Younger. Wealthier. More educated. Less Jewishly engaged. Less attached to Israel.
That’s how the Bay Area’s 350,000 Jews compare to counterparts around the U.S., based on a groundbreaking study released today by the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation that is the first to survey Jewish life across the entire 10-county area.
The study of our lifestyles, our relationships, our beliefs and our needs shows we are more diverse than ever, from where we live to how we worship — and that we are very different than Jews in other parts of the country.
The San Francisco Bay Area has the fourth-largest Jewish population in the U.S., trailing only New York (1.5 million), southeast Florida (527,000) and Los Angeles (519,000). Most of us are millennials or baby boomers, and we are spread out from Los Gatos to Santa Rosa, from the Pacific Ocean to the San Joaquin River.
“If you think about our mission, which is to ensure a thriving Jewish community, it is important to know our community,” said Danny Grossman, CEO of the Federation, which commissioned the $700,000 survey. “We consider it increasingly important to understand all 10 counties because of the intermingling of Jewish life across those 10 counties.”
This is the first comprehensive study of Jews living in the entire Bay Area. The Federation did a survey in 2004 that covered San Francisco, the North Bay and parts of the Peninsula and South Bay, but it didn’t include the East Bay or all of Silicon Valley. The East Bay Federation’s 2011 survey was limited to Alameda, Contra Costa, Napa and Solano counties.
The greatest concentration of Jews in the Bay Area is in Santa Clara County, though slightly more overall live in the East Bay than in the Peninsula and South Bay. The number of Jews in San Francisco as a percentage of the Bay Area Jewish community has shrunk since 2004 and now represents about 17 percent of the total.
Only 28 percent of the more than 3,500 people who responded to the online survey were born in the Bay Area. Five percent are natives of the former Soviet Union, while 3 percent came from Israel. And 29 percent of us say we will definitely or probably move in the next two years.
As Rabbi Beth Singer of Congregation Emanu-El, a Reform synagogue in San Francisco, points out, the survey “reminds us all that we are always wandering Jews!”
Grossman says this most recent survey, conducted last June to November, will provide valuable data to hundreds of synagogues, Jewish community institutions, schools, camps, charities, service organizations and companies. It also will give urban planners a sense of trends in their communities.
“This covers the breadth of Jewish life, the condition of the people, the nature of Jewish affiliation, where people are located,” he said. “This will be looked at with great interest nationally and globally, because we are understood to be one of the communities that defines what the future looks like.”
Steven Cohen, who co-led the survey with Jacob Ukeles, said it was important for the survey to cover the entire 10-county Bay Area because people move and commute across Federation boundaries. And he pointed out that demography is almost as old as the Jewish people.
“God commanded Moses to count the Jewish people and that’s the first instance we have of being commanded to do a census as a sacred act. And if you’re going to know the strengths and weaknesses and needs of your people, then you need to count them and classify them and hear them and understand them,” said Cohen, a research professor of Jewish social policy at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. “Without doing a study, we are basically flying blind and basing decisions on our impressions.”
The new survey shows there are about 281,000 Jewish adults (defined by religion or self-identification) and 68,000 Jewish children living in 148,000 Bay Area Jewish households — one that includes at least one Jewish adult. In those households are 123,000 others who consider themselves non-Jewish, and a quarter of the households include an adult who is Hispanic, Asian American, African American or of mixed or other ethnic or racial background. One in 10 of the households includes a respondent who is lesbian, gay or bisexual (one in five in San Francisco County).
Because none of the earlier surveys covered the entire Bay Area, Cohen and his colleagues were not able to definitively say whether the overall Jewish population in this area has grown in recent years — but they estimate it has been relatively stable since the 2004 study.
The Jewish population has not stayed in the same place, though.
Thirty-five percent of the Bay Area’s Jews, about 122,000, now live in the East Bay. Another 34 percent (118,000) live in the Peninsula and South Bay; 17 percent (61,000) are in San Francisco, and 13 percent (47,000) reside in the North Bay.
Rabbi Jacqueline Mates-Muchin of Oakland’s Temple Sinai, a Reform congregation, applauds the development of “multiple centers of Jewish life,” saying “that helps to spread out the resources, the creativity and the impact.”
For Rabbi David Booth of Kol Emeth, a Conservative congregation in Palo Alto, the survey confirms the “South Bay has emerged as a key Jewish center in the Bay Area, with Palo Alto/Los Altos/Mountain View at the center” — in large part because “Jews are drawn to tech.”
“Tech touches a lot that is Jewish — it’s a highly educated area, it has great financial rewards and it is about making the world better,” he said. “It creates an interesting challenge for synagogues and JCCs: How do we create warm, face-to-face communities that are nurturing in all the ways community can be? How do we introduce the spiritual that is so key to mental health and joy to a very material-focused world? These are challenges everywhere, but more exaggerated here.”
