Community study: Jewish population grows but engagement slips

The Jewish Federation of St. Louis released the results of its 2014 Jewish Community Study during a presentation at Temple Israel on Feb. 18. Photo: Larry Levin

By David Baugher, Special to the Jewish Light

Jews in St. Louis appear more numerous, more diverse and more likely to be intermarried compared to two decades ago.

These are among the results of the Jewish Federation’s long-awaited community demographic study. Released this week, the massive effort encompassed three months of extensive research, including more than 180,000 telephone calls to locate just over 1,000 subjects who painted the most complete picture of Judaic St. Louis in two decades.

“With the data at hand, we will be in a much stronger position to strategically meet, recognize and respond to the needs of our community,” said Andrew Rehfeld, president and CEO of the St. Louis Jewish Federation.

The $300,000 study, underwritten in part by the Lubin-Green and Greater St. Louis Community foundations, and donations from philanthropists Harvey and Terry Hieken and others, is the first such initiative since 1995.


Fluid identities

Collected last spring, the 2014 update shows a number of notable changes since the Clinton-era study. Notably, the community’s numbers, often regarded as shrinking, seem to have slightly increased. Among some of the study’s striking demographic findings:

• 14 percent increase in the number of people in Jewish households, to 61,100 in 2014 from 53,400 in 1995.

• 34 percent increase in households with at least one Jewish adult, to 32,900 from 24,600. 

• 370 percent increase in the number of non-Jewish people living in homes with at least one Jewish adult – 28,200 compared to 6,000. 

• In 1995, just one of every 10 members of a Jewish household wasn’t Jewish. Today, that figure is one in three. 

A big part of that trend is the result of intermarriage. Among Jewish couples married before 1970, only 7 percent wedded out of the faith. But since the 1980s, the majority of St. Louis Jews getting married have wed a non-Jewish spouse. By 2014, the number seemed to have leveled off, with an estimated 48 percent of Jews here intermarried.

Demographic changes have even prompted alterations in the study’s definitions of Jewish-ness, which tended toward Jews who self-identify as such rather than applying external criteria. That means some people who were counted as Jews in this study might not have been seen as such in 1995.

It’s an evolution toward diversity that could reflect larger changes in the way the community views itself.

“We just need to recognize what that means,” Rehfeld said. “Part of our challenge is to say, ‘Where are we going to aim our efforts?’ Are we going to aim our efforts at Jewish engagement in every household that has at least one Jewish adult, or are we going to aim our efforts at households where there is already some interest in engaging? That’s a question of policy for our community to decide.”

That may also be showing up in data for Jewish identification and practice. The survey shows  declines in the number of Jews who light candles on Shabbat and Hanukkah. Six in 10 St. Louis Jews participate in a seder, while more than 75 percent did 20 years ago. 

By contrast, the number of Jews belonging to the Jewish Community Center and keeping kosher increased.

Meanwhile, while those identifying themselves as Conservative held steady; those identifying as Orthodox increased, and those calling themselves Reform fell to 47 percent from 60 percent. More than a fifth of Jews classified themselves as “just Jewish.”

Steven Cohen, a research professor at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, said he sees that categorization as indicating a weaker level of connection, one that mirrors trends in Christian and other communities nationwide.

“In general, people are moving away from inherited social identities, be they religious, ethnic or otherwise,” said Cohen, who worked as a researcher on the St. Louis study. “They are moving toward more fluid identities, which they don’t strongly identify with one or another group.”

Connection to Israel

Cohen said the overall St. Louis results aren’t particularly unusual and can be seen in similar surveys in Cleveland, Chicago and Columbus, Ohio. 

“It heavily replicates patterns we see in other Midwestern Jewish population studies,” he said.

Cohen said the survey tried to pin down what he called the three pillars of ethnic identity:

• Subjective identity, which relates to how the subject labels him or herself

• Home practice, which identifies activities in which the subject engages

• Association and affiliation, which pertains to friends and groups

The overall portrait is a complex one. Despite a more nondenominational attitude toward religion, 84 percent of respondents said being Jewish was at least somewhat important to them, and a majority said it was very important.

Identification with Israel was also relatively strong, with nearly three-quarters of respondents professing some degree of attachment to the Jewish homeland. In a result some may find surprising, more young adults  expressed being “very attached” to Israel than adults. Forty-seven percent of people ages 18-34 called themselves very attached to Israel, compared to 42 percent of those 65 and over, 37 percent of those age 50-64, and 29 percent of those age 35-49.

“Here’s my hypothesis. The main driver is Birthright,” Rehfeld said, referring to a program that takes Jewish young adults on trips to Israel. “Since 1995, [this program] has had an effect in St. Louis. That’s true based on those data. You see an uptick among people who have that connection.”

Cohen agreed and said that is true even where young people might be skeptical of the Israeli government.

“Those two things go hand-in-hand,” he said. “Just because they are more attached to Israel doesn’t mean they are more confident in the Israeli leaders’ ability to bring about peace.”

