Surprise is reaction to Jewish demographic study

Harvey and Terry Hieken are among those attending the Jewish Federation of St. Louis’ event last week unveiling  the findings  of the 2014 St. Louis Jewish Community Study. The Hiekens provided key funding for the demographic study. 

By David Baugher, Special to the Jewish Light

From optimism to concern, reaction continues in the wake of the first detailed demographic study of the local Jewish community in two decades as leaders, rabbis and rank-and-file congregants try to assess its meaning for the future of St. Louis Jewry.

Perhaps the most common response was mild astonishment.

“A lot of the statistics were surprising to me,” said Cheryl Maayan, head of  the Saul Mirowitz Jewish Community School. “We had made a lot of assumptions about our community that the data show simply aren’t true.”

Chief among those assumptions is that the number of Jews in the area was falling. In fact, the study found a 14 percent increase in the population, which seems to be viewing itself in increasingly nondenominational terms. More than a fifth of those surveyed said they were “just Jewish” as opposed to part of a particular stream of the faith.


The Mirowitz school may be indicative of some of the changes. It was formed from a union of two schools – one Reform, one Conservative – that voted in 2011 to merge.

Maayan, interviewed as she left a Jewish Federation-sponsored public forum on the study at Temple Israel on Feb. 18, said: “We’ve started to have courageous conversations about being a pluralistic Jewish community. We have found that there are so many people now who really don’t identify with a specific denomination, and there are people who are highly affiliated with a denomination. I’m particularly curious about what that means for our future.”

Abby Goldstein of Clayton, who attended the forum, said she was surprised by the large  percentage of intermarriages: Nearly half of Jews surveyed reported being wed to non-Jews. She said that was very different from her circle of friends, most of whom married within the faith. She wondered what that might mean in the future.

“To me, it is so important culturally, even more so than the religious aspect of it,” said Goldstein, a Kol Rinah congregant. “If you don’t grow up in a Jewish home, you don’t understand the culture of it. You don’t give to Jewish organizations the same way.”

She said it is important to make the community welcoming and not alienating to converts.

“Why would we not want somebody who wants us?” she asked, quoting what someone had said earlier.

Not everyone was surprised by the finding. Rabbi Lane Steinger of Shir Hadash Reconstructionist Minyan said they seem to be in line with surveys across the country were showing.

“What’s surprising is how, historically, at least in recent years, in the absence of data, we had a lot of pessimism and a lot of negative thinking about our community,” he said. “Hopefully, this will set us straight and set us right.”

Forum attendee Shira Kraft of University City said she found it interesting that the younger population seems to have shifted away from organized institutions since the 1995 study, choosing instead to focus on individual activities.

“I think it means synagogues are going to have to get really creative about ways of engaging their younger folks without necessarily requiring membership, as well as other organizations looking for ways to engage people who are not necessarily coming to the synagogues but are still out there wanting to be involved,” said Kraft, who moved to the St. Louis area last year.

Some forumgoers were happy that the study had been conducted but were skeptical about the method by which Jews were identified.

“I consider engagement to be 99 percent of being Jewish,” Stephen Edison of Overland said. “If you call up a person on the phone and say, ‘Are you Jewish?’ and they say, ‘Yes, I’m Jewish because my son belongs to a basketball team that’s Jewish,’ I don’t consider that anywhere near being Jewish.”

Still, the Temple Israel congregant said the question is a complex one over which one “could argue up a storm.”

“If you asked a hundred people, you’d get a hundred answers,” said Edison, who added that he is glad he can now present solid demographic data on the Jewish community to a monthly interfaith group in which he participates.

Lisa Binowitz of Creve Coeur also said she didn’t feel it was clear who was and was not identified as Jewish. At the same time, however, she felt that may be typical of such studies. She said she was at least encouraged to see some growth in the community.

“To me, that was really a positive thing, because I feel that I can say to my kids as they get older, this is a place to come back to,” the B’nai Amoona congregant said. “You can meet Jewish people here.”

Joyce Becker of Traditional Congregation said all of her children and grandchildren have  remained in the area, which she thought was unusual until she read the study. It found that only about 5 percent of respondents planned to leave the area.

“What’s very promising is that more young people are staying in St. Louis,” she said. “We have a stable community. What’s also a little disheartening is that we have those that are poor or near poor that we haven’t been aware of.”

The study found that just over a quarter of the Jewish population fell into those categories, a fact that also concerns Harvey Ferdman of Chesterfield, who said he’s seen evidence of poverty first-hand from volunteer work that he does.

“It was interesting to see it reaffirmed in a good, solid study,” he said.

But Ferdman, a Shaare Emeth congregant, said he didn’t know whether the Jewish community was prepared to do something about it.

“I hope we are. We should be,” he said. “I know a lot of people donate a lot of money hoping that that is being addressed.” 

Ferdman also found the intermarriage data interesting. He said he feels strongly about the importance of attracting interfaith couples and making them feel welcome. Otherwise, the community will dwindle, he said. 

“[That’s] not the only reason to reach out to them,” he said. “It’s the right thing to do. If someone wants to affiliate with a religious group, they should feel comfortable no matter what the condition and no matter who their spouse is or how they are deciding to raise their children.”

In contrast to some other forms of Jewish engagement, Jewish Community Center membership actually increased slightily during the gap between surveys. Lynn Wittels, president and CEO of the JCC, said she feels it validates the organization’s work to promote inclusivity and a welcoming atmosphere to families with Jewish and non-Jewish members.

“Many of them affiliate differently in the Jewish community than their parents and grandparents did,” she said. “The one constant is that the J is there for these families as well as the traditional Jewish community, where a greater percentage is inmarried as opposed to intermarried.”

Harvey Iken of Clayton said he found it interesting that young people are so eager to identify with Israel. Nearly half of Jewish adults under age 35 felt “very attached” to the Jewish State.

“Probably, if you get kids more involved in Israel at a younger age, they may … have a bigger attachment to Israel, so I think that could be a real focus,” said Iken, who attends both Young Israel and Bais Abraham. “I think that would be a good area to draw the Jewish population back to engagement and allocate resources to that.”

Rabbi Carnie Shalom Rose of congregation B’nai Amoona, who was unable to attend the presentation due to a prior commitment, said he’s still digesting the data and trying to think about what they may mean.

“Like many people, I’m somewhat surprised by the apparent increase in the number of Jews in the community,” Rose said. “But I also understand that the definition of who is part of the Jewish community is probably different than what it was when the last study was done. That presents us with both challenges and opportunities.”

Rose said that the general trend seems to be toward Jews “self-defining” themselves as part of the community rather than through memberships or engagement.

Data seem to bear this out. The study generally showed declines in ritual practice and synagogue membership.

Rose said he’s glad the study took place but hopes to delve deeper than the numbers and identify ways to create meaningful connections and experiences for people.

“For me, it’s not about quantity. It is about quality,” he said. “What I’d like to try and understand a little bit more is, what are the experiences? Which are the organizations which are making impactful, consequential change in the lives of people who associate with the Jewish community? I’m looking at a depth model as opposed to a breadth model.”