Federation takes an in-depth look at itself
Federation Report

Federation takes an in-depth look at itself

Jewish Community Report presents a mosaic of demographics and attitudes

Each year, in partnership with the Jewish Agency for Israel, the federation brings a delegation of rishonim (emissaries) to Greater MetroWest to spend their gap year teaching about Israel, its people, and its culture. (JFGMW)
Each year, in partnership with the Jewish Agency for Israel, the federation brings a delegation of rishonim (emissaries) to Greater MetroWest to spend their gap year teaching about Israel, its people, and its culture. (JFGMW)

Self-examination can sometimes be as basic as standing in front of a mirror and taking a good, hard look at the image in reflection. Not for physical or aesthetic considerations, but to squint and probe deeper, perhaps for an elusive, nearly impenetrable peek into our inner workings, or for a hint at the spiritual qualities we all hunger after. A camera obscura of our own design.

At other times, self-examination involves trips outside our orbits: to a professional for counseling, where the hard questions can be asked and often are left unanswered by design; to a religious leader for ethical guidance or a quest for comfort and consolation; or to a fellowship where individual feelings can be subsumed into a group discussion of similar concerns.

But what happens if the examination involves a self that’s larger — way larger—than the individual? A self that encompasses thousands of selves spread across a big geographical chunk of New Jersey? A self-encompassing a kaleidoscope of constituents, all with different challenges, needs, or interests; a collective self that requires steadiness, boldness, and a clear vision of what’s ahead or should be ahead and how to actually get there?

Some would call this kind of self-examination a journey of introspection, and that’s exactly what the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ has just completed. After more than a year of gathering information on the people, places, and programs that help it thrive, and on areas that show vulnerabilities, the need for extra outreach, or the allocation of additional resources, the federation recently released the results of a survey known as the Jewish Community Study. This demographic and attitudinal snapshot of the 56,800 Jewish households in GMW’s five-county catchment area was conducted during the height of pandemic, and both the timing and the findings should prove extremely helpful as the federation approaches its centennial year in 2023 and looks beyond.

The federation engaged the Maurice and Marilyn Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies at Brandeis University to conduct the fact gathering. The Cohen Center describes itself as a research institute dedicated to American Jewry and religious and cultural identity. Its team was led by Dr. Janet Aronson and used the latest techniques and technologies to generate reliable, quantifiable, and relevant findings. Some 3,295 eligible households completed surveys between October and December 2020; that’s a response rate of 33.4 percent. “Although some survey responses were likely influenced by the special circumstances of the pandemic,” the report notes, “…  as necessary, questions were modified to account for changes in usual patterns of behavior…”

In an introduction to the findings, which are online at the federation’s website, www.jfedgmw.org, three people — Dov Ben-Shimon, the federation’s executive vice president and CEO; Sheryl Pearlstein, who chaired the study; and the federation’s president, David Saginaw — outlined its scope and summarized the big questions: “How large is our community? Where does our population live? How do we engage in Jewish life and connect with the Jewish community? What are the needs of our community members, from the youngest to the oldest? How many of us live in poverty or have unmet financial needs? How do we connect to Israel?”

Federation leaders and professionals already are discussing and digesting the findings, and the wider community will have a chance to comment and pose questions during a series of Zoom sessions scheduled through next month. Information about those sessions is posted on the federation’s website; just scroll down to the section about the community study and follow the links.

While no set of statistics by itself can describe adequately the beating heart and soul of a community organization, by its very weight and extrapolation it can help define an entity’s contours and substance. In presenting the subsequent finding, the Cohen Center is quoted verbatim, using the terms and jargon of the researchers, with only minor style adjustments. Certain sections are elided, others are condensed and represented by a few bullet points.

The Tour de Summer Camp federation-sponsored bike ride raises money to send hundreds of kids to Jewish summer camp. (JFGMW)

Starting with an overview, the key findings show:

• As of 2020, there are 56,800 Jewish households in Greater MetroWest. These households include 155,000 individuals, of whom 122,300 are Jewish. Approximately 29,700 children live in Jewish households.

• Approximately 7.6% of the households in the Greater MetroWest catchment area (Essex, Morris, Sussex, Union, parts of Somerset) include at least one Jewish adult.

• Of the 96,900 Jewish adults in Greater MetroWest, 83,400 are Jews by religion. Another 7,200 Jewish adults are Jews of no religion, and 5,100 are Jews of multiple religions.

• Greater MetroWest Jewish community members skew slightly older than the U.S. Jewish community as a whole. The mean age of local Jewish adults is 53, and the median age is 56; nationally, the median age of Jewish adults is 49. Including children in the analysis lowers the mean age. The mean age of all Greater MetroWest Jews is 44, and the median is 50.