Access points

More than four in 10 children in St. Louis households with an adult Jew have intermarried parents, and just over half of those children are being raised explicitly Jewish. The other half, the survey says, are fairly evenly divided among a range from “partly Jewish” to no religion at all. Parents with older children seemed significantly more likely to respond that they are bringing them up “Jewishly” than those of preschool age. 

Though a majority of Jewish parents place their kids in a preschool, only 16 percent choose a Jewish one. Jewish camping fared better, with more than a quarter sending their kids to overnight Judaic institutions and 43 percent putting them in a Jewish day camp.

Rehfeld said data on Jewish preschool enrollment could represent a chance to create “a point of access for a family into Jewish life, culture and religion.”

“It’s not just about the kids,” he said. “It’s about getting families engaged with other Jewish families to think about living Jewish lives.”

Rehfeld said he believes that the importance of engagement can be seen in many aspects of the report and that he hopes to find ways to bring down barriers to intermarried couples. 

“Unless we realize that, [then] we’re going to continue to be fighting the engagement battle,” he said. “I see that as a great opportunity.”

Synagogues, while vital, may not always provide that important initial doorway into the community, especially with national trends showing Jews and others becoming both more secular and less attached to houses of worship, he noted. 

“In addition to supporting those institutions and religious engagement through those institutions, we simultaneously have to create new points of engagement that are secular, that are nonreligious, that emphasize Jewish ideas, the arts and history, a connection with Israel and all that that means,” Rehfeld said.

Pocketbook and placement

The survey also attempted to measure Jews’ identification with the St. Louis area. Those  numbers were generally encouraging, with only 5 percent of respondents indicating they planned to move from the area. But that doesn’t identify who has already left.

“What that measure isn’t capturing is what number of people grew up in St. Louis that are no longer here,” said Rehfeld, who stressed the need to attract and retain the best and brightest to the area. “Often, when we talk about change in the community, what we really care about is that number.”

The survey also examined where Jews live. Two-thirds of area Jews reside in ZIP codes associated with the central corridor municipalities of University City, Clayton, Olivette, Ladue, Creve Coeur and Chesterfield.

“I think a lot of people felt that the ’95 study was saying the growth of the Jewish community was westward and it would continue to go toward St. Charles,” Rehfeld said. “One of the things that this clearly shows [is] there hasn’t been a huge growth in St. Charles.”

In fact, only about 3 percent of Jews settled across the Missouri River.

Still, what concerns Rehfeld is how Jews are living, particularly seniors who increasingly reside alone and without in-town help from relatives.

“This is going to be an area of growth, unfortunately, because we have people aging here who are not supported by the informal support of their family,” he said, stressing the importance of programs at Covenant Place, Crown Center and the Federation-sponsored Naturally Occurring Retirement Community (NORC). “There are lots that are poor, but even for those that aren’t, the psychological and sociological loss of not having family in town is significant for the growth of independent lives.”

Financial need can make that problem even worse. About 8 percent of Jews in the survey reported themselves as living below 150 percent of the federal poverty level, while 18 percent more were defined as “near poor.”

Rehfeld said that it is an important Jewish value to help the needy but that there is an additional dimension to the problem. For the “near poor,” those just barely making ends meet, forms of Jewish engagement may suffer.

“That’s one of the first things to be cut when people are not poor but are struggling,” he said. “If you are raising a family of four and you have an income of $59,000 or less, or certainly around the $40,000 to $60,000 mark, you are not formally poor but you are unlikely to be able to comfortably send your kids to camp or on an Israel trip or join a synagogue or JCC.”

Next steps

Susan Scribner, manager of the study, says it is hard to say which of the findings stick out the most.

“I’m just so relieved to have great new data for the first time in 20 years,” she said. “Everything seems significant because we have been working with very old data.”

Scribner said survey methodologies used by Jewish Policy & Action Research (JPAR), which conducted the study, are probably more advanced than those used in the previous initiative.

“We know that in 1995, they didn’t necessarily have data for people in every ZIP code, so actually the numbers may not have been as exact as we would have liked,” she said.

Rehfeld said it is too early to know how the findings might affect funding allocations and the priorities of the Federation’s 5-year-old strategic plan – or even if it might necessitate a new plan altogether. 

In the short term, he said, the community advisory committee that helped guide the process will be converted into a study commission. The Federation also is planning a series of focused information sessions to share the results and answer questions about how the new findings could assist various segments of the community.

Les Sterman, chairman of that committee, said, “I think it is going to take a lot more crunching of the numbers and interpretation to really figure out what direction we ought to head. The raw data are going to be available to everybody. It may be that different organizations use it differently.”

Sterman said some people may be surprised to find that the community is actually growing. Perhaps the illusion of shrinkage was simply because local Jews are becoming less involved.

“Clearly, we are just not engaging folks who are here, and that has to be the big takeaway from all of this,” Sterman said.