Our Mishpocha Up North

This past week I had the opportunity to meet with Federation Executives from across the country in Fort Lauderdale. The conference included professional development opportunities and “best practice” sharing. 

We also heard a distressing presentation from students at Florida Atlantic University about their struggles on campus to fight against the BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) movement. I heard recurring concerns – anti-Israel groups on campus are getting louder (not necessarily stronger) and our Jewish students are ill-prepared to counteract these groups. Greater Israel education and training needs to be done prior to and while these students are on campus. 

This past week, the Jewish Federation of Greater Seattle released its 2014 Jewish Community Study. Highlights include an estimated 63,400 Jewish individuals in 33,700 households in the five-county area. The 2014 population is 70% larger than their last study in 2001 that estimated 38,000 Jews. (Portland’s population is estimated at 47,000. There are, however, leading Jewish demographers who believe that our study overestimated the number of Jewish people and our total is closer to 35,000.) Some of the reported growth may be attributable to improved methodology, but regardless, the Seattle Jewish community has grown substantially, perhaps even more rapidly than Seattle’s overall population.

Here are some interesting data points:

  • 30% of households include Jewish children –13,800 Jewish children under the age of 18. 
  • 61% of Jewish adults are married. Of those, 56% are interfaith.
  • 66% of children are being raised Jewish only and another 10% are being raised Jewish and another religion.
  • 41% of Jewish adults do not identify with a specific denomination. Of those who do, the largest denomination is Reform (28%), followed by Conservative (14%) and Orthodox (7%).
  • 15% of the Jewish community is considered “highly affiliated” (belong to synagogues, send children to Jewish schools, camps or youth programs, donate to Jewish organizations, and attend programs with regularity). At the same time, 40% of community members report no connection with local Jewish institutions nor do they participate in any local Jewish programming.
  • 34% of all households are synagogue members – 8% of households have membership at a JCC
  • Ties to the worldwide Jewish community are stronger than ties to the local Jewish community.
  • 1/3 of respondents experienced anti-Semitism in the past year.
  • Volunteerism is quite high, but are more likely to engage with a non-Jewish organization.
  • 92% made a charitable contribution in the past year. 21% made most or all of their donations to Jewish organizations, while 59% made most or all of their donations to non-Jewish organizations.
  • 40% of children in Greater Seattle participate in some form of formal Jewish education (32% are enrolled in Jewish preschool, 40% in supplementary school, and 5% in Jewish day school).
  • Of age-eligible Jewish children, 23% participate in a Jewish youth group, 22% attend Jewish overnight camp, and 26% attend Jewish day camp.
  • 53% say it is very important to raise Jewish children, but half that number (26%) say it is very important to marry someone Jewish.
  • Almost all (92%) young adults say they would be at least a little interested in becoming more involved with the local Jewish community.
  • Seniors constitute 12% of the adult Jewish population – and about 1/3 of Jewish seniors live alone.
  • 89% of adults have a bachelor’s degree or above. Greater Seattle’s Jewish community is highly educated and is 31% above the national average.

At my conference, I spoke with the CEO of the Jewish Federation of Greater Seattle. I asked him about the challenges raised by the initial information from the study (many of these may sound similar tour own community):

  • There is a growing Jewish population in NW Seattle (less expensive housing, excellent schools) and there are no Jewish communal organizations in that area. How does the community engage these families in Jewish life when distance becomes a factor?
  • Unlike Portland and its unofficial “10 minute rule,” Seattle’s Jewish community is willing to drive up to 30 minutes for communal activities. With greater traffic and Jews living all over the five-county area, how does the community create more neighborhood-based programs?
  • The proportion of one’s closest friends who are Jewish is often an indicator of engagement in the Jewish community. There are two key reasons for this. First, most of the people participating in Jewish organizations are Jewish. And second, people tend to spend their time with others who substantially share their interests and values. In short, those people most inclined to engage in Jewish life and culture tend to seek out like-minded friends and participate more actively in Jewish organizations. Overall, in Seattle, 22% (10% below the national average) indicate that all or most of their closest friends are Jewish. 
  • Volunteerism is quite high, but people seem unaware of the Jewish options or have simply never been asked. 
  • The Greater Seattle Jewish community prides itself on its liberal, open-minded, and accepting attitude, yet there are conflicts around sensitive political, cultural and religious issues, especially as they relate to Israel. Creating “safe spaces” for such dialogues is an opportunity going forward.
  • With a large number of young adults and a generally tech-savvy population, exploring and creating online programming options will be explored. With proximity and access as primary obstacles to greater participation in the Jewish community for many, there may be a niche for a variety of online programs.

I do not believe there are significant differences between our mishpocha (Jewish family) in Seattle’s and Portland’s Jewish communities. We are both in the Pacific Northwest, have growing and diverse Jewish communities, with many people seeking Jewish connections, yet perhaps not via traditional Jewish institutions or pathways. How we address these issues is up for discussion. I hope that our two communities can work together, learn from one another, and be “test markets” for the Jewish community of tomorrow.

Shabbat shalom.



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