Vast, young San Fran Jewish community is growing — but unaffiliated, says study
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'We've seen a movement away from collective Jewish identity'

Vast, young San Fran Jewish community is growing — but unaffiliated, says study

While the millennial-driven community is racially and socioeconomically more diverse than imagined, it's also one of the least engaged

Renee Ghert-Zand is a reporter and feature writer for The Times of Israel.

In 2017, there were 68,000 Jewish children living in the San Francisco Bay Area (Mattthew Septimus)
In 2017, there were 68,000 Jewish children living in the San Francisco Bay Area (Mattthew Septimus)

An unprecedented scientific study of Jews in the San Francisco Bay Area released on Tuesday shows a young, highly educated, diverse Jewish community — that is largely unaffiliated.

A Portrait of Bay Area Jewish Life and Communities,” released by the Jewish Community Federation of San Francisco, the Peninsula, Marin and Sonoma Counties, is the first to involve all 10 counties in the region, home to the fourth largest Jewish community in the United States.

The study was commissioned by the San Francisco Federation and Endowment Fund and conducted in 2017 by a team led by Dr. Steven M. Cohen and Dr. Jack Ukeles. It reveals a Jewish community that, while similar to others around the country, is also unique in many ways.

“We were surprised by some of the trends that emerged from the data, as well as the magnitude of some of these trends,” San Francisco Federation CEO Danny Grossman told The Times of Israel.

Members of the San Francisco Bay Area’s highly diverse Jewish community. (JFNA)

Notably, the Bay Area Jewish community is highly diverse. One-in-ten Jewish households overall, and one-in-five in San Francisco specifically, include a lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender person. A quarter of Bay Area Jewish households include a Hispanic, Asian-American, African-American, or a mixed or other ethnic or racial background (other than white) individual.

Thirty-seven percent of adults in the Bay Area Jewish community are between 18 and 34 years old, a larger proportion than in any other Jewish community recently surveyed.

The Bay Area Jewish community is also the most educated, with 42% of respondents having earned one or more graduate degrees, as compared to 28% in the national survey of American Jews conducted by the Pew Research Center in 2013.

The size of the Bay Area Jewish community has remained relatively stable in recent years. It is comprised of 473,000 individuals: 350,000 Jews and 123,000 non-Jews living in 148,000 Jewish households.

For the purposes of the survey, a person was counted as Jewish if: They view Judaism as their religion or said “aside from religion” they consider themselves to be Jewish or partly Jewish; identify as Jews, and consider their religion not Jewish; they are a spouse defined by respondents as Jewish either for religion or self-definition; they are an adult in the household the respondent views as Jewish or partly Jewish; or they are a child being raised as Jewish or partly Jewish.

“The definition of ‘Jew’ was much more expansive and inclusive than the one used in the Pew study,” Cohen told The Times of Israel.

In 2017, there were 148,000 Jewish households in the San Francisco Bay Area. (Jeffrey Lamont Brown)

Bay Area Jewish life is characterized by a relatively small engaged and affiliated population offset by a much larger unaffiliated one. Four out of 10 identify as Reform, and another four out of 10 do not identify with any Jewish denomination.

Jews in the Bay Area are less Jewishly engaged than in the west coast overall (including Los Angeles), and far less Jewishly engaged than Jews in the rest of the US. For example, 26% of Bay Area survey respondents said it was very important to be Jewish, as compared to 38% of Jews in the west and 48% of Jews in the rest of the US who responded to the Pew survey.

However, the study showed that overall, feeling “unwelcome” at Jewish events and activities is rare. Inter-group couples and singles are only a little less likely to feel unwelcome than in-group couples.

The national trend of a rising neutrality toward Israel is evident in the Bay Area Jewish community, especially among young adults, liberals, the intermarried (who range from 42% among those 65 and older to a high of 66% among those under 35), and the unaffiliated.

Young adults from the San Francisco Bay Area on a Birthright Israel trip. (George Duffield)

Although over 40% of respondents (and most ages 35-49) had been to Israel, equal numbers said they were, or were not, very attached to the Jewish state. Almost a quarter said the existence of a Jewish state in the world is not very important, or they were not sure.

These results about Israel did not give Cohen pause. “They made a lot of sense to me as a scientist,” he said. “We have seen a movement away from a collective sense of Jewish identity to a more individual one, and Israel is part of the collective.”

