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Area's Jewish population is up, no mass exodus of younger adults

The area’s Jewish population is up 14 percent since 1995 to an estimated 61,000 people. Households with at least one adult Jew have increased 34 percent for a count of 32,900, according to an in depth survey commissioned by the Jewish Federation of St. Louis.

On Wednesday night, federation leaders announced findings from a survey of more than 1,000 St. Louis Jewish households that they called “a snapshot” of the Jewish community and how it “engages Jewishly.” The margin for error in this size study is plus or minus 4.5 percent.

The new study slashed at least one myth. There is no overwhelming exodus of young Jews from the region. About 13 percent of those under the age of 35 say they plan to leave the region in the next two years. New Jewish transplants could balance their loss. About 11 percent of Jewish households have moved here in the last decade.

“We are confident the information revealed through this study will help us strengthen Jewish life and enhance connections to Jews in St. Louis, in Israel and around the world,” Patricia Croughan, federation board chairman and Andrew Rehfeld, federation president and CEO said in a joint statement.


Jewish household defined

In the midst of this good news is a sobering truth. In 1995, the last time a study of Jewish St. Louisans was done, one out of 10 people in “Jewish” households were not Jewish. Today one out of three in these households are not Jewish, the study found. The federation defines a Jewish household as one with at least one Jewish adult.

According to the study, 43 percent of children in Jewish households have one parent who is not Jewish. Almost half of Jewish households have a non-Jewish spouse, compared to just 25 percent with a non-Jewish spouse in the 1995 review.

Fifty-two percent of children in Jewish households today are being raised Jewish. About 10 percent are being raised “partly Jewish” and 13 percent are being raised in another religion.

Still, the population the federation and Jewish agencies serve is growing larger than many leaders had expected. Non-Jewish members of these households may not attend worship services, but many attend social events, lectures, theater, festivals and use facilities at community centers.

They may do volunteer work and donate to causes with their Jewish family and friends. Some may need social services. Nearly a quarter (24 percent) of households say they cannot make ends meet or are “just managing” financially. Eight percent have incomes under 150 percent of the federal poverty level. Last year 36 percent of Jewish households got assistance for children with developmental needs or aid in medical, housing, food or other areas.

No big exodus

For many Jewish leaders, the results were surprisingly good news. Jewish numbers seemed bleak a couple years ago, when funds were sought to commission this St. Louis Jewish community study. Most synagogues had more funerals than newborns. Young couples were not affiliating – signing up as synagogue members and paying dues.

Some synagogues merged or closed. The number of Jews donating to most Jewish agencies was flat. Staffs were chopped.

The general belief was that St. Louis was in the midst of a brain drain of young Jews. At board meetings of Jewish agencies and houses of worship, leaders lamented that their children found jobs elsewhere after college. Many of the young children at High Holiday services were likely to grandchildren visiting members rather than potential members. Many more Jews were marrying non-Jews with the eventual religion of their children unknown.

The new study puts that Jewish brain drain idea to rest. It found that many young Jews who move away after college eventually return. And some who leave have been replaced by the 11 percent of the region’s Jewish households who have moved here in the last decade. The study acknowledges the stated worries about Jewish families leaving the region but quells them as “anecdotal information about children of members and donors” and “friends and organizational members.”

View of Israel

Many more young Jews say Israel is very important to them than older generations. Nearly half (47 percent) of young adults between 18 to 34 say they are “very attached.” While only 29 percent of Jews who are 35-49 have similar feelings for the nation. The young adults even slightly beat the attachments of Jews 65 and older. About 42 percent of St. Louis Jews over 62 are “very attached.” Overall only 9 percent of St. Louis Jews are “not at all attached.”

Part of the reason for stronger ties is that many St. Louis Jews, 43 percent, have visited Israel. That is up from 35 percent in the 1995 survey. A free travel fellowship program for the young has contributed to the increased travel from here.

Keep on giving

St. Louis Jews continue a long tradition of being philanthropic. More than 90 percent gave to charitable causes, and six out of 10 gave to Jewish charities. While young adults are less likely to give to Jewish causes, they are just as willing as their elders to give to non-Jewish causes, the study found.

Using the numbers

Federation planners will use the study to help decide where best to build or improve facilities. The umbrella organization, which does planning and fundraising, serves all Jewish denominations, including Jews who are not synagogue members. The Federation office is in Creve Coeur, which is home to 13,400 Jews, the largest density, 22 percent, of the region’s Jewish community.

About 60 percent of the Jews in the area live in a few suburbs: Chesterfield, University City, Clayton, Olivette, Ladue and, of course, Creve Coeur. Those married to non-Jews are more likely to live outside those towns, in St. Charles, St. Louis, Des Peres, Kirkwood and Webster Groves.

Rehfeld, in an email, said that study is important: “It was a big deal, in fact the last study was done 20 years ago and in those 20 years we know a lot has changed. We know a lot has changed about the St. Louis region, a lot has changed about the engagement and interaction of, of Jews with Judaism and also in perhaps most importantly of people who are not themselves Jewish but who affiliate with the Jewish community either by marrying someone who is Jewish or by engaging in other ways.”

The Jewish Policy & Action Research organization, which specializes in studies of Jewish communities, conducted the interviews last year. The results were presented at Temple Israel Wednesday night. Using 9,493 randomly selected cell and land line phone numbers, pollers screened households to find Jewish homes. They did extensive interviews with 1,003 Jewish households. Much of the data are compared to a 1995 St. Louis study but the JPAR researchers advised caution because the two studies used somewhat different statistical methods and today there are “improvements in methodology.”

Patricia Rice is a freelance writer based in St. Louis who has covered religion for many years. She also writes about cultural issues, including opera.