PHOTO: Professor Len Saxe from the Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies at Brandeis University presents the results of the 2022-23 Greater Portland Jewish Community Study at the Jewish Federation of Greater Portland's 103rd Annual Meeting Tuesday, June 6, at the Mittleman Jewish Community Center in Portland. The study, the most comprehensive survey of Portland's Jewish community ever prepared, will be released today. (Rockne Roll/The Jewish Review)
By ROCKNE ROLL
There was much to celebrate at the Jewish Federation of Greater Portland’s 103rd annual meeting Tuesday, June 6 at the Mittleman Jewish Community Center. But the most anticipated event of the evening wasn’t the Rogoway award presentation, the announcement of this year’s Sussman Scholars or even the election of three new members of the Federation board.
Instead, an evening’s worth of anticipation – really, a year’s worth – crested when Brandeis University Professor Len Saxe from the Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies stepped forward to present the results of the much-anticipated 2022-23 Greater Portland Jewish Community Study.
Saxe set the tone for the evening by recounting the census of the Israelite community documented in the Torah and speaking to the underlying purpose of the study.
“I’m going to give you a lot of facts and figures,” he said, “but what we should really be thinking about is how we can use this to make a better, stronger community.”
As for the size of that community, Saxe said the survey concluded that there are 56,600 Jews in the Portland area, with 11,500 of those being children. This compares to approximately 40,000 recorded in the 2009 community study and 8,000 recorded in Portland’s first Jewish community survey, conducted in 1971 by Portland State University.
While a 41 percent increase may seem drastic, Saxe explained his team did extensive data validation work to make sure that figure was accurate. One significant confirmation was that the Portland area, as a whole, has seen a 50 percent increase in residents with college degrees in the last decade, while Jews are college educated at approximately double the national average rate.
“The number is not a result of any change [in definition],” Saxe said. “The number is a result of what’s happening on the ground.”
That ground is, perhaps, different ground than in years past; the survey showed that 38% of Portland’s Jewish households are located east of the Willamette River; another 19 percent are on the west side but not in Portland proper. (For a map of the distribution of Jewish households, along with other statistical samples, see “Jewish Portland by the numbers,” pages 8-9)
The study, which surveyed 2,560 respondents between October of 2022 and January of 2023, found that much of Portland’s Jewish community is young, new to the area, not denominationally affiliated, and relatively unengaged with the institutional Jewish community. 34 percent of Portland Jews have moved here in the last decade, while the median age of Jewish adults in Portland is three years younger than national median (46 vs 49).
A majority (52 percent) of Portland’s Jewish adults do not identify with any of Judaism’s denominational groups. While this is 20 points higher than the national average, lack of denominational affiliation and its waning usefulness as a classification for Jewish engagement has prompted the creation of a new metric, the Index of Jewish Engagement.
“We’re not asking people, ‘How Jewish do you feel?’” Saxe explained. “We’re asking people how they enact their Jewish identity.”
Through analysis of behavior patterns, the study identified five distinct engagement groups. The Minimally Involved group, those with little participation in Jewish life on any level, make up 28 percent of Portland’s Jewish adults. The Cultural group, those who participate mainly in cultural activities but don’t engage much with Jewish organizations, are the plurality at 32 percent. The Ritual group, who are mostly engaged in religious activities, make up of 12 percent of the community, while the Communal group, who are distinguished by high levels of involvement in synagogues and other organizations, come in at 17 percent. The Immersed group, who are highly involved in all areas of Jewish community life, make up 11 percent of Portland’s Jewish adults.
While only 20 percent of Portland’s Jewish households are members of a synagogue, compared to 35 percent nationally, people reported feeling broadly welcomed in Jewish community institutions. The foremost barrier to community participation is a lack of interest in the activities available.
“Basically,” Saxe elaborated, “people said to us that they haven’t found their niche.”
Location was the next most cited barrier, but third was a lack of confidence in Jewish knowledge – a fear of saying or doing the wrong thing in a Jewish setting, imagined or not.
“In my business, perception is reality,” Saxe said. “If people feel that, it is real.”
While two-thirds of Portland Jewish adults have at least a bachelor’s degree, 26 percent of Jewish households are either not able to make ends meet financially or are just managing. Meanwhile, 34 percent of Jewish households require mental health treatment – and many of the folks who need that help are younger.
“COVID had a serious effect on the mental health of those who are younger,” Saxe said.
While the delivery of the study, which totals 121 pages, not including appendices, and can be viewed online at jewishportland.org/communitystudy, was the culmination of a year’s worth of work by the Federation and the Cohen Center, it is ideally just the beginning. Federation staff will be diving into and cross-tabulating the expansive data set for the next few months to gain insights that can guide future decision making.
“Part of the Jewish response to any set of issues is not just to think deeply about the problem, it’s also to act,” Saxe concluded. “I hope this is the beginning of a productive set of conversations.