The news that the Jewish population of Northern Virginia has passed the Maryland suburbs as the largest in Greater Washington is only one of the surprises in the community’s new demographic study announced on Sunday. The study, jointly sponsored by The Morningstar Foundation and the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington, and conducted by the Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies, has enough surprises to make almost anyone begin to think in new ways about Jewish life in the region and the nearly 300,000 Jews living in it. For community planners, it provides both the philosophy and the statistics to begin to design goals and approaches in fresh ways.
In addition to confirming a geographic shift away from Montgomery County, the study eschews the longstanding “Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, nothing” conception of declining Jewish commitment, involvement and depth of knowledge. Instead, it looks at patterns of behavior and divides the Jewish community of Greater Washington into five types.
The study uncovered Jews whose lack of synagogue participation would previously have put them at the low end of the community. Yet, the study found that an unusually high percentage of these previously overlooked Jews give money to Jewish institutions. And then there was the interview subject who would be classified as Orthodox, but told researchers: “I belong to an Orthodox synagogue because it’s close. I don’t really keep kosher, but I go because I like the rabbi.”
Another surprise: The researchers found that younger residents are no less involved than older cohorts. It turns out that those institution-avoidant Millennials are happy participants in Jewish activities, albeit not the classical ones — i.e., those that are centered around synagogue life. While there’s bound to be more than a few who find such results troubling, we choose to be optimistic. That the younger Jews among us are engaged, at whatever level or in whatever forum, is actually wonderful news.
Our community also has a higher-than-average connection to Israel — 68 percent of area Jews have been to Israel or have lived there. And the community is more Democratic than the Jewish population nationally — 72 percent identify as Democrats compared to 54 percent nationally. Six percent identify as Republicans, compared to 14 percent nationally.
For decades, Jewish communal planners have seen doomsday around the corner. The new study tells them that not only is the glass half full, it is mostly full. Addressing a meeting Sunday to unveil the study, Federation CEO Gil Preuss mused that “83-90 percent in any of these regions is engaged in Jewish life. So many people in our community want to be in our community,” he said. “The question is, what do we do with that?”
As our community wrestles with the answer to that question, there is every reason to believe that with the proper creativity and willingness to abandon some long-held stereotypical views, the future of our large and diverse Washington-area Jewish community is bright and promising.