How many Jews live in our town? Why does it matter so much?

Gary Tobin 

BY ROBERT A. COHN, Editor-in-Chief Emeritus

As Jews, we have felt an obligation to count the number of us in our communities and to determine the demographic profile. At least three times in the Hebrew Bible, we are commanded to take a census of the Assembly of Israel. On one of the census-takings, a total of over 600,000 heads of households were counted, which means that there were as many as l.5 million Israelites during the Exodus from Egypt and the 40 years in the Sinai.

Here in St. Louis, we are in the midst of marking the 250th anniversary of the city’s founding in 1764. The local Jewish community started Dec. 13, 1807 with the arrival of Joseph Philipson, who moved here from Philadelphia to become the first known permanent Jewish resident of greater St. Louis. It would have been incredibly easy to count the number of Jews in St. Louis on that date: a grand total of one.

Philipson was soon joined by members of his family and, over the years, the Jewish community grew along with the greater St. Louis community. Getting an exact count of the number of Jewish people or members of other faith groups has always been challenging. Only the 1930 U.S. decennial census included a question on religious faith before the courts struck down that question on constitutional grounds.

By the 1930s, according to the late Jewish historian Walter Ehrlich in his definitive chronicle, “Zion in the Valley,” the best estimate of the number of Jews in St. Louis had reached 60,000. That figure has been remarkably consistent through the years, with various sources listing the number of Jews as ranging from 53,500 to 60,000.

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The Jewish Federation of St. Louis has launched its 2014 survey of the Jewish community of St. Louis. It not only hopes to estimate the number of Jews, but also other essential information about the makeup of the community, including the breakdown of synagogue and other affiliations, the degree of religious observance and geographic distribution. Interest in a revised and current Jewish demographic survey predates the recent release of the Pew Research Institute’s national Jewish population survey, which revealed that the makeup of the Jewish community of the United States has changed rather dramatically since 2000.

The last two scientific Jewish population surveys in St. Louis were sponsored by the Jewish Federation in 1981 and 1995, under the direction of the late Gary A. Tobin, former director of the Urban Studies Program at Washington University and later director of the Maurice and Marilyn Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies at Brandeis University.

The highly respected Tobin had the advantage of being a native of St. Louis, familiar with its geographic and demographic characteristics. Tobin’s 1981 Jewish Demographic Study estimated the  Jewish population at 53,500. His 1995 Jewish Community Study put the figure at 60,000. Tobin estimated there were 25,000 “Jewish households” in greater St. Louis, which he defined as any household in which at least one member of the Jewish community resided. 

Both the 1981 and 1995 estimates were essentially consistent with the number of Jews estimated to reside in metropolitan St. Louis over the years by the American Jewish Committee’s annual “American Jewish Year Book.”

The Jewish Federation and all of its beneficiary and constituent agencies, including the Jewish Light, must have up-to-date and reliable demographic data to be able to better access – and fulfill – the needs of the local Jewish community.

Steven M. Cohen, research professor of Jewish social policy at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, has been working with Federation here to develop the questions and will help present and analyze them when they are processed. Cohen will be working closely with Susan Scribner, senior planning associate with the Federation. Les Sterman is chairman of the study’s advisory committee. Funding for the study was provided by Harvey and Terry Hieken. 

In January, it was announced that the $300,000 effort will be the first in two decades to estimate the size, habit and identification level of the St. Louis Jewish community.

An 18-minute confidential survey is being conducted over the phone with about 1,000 Jewish adults. It will take several months, with results expected early next year. Readers are urged to answer the phone when the number 314-442-3790 and the words “St. Louis Community Study” appears on caller ID.

Additional information is available at JFedSTL.org/CountMein or by email at [email protected]