Cohen emphasized that the survey results did not indicate that this lack of commitment to Israel translates into Jews opposing Israel, or supporting the BDS movement.

Sociologist Steven M. Cohen (Courtesy)

“It’s more that they are moving to the sidelines, rather than joining the other team,” he said.

Grossman stressed that despite the Bay Area’s reputation for strident views on Israel, this ambivalence and questioning, especially among younger Jews, presented an opportunity to increase Israel engagement.

The extremely large geographic area (more than 7,000 square miles) of the Bay Area, as well as the dispersion and mobility among all age cohorts within it, present significant challenges.

Just over one-third of Jews live in the East Bay (Alameda, Contra Costa and Solano Counties), with a similar share living on the Peninsula and in the South Bay (San Mateo, Santa Clara and Santa Cruz Counties). San Francisco County accounts for 17%, and the North Bay (Marin, Sonoma and Napa Counties) for only 13%.

Notably, the Jewish population of San Francisco is shrinking as that of the East Bay is growing. This is unsurprising, given the higher costs of property and living in San Francisco, and lower home prices across the bay.

While many associate extreme wealth with the Bay Area, and Silicon Valley in particular, the study indicates that in reality there are wide economic disparities. Almost equal percentages of Jewish households reported an annual income of $250,000 or more as an income of under $50,000 — 13% and 11% respectively. Nearly a quarter reported that they are “just managing” financially or “cannot make ends meet.”

These high levels of financial insecurity, coupled with similarly high levels of mobility among Jews in the Bay Area led around a third of respondents to seek assistance in the year prior to the survey. These were not only older people seeking elder or disability services, but also young people asking for help with jobs, a child’s special needs, and housing.

“I think the poverty within the Bay Area Jewish community was a piece of learning for the community’s leaders. There’s a natural residential segregation. People of different economic levels live apart and don’t see each other,” Cohen said.

The San Francisco Jewish Federations created a North Bay Recovery and Relief Task Force following devastating wildfires in the region in late 2017 (JFNA)

Lenny Greenberg, 62, moved his family to San Jose 11 years ago after living in Cleveland, Columbus, and New York. Greenberg belongs to the 70% of Bay Area Jews who were not born in the region. (Five percent were born in the Former Soviet Union, and 3% in Israel.)

“Out of four cities I’ve lived in, the Bay Area is the hardest to raise a Jewish kid,” Greenberg told The Times of Israel.

Greenberg has found the community’s geographic dispersion a challenge. Although Bay Area cities have synagogues and Jewish community centers, they are devoid of Jewish neighborhoods and main streets as one would find in other American cities, with kosher butcher shops, kosher bakeries, delis, Jewish book shops, and other hallmarks of communal life.

“Non-Orthodox Americans Jews have more challenges than ever in cherishing and maintaining a Jewish identity. The South Bay’s Jewish neighborhoods and Jewish businesses mean we don’t interact informally,” Greenberg said.

Greenberg has also seen a lack of interest in more formal ways of being part of the Jewish community, like synagogue membership and sending one’s children to Jewish day school.

“It doesn’t seem to me that Bay Area Jews feel compelled or obligated to affiliate,” he said.

San Francisco Jewish Federation CEO Danny Grossman (Kira Shemano)

Grossman acknowledged that much more can be done to inspire those who do not feel connected or choose not to engage to participate in or affiliate with the community in some way.

Grossman said the Federation and its partners view the Portrait as a jumping off point for a process of community-wide learning and discussion on how to meet the challenges and opportunities. The process will begin with a roll out of the data this week at two open community events, followed by meetings within Federation, and also with community partners such as synagogues, schools, and communal agencies.

In the spring, a complementary Bay Area Jewish Community Digital Portrait tool will be launched, allowing anyone with online access to interactively explore all of the community’s organizations and institutions.

Grossman said he was optimistic about the change the survey’s findings could ultimately bring about.

“We have an incredibly dynamic Jewish community. We are a large, highly educated community that includes some people who are really interested in creating and advancing expressions of new Jewish life,” Grossman said.

“We also boast an entrepreneurial spirit and there is a concentration of wealth in Jewish hands here, which can translate into significant philanthropy aimed at making positive change the Jewish community, and in the larger community around us,” he said.

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