• Greater MetroWest Jewish households include families with children under 18 (30%) and married or cohabiting couples without children at home (29%). Seventy-four percent of Jewish households include a married or cohabiting couple, living with or without children.

• Nearly two in five (38%) Jewish adults in Greater MetroWest have no denomination and identify either as secular/cultural Jews or as “just Jewish.” Among all U.S. Jews, 32% do not identify with a specific denomination.

• Among Jewish adults in the Greater MetroWest Jewish community who affiliate with a denomination, the largest share affiliate with the Reform movement (32%), followed by the Conservative movement (22%). Four percent of Jewish adults are Orthodox, and 4% identify with another denomination.

• Among Jewish adults in Greater MetroWest who are married or partnered, 66% are inmarried and 33% are intermarried. Among all U.S. Jews who are married, 58% are inmarried and 42% are intermarried.

• Elements of diversity: Five percent of Jewish adults were raised in a Russian-speaking home. Six percent of Jewish adults are Israeli citizens. Four percent of Jewish adults in Greater MetroWest identify as LGBTQ, and 9% of Jewish households have a member who identifies as LGBTQ (who may or may not be Jewish). Two percent of Jewish adults identify as a race other than white, and 6% of Jewish adults identify as being of Hispanic or Latino origin. However, most of these individuals do not consider themselves to be a person of color; just 1% of Jewish adults identify as a person of color.

With illuminating detail, the report goes on to present data in the critical areas of children and Jewish education; senior adults and health; philanthropy and volunteering; Israel experiences and connections; geography and residence; financial well-being; Jewish engagement, and community connections.

The Jewish education category will have special relevance to many parents in GMW. Among the salient findings:

• Approximately 29,700 children live in Jewish households in GMW. An estimated 25,400 of these are considered Jewish by their parents (86%), including 19,200 who are considered Jewish only (65%), and 6,200 who are considered Jewish and another religion (21%). There are 4,300 children in GMW Jewish households who are not considered Jewish by their parents. This group includes children with no religion (9%) and those with a religion other than Judaism (5%).

• Just under half of Jewish children (45%) are being raised by inmarried parents, and the same share are being raised by intermarried parents. About 8% of Jewish children are being raised by single parents.

• Among GMW’s Jewish children, 30% of preschool-age Jewish children were enrolled in a Jewish preschool in the 2020-21 academic year; 20% of K-12 Jewish children were enrolled in a Jewish part-time school, such as a Hebrew school, religious school, or Sunday school, and 7% of K-12 Jewish children were enrolled in a Jewish day school or yeshiva.

• K-12 Jewish school enrollment is significantly higher among the age-eligible Jewish households of Essex County, compared to Jewish households in other regions.

• Schedule and location are the most common reasons cited for choosing both Jewish and non-Jewish preschools.

• Cost is the primary reason for not enrolling children in Jewish day schools or yeshivot. However, among Jewish households who had at least one child in day school, the vast majority agreed (50%) or strongly agreed (36%) that their children’s day school education is a good value, given the cost.

• Among Jewish households that had at least one child in day school and moved to the area within the past 10 years, about half agreed (21%) or strongly agreed (30%) that GMW day school and yeshiva options were a reason to move to the area.

• Eighteen percent of K-12 Jewish children enrolled in Jewish overnight camp in 2019 or 2020 and 8% of K-12 Jewish children enrolled in a Jewish day camp in 2019 or 2020.

The category dealing with senior adults and health yielded the following highlights:

• There are 28,200 Jewish adults ages 65+ living in Greater MetroWest. Thirty-eight percent of Jewish senior adults are under age 70, and 21% are ages 80 or older.

• Just over half of Jewish households in which seniors live include a married/partnered couple without children, and seniors living alone account for about one third (34%) of senior Jewish households.

• Eight percent of senior Jewish households are located in an assisted living facility, nursing home, or independent senior living building or community. An additional 13% of Jewish seniors are considering moving to some type of senior living residence within the next five years.

• The financial well-being of Jewish seniors is similar to that of all GMW Jewish households. However, Jewish seniors reported significantly fewer financial worries, compared to other Jewish households in GMW.

• Nearly one in five GMW Jewish households includes someone who has a chronic health issue, special need, or disability that limits work, school, or activities. Chronic illness is the most common health issue, followed by physical disability. Older Jewish adults have significantly higher rates of health issues, special needs, or disabilities.

