Study will count D.C.-area Jews

Photo Getty Images
Photo Getty Images

Between 2000 and 2010, Washington’s population of 18- to 34-year-olds grew by roughly 37,000, according to the Urban Institute.

A new study will soon determine what impact this influx of millennials and other demographic changes is having on the Jewish community here. The study, to be conducted by the Cohen Center of Brandeis University, will be the first of its kind in the area since 2003.

The goals of the study are to determine the size, makeup and location of the local Jewish population, examine how Jews participate in Jewish life, and provide data that can improve the programs offered by Jewish organizations, according to Janet Krasner Aronson of Brandeis University, who will direct the study.

“This is significant for the Washington Jewish community and for the Jewish community in general,” said Aronson, whose center has conducted seven similar studies in the past 10 years and various national studies.

“There is a tremendous amount of interest in how the American Jewish community is doing — whether it’s thriving or shrinking, how we’re supposed to respond to various threats to the Jewish community, whether it’s the temptation of assimilation, intermarriage or anti-Semitism,” she continued. “The answers to these questions come from these local studies.”

The Morningstar Foundation will fund the study, which is expected to be published in late 2017 or early 2018. Morningstar is a family foundation established by Susie and Michael Gelman. The Gelmans are also members of the ownership group of Mid-Atlantic Media, which publishes Washington Jewish Week.

The Jewish Federation of Greater Washington, along with local Jewish agencies and other organizations, will benefit from the study’s findings.

“It’s been nearly 14 years since we’ve done a demographic study, and it’s crucial that our Jewish community has this information in order to make important planning decisions,” said Steve Rakitt, CEO of the Federation.

He added that the Federation will help develop questions for the survey and build contact lists for research. Rakitt noted that data from the study will be useful to local organizations.

One area the study will investigate is nontraditional ways people practice Judaism, Aronson said.

“We try to be open to varying and different definitions of what Jewish life looks like,” she said. “We’re interested in ways people participate in Jewish life outside of institutions and the kind of typical rituals that have always constituted Jewish behavior.”

She said nontraditional practices include visiting Jewish and Israeli websites, going to cultural programs like film festivals and attending independent minyanim or chavurot.

In a statement, the Gelmans said, “Our region has grown dramatically since the last community study was performed in 2003, and significant changes have occurred in our Jewish community as well. We recognize that our community requires accurate data in order to understand these demographic changes to provide for the present and plan for the future.”

The cost of the study has not yet been determined, but Aronson said that similar studies cost between $100,000 and $1 million.

Last year, the Federation funded a $100,000 study that measured how local Jews interact with the Jewish community but was not as comprehensive as the new study will be and did not count the local Jewish population. Last year’s study found that most local Jews do not feel strongly connected to the Jewish community but do view it favorably.

Historically, in-depth studies that count Jewish populations have been conducted with random telephone dialers, but this method is now outdated because of changes in communications technology, according to Aronson.

Instead, the Cohen Center estimates local Jewish populations by compiling data from various surveys, such as political polling, healthcare-related studies and education research. The center offers current estimates of the Jewish populations of major metropolitan areas on the website The current estimate of the Jewish population in Greater Washington is 236,700.

Then, using contact lists from various Jewish organizations and through a system that identifies common Jewish names, 1,000 survey subjects will be contacted and interviewed.

The Cohen Center will use the research firm Abt SRBI to conduct the actual surveys, which will be done over the phone and online. Aronson called results from 1,000 people a “magic number” that allows researchers to analyze sub-groups within a population.

Abt SRBI will begin contacting people in February or March 2017 and will conduct the surveys between March and June, Aronson said.

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