The shift in the Jewish population from San Francisco to its suburbs is more concerning to Rabbi Joel Landau of Adath Israel, a Modern Orthodox shul in San Francisco, because he says it erodes the sense of community that is so essential to Judaism. Landau says the breakdown in those bonds can be seen in the survey’s finding that 66 percent of Bay Area Jews under the age of 35 are in intergroup couples, in which one partner or spouse identifies as Jewish and the other does not.
“As Bay Area Jews spread out all over the region, their connection to Judaism dissipates and leads to assimilation,” he said. “Location isn’t as important as concentration, meaning it is spiritually healthier for Jews to live in close proximity to each other. Judaism is a very communal-oriented religion, culture, way of life.”
Affiliation has not changed much since earlier surveys, with Reform Judaism by far the most popular denomination, but an even larger number of Bay Area Jews are reporting they have no affiliation at all.
In the new survey, 37 percent of respondents say they are Reform; 13 percent are Conservative; 3 percent are Orthodox; 3 percent are Reconstructionist; 3 percent are other, and 41 percent have no stated denomination.
In the 2004 Federation survey, which measured by Jewish household rather than by individual, and did not include the East Bay or much of the South Bay, the numbers were similar: 38 percent Reform; 17 percent Conservative; 3 percent Orthodox; 2 percent Reconstructionist; 6 percent other; 1 percent Renewal, and 33 percent with no denomination.
Mates-Muchin says she’s not surprised at the large pool of unaffiliated Jews, adding that the word “religion” is a turnoff to many because it is negatively associated with conservative political groups. Synagogues must take back the word and teach “that it is about inclusivity, equality and pursuing justice.”
“The tribalistic need to be Jewish has never had the same pull here as it has in other places, even in Southern California,” she said. “I believe that is why our emphasis must be on the spiritual aspects of Judaism, and the significance of being a part of a community where meaningful conversations happen.”
As Mates-Muchin points out, Bay Area Jews don’t mirror the regional or national Jewish population in many key ways.
The Federation’s survey found less Jewish engagement here than elsewhere. Twenty-six percent of Bay Area respondents say it is very important to be Jewish — while a Pew Research Center survey in 2013 found that number was 38 percent throughout the rest of the Pacific and Mountain states, and 48 percent in the rest of the U.S.
The Bay Area’s Jews also lagged counterparts in the rest of the West, and trailed far behind the rest of the nation’s Jews, in everything from seder attendance to giving to Jewish charities to fasting for Yom Kippur.
And just 21 percent of Bay Area Jews say they are very attached emotionally to Israel, as opposed to 28 percent around the West and 32 percent in the U.S.
There’s also an education gap between Bay Area Jews and U.S. Jews overall. In the Federation survey, 42 percent of respondents report they have a graduate degree — as compared with 28 percent of U.S. Jews overall in a 2016 Pew survey.
Cohen, who has done more than two dozen similar surveys of Jewish communities around the country, says he was struck by the relative wealth and youth of Bay Area Jews. Fifty-three percent of Jews in the Bay Area are younger than 35, and the largest population group in the new survey is that of young adults between 18 and 34 — of whom just 26 percent are married.
Cohen and Grossman both said the proportion of people in that age group is much higher in the Bay Area than in other Jewish communities around the nation.
Though that group is wealthier than its counterparts around the U.S., the astronomical price of Bay Area housing and the fluidity of tech-sector jobs leads to financial strains and the need for social service support for those young adults. Twenty-two percent of all respondents say they are “just managing” financially or “cannot make ends meet.”
Overall, median income in Bay Area Jewish households is $115,000. Ten percent of households earn less than $50,000 annually, while 13 percent earn more than $250,000.
“So many of the challenges and planning opportunities entail this large young adult population, and so that is striking. And that’s where the Bay Area parts with everywhere else,“ Cohen said.
Though the survey makes clear the challenges facing Bay Area synagogues and Jewish community institutions, Mates-Muchin and Singer both are optimistic about the future.
“I feel like change may be in the air, certainly for the East Bay. In the last few years, we have seen a rise in membership among those who grew up in the congregation,” Mates-Muchin said. “And though the message of Judaism hasn’t changed, I am finding that the difficulties people are feeling with the political polarization means that the message now means something different to them. I think people are looking for community and meaningful engagement in ways that they have not before.”
Singer adds that, “Jews, like everyone else, are looking for meaning.”
“Rabbis, religious leaders, lay leaders, everyone who cares about the synagogue — we all have our work cut out for us. The problem is not Judaism. Judaism is a deeply meaningful and fulfilling life path,” Singer said.
“There are many ways to be a Jew. It is up to us to create, teach, offer and model an authentic expression of Judaism that will invite the Jews of this time to take a step closer and learn about how Jewish practice provides a sense of purpose. We are all so blessed to be alive and living in the Bay Area at this moment in time.”