• Seventeen percent of GMW Jewish households include someone who provides or manages the care of a close relative or friend on a regular basis (aside from routine childcare). Two thirds of these Jewish households provide or manage the care for a parent or in-law.

• Among Jewish households in which someone has a health issue or disability, half indicated that Jewish organizations are not at all accommodating to their health condition.

• Of Jewish households that require a service for a health issue, special need, or disability, 9% sought and received services from Jewish-sponsored organizations. The majority of these households (89%) did not seek services from Jewish organizations.

In the volunteering and philanthropy category, statistics showed that about two thirds of GMW households donated to Jewish organizations in the past year. About one in five Jewish households (19%) donated only to non-Jewish causes, and 13% made no donations. Among Jewish households that donated to any Jewish organization, more than one third donated to a synagogue (aside from dues) and 16% donated to the federation. This represents 10% of all GMW Jewish households. However, older households were more likely to donate to the federation.

The report also describes five categories of engagement based on patterns of participation in ritual, communal, personal, and home-based Jewish life. Fourteen percent of Jewish adults are in the Immersed group and participate in all aspects of Jewish life; 15% of Jewish adults in the Involved group have a high level of participation in ritual and communal activities. Over one quarter of Jewish adults (27%) are in the personal group and primarily participate in individual rather than communal activities. Another quarter of Jewish adults (27%) are in the familial group and primarily participate in home-based holidays like the Passover seder and Chanukah. The remaining 16% of Jewish adults are in the minimally Involved group and participate in Jewish life occasionally if at all.

Other engagement findings include:

• Jewish engagement is higher in Essex and Union counties than elsewhere in MetroWest’s catchment area. Jewish households in Essex and Union are more likely to be members of a synagogue; however, they are not more likely to attend religious services than households in other regions.

• Twenty-nine percent of Jewish households belong to a synagogue or congregation. Twenty-five percent of Jewish households pay dues to a local brick-and-mortar synagogue. Other than High Holiday service attendance, however, there is no difference in synagogue attendance between Jewish households of different financial statuses.

• Of the Jewish adults who attended High Holiday services in 2020, about two in five would prefer a combination of in-person and online services in the future.

And, not insignificantly:

• Three quarters of Jewish adults in Greater MetroWest feel that being Jewish is very much a matter of culture, with smaller shares feeling that being Jewish is a matter of ethnicity, community, and religion.

Summarizing feelings about Israel connections and experiences, researchers found:

• About one in three Jewish adults (34%) feel very connected to Israel. Most Jewish adults feel some level of connection to Israel; only 11% of Jewish adults feel no connection to Israel.

• A majority of Jewish adults have been to Israel at least once, and 22% have been to Israel at least four times or have lived there. More than one in three Jewish adults (37%) have never been to Israel.

• A larger share of younger Jewish adults in GMW have been to Israel than older adults. About 40% of Jewish adults under 50 have been to Israel many times or have lived there.

• Four in ten Jewish adults 40 and under (41%) have been on a Birthright Israel trip. In addition, three in ten Jewish households (30%) include a Birthright Israel participant or a parent of a participant.

And in the financial well-being category, the survey highlighted:

• The largest share of GMW Jewish households described their standard of living as “have enough money” (41%)

• Nearly one in five Jewish households (17%) described themselves as unable to make ends meet or just managing to make ends meet. The same share of Jewish households (17%) described themselves as well-off. Over the past three years, half of financially struggling households (50%) were unable to afford necessities.

• Two thirds (68%) of GMW Jewish households reported that their financial situation is about the same now as it was just before the covid-19 crisis.

• Financially struggling Jewish households were hit hardest by the economic impact of the covid-19 pandemic in terms of employment.

• Among all GMW Jewish adults, only 3% were unemployed and looking for work at the time of the survey. However, 23% experienced a pay or hours cut, furlough, closed business, or job loss since the start of the pandemic.

• All regions of GMW have a similar share of well-off households, between 17% and 19%, but East Morris has a smaller share of struggling households.

“This study is aptly named a community study,” Greater MetroWest president David Saginaw said in announcing its release. “It will help chart our course for the next two decades.” And Mary Fernandez, president of Temple B’nai Or in Morristown, added: “The results should help us to understand the full diversity of the Jewish community and to prepare to welcome more individuals and families to Jewish life and Judaism.

But perhaps the most pragmatic response came from Mike Goldstein, executive director of the JCC of Central NJ. “We are super-excited to receive this study. This is so important in the business of building community and continuity. We must be cognizant of communal behavior, trends and needs. This will help us make data-driven decisions and allocate resources, especially as we emerge from covid and reform our strategic priorities in the post pandemic.”

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