. 20 and Dec. 18. Of these, 14 percent lived in the District, 51 percent in Maryland and 35 percent in Virginia. According to Mellman, the survey has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.1 percent.

‘Doing Jewish’ less important
Reflecting the Pew findings, 61 percent of Washington-area Jews report that being Jewish is “very important” to them. That cuts across subgroups defined by age, denomination, gender and location. The only groups where less than half agreed are men in D.C. (46 percent) and Virginia (43 percent), people who attend synagogue services seldom or never (32 percent), people who define themselves as “just Jewish” (40 percent) and non-Jewish spouses of Jews (45 percent).

But only among the most observant – defined in the study by synagogue attendance – do majorities see Jewish activities as very important, as distinct from being Jewish: people who go to services at least once a month (61 percent) and Orthodox (77 percent).

“Being Jewish is core to what they are and not what they do,” Rakitt explained.

Matthew Weinberg, chairman of the study committee, said that he doesn’t interpret the findings to mean that area Jews don’t want to do Jewish activities, but rather that if activities reflect the value of individual Jews, they will want to participate.

Area Jews would be better served if activities not traditionally considered Jewish be labeled as such. “Doing Jewish has to grow to include things that are not in the Jewish community,” Weinberg said.

Volunteer work is ripe for such a reinterpretation. It can be categorized under the Jewish value of tikkun olam, or repairing the world. So when students from Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School went to clean the Anacostia River, they were doing something Jewish, Weinberg and Rakitt said.

Local Jews who participated in Good Deeds Day activities that benefited non-Jewish organizations were also doing something Jewish.

As it happens, volunteering is the most popular activity Jews want to do. The survey found that 38 percent said they are almost certain or very likely to volunteer to help the homeless and other community service projects.

Weinberg said that finding was not a surprise. Highly educated, high-income people want to help others, he said.

Other findings include:

Virginia vs. D.C. vs. Maryland
Synagogue attendance is higher in Maryland, with 18 percent saying they go at least once a week, than in Virginia (10 percent) and D.C. (6 percent).

More Marylanders feel extremely or strongly connected to Israel (45 percent) than Virginians (38 percent) or D.C. residents (25 percent).

And Virginians are more likely to report that the Jewish community is too far away (31 percent) than Jews in D.C. (17 percent) or Maryland (16 percent).

Views of the community
Those surveyed see the Washington Jewish community very positively:
87 percent said it is a good environment for families, 82 percent said it “shares my values” and 81 percent said it is welcoming.

Yet, most do not feel strongly connected. Only 26 percent said they feel “very much” a part of the Jewish community.

Over 60
The report in part counters the axiom that each succeeding generation of Jews is less involved than its predecessor.

Jews age 60 and above are slightly less likely to be synagogue members (40 percent) than 18-39 year olds (42 percent), while half of those age 40-59 belong to synagogues.

They are more likely to say being Jewish is important to them (66 percent) than those 40-59 (61 percent) and 18-39 (58 percent).

But fewer say doing Jewish things is very important to them (26 percent) than 18-39 year olds (30 percent) and 40-59 year olds (33 percent).

“The data doesn’t show that their identification decreases. What they are saying is that they are open to doing Jewish activities if we can make some of them reflect their values,” Weinberg said.

The family
The most involved Jews are married couples with children under 18 and those with Jewish spouses.

For instance, 15 percent of married couples with children under 18 say they have high involvement with the Jewish community. The number of highly involved married couples without children under 18 is slightly lower, 12 percent. Only 5 percent of the unmarried have high involvement.

Sixty percent of the highly involved are synagogue members, compared to married with no kids under 18 (46 percent) and unmarried (30 percent).

Too far away? Too expensive?
Despite complaints that Jewish activities are too far away and too expensive, the report found those who are concerned about these aspects of Jewish life are no less likely to participate.

“This surprised me,” Weinberg said, “that distance and cost were not such a barrier to entry as I thought it was.”

A plurality of 40 percent of Washington-area Jews say they feel extremely or strongly connected to Israel. Groups showing the strongest connection include Marylanders (45 percent), Jews 60 years old and over (46 percent), Orthodox Jews (83 percent), those who attend services once a month or more (63 percent) and Jews who are married to another Jew (50 percent).

Yet, 52 percent of area Jews report having spent time in Israel, either having visited (44 percent) lived there (6 percent) or being citizens (2 percent).

Just Jewish
Like the Pew study, the Federation report finds that many Jews do not identify with a particular movement or approach to Judaism. Instead, a plurality of 34 percent define themselves as “Just Jewish.”

Of the remainder, 28 percent are Reform, 26 percent are Conservative, 6 percent are Orthodox and 3 percent are Reconstructionist.

The largest percentage of Just Jews live in D.C. (39 percent) and are unmarried (41 percent). But the numbers are similar across all age groups: 18-39, 35 percent; 40-59, 34 percent; 60 and over, 32 percent. Twenty-two percent of Just Jewish belong to synagogues.

The Federation will discuss the results with Jewish agencies at town hall meetings, Rakitt said.
Weinberg said the point of the findings is to find ways to better reach area Jews and strengthen their connection to the Jewish community.

“The roots to connection are myriad and varied,” he said. “It used to be youth groups. It doesn’t matter the method you use today. There are ways to create varied opportunities that may not seem to be driven by a Jewish institution but are connected to a Jewish institution.”

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Twitter: @davidholzel

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