Jewish Population in U.S. Steady, but Traditional Areas See Decline

Longtime geographic centers of American Jewish life, such as Miami, are witnessing declines in their Jewish populations, while non-traditional areas for Jews, such as Dallas-Fort Worth, are experiencing exceptional growth, a new survey by the American Jewish Committee reveals.

Jewish populations continue to grow in resort communities, such as Palm Springs and Murietta Hot Springs, Calif.; Port Charlotte-Punta Gorda, Fla.; and the Pocono Mountain area of Pennsylvania.

But Jewish communities in the older, medium and small-sized cities in the Northeast and Midwest — including Evansville, Ind.; Wheeling, W.Va.; Bayonne, N.J.; Auburn, N.Y.; and Wilkes-Barre, Pa. — are seeing a decline in their Jewish populations, reflecting a national trend.

The survey, titled “Jewish Population in the United States, 1989,” has just been published in AJ Committee’s 1990 American Jewish Year Book. It specifically measures changes in Jewish population between 1988 and 1989, but is designed to reflect overall trends in Jewish population.

The survey found that the total Jewish population in the United States in 1989 was approximately 5,941,000, a figure nearly identical to that of the previous year’s figure of 5,935,000. The figure represents 2.5 percent of the overall U.S. population.

The study found that the Jewish population of Greater Miami-Dade County area, long considered a Jewish stronghold, decreased by 5 percent, representing a loss of 12,000 people.

“The Jewish population here is in decline as a result of it being inordinately elderly, and the fact that it is not being replaced by what was historically an annual immigration taking its place,” said Myron Brodie, executive director of the Greater Miami Jewish Federation.

New retirees are now settling further north in Florida, in Broward and Palm Beach counties, Brodie said, adding that demographers predict that the Jewish population of Miami will slide until the mid-1990s and then stabilize.

Brodie said that despite the drop in overall numbers, there is a strong core of younger Jewish Miami residents.

YOUNG PEOPLE FLOCKING TO DALLAS

In Dallas meanwhile, the Jewish population grew by nearly 39 percent, from 24,500 to 34,000, while Fort Worth grew by 900 to total 5,000.

Newcomers to the Jewish community are “young people mainly from the Midwest and Northeast,” said Bruce Schlosberg, executive director of the Jewish Federation of Fort Worth and Tarrant County.

While the oil economy is down, Dallas-Fort Worth is experiencing a boom because a number of major companies, including Exxon and American Airlines, recently moved their headquarters to the area, Schlosberg said, and medical facilities have also been expanding in the area.

While some of the Jewish newcomers are affiliating with Jewish institutions, he said, most are not. “It is our challenge, like any other Jewish community, to try and bring these people in,” Schlosberg said.

Among those areas specifically cited as exhibiting the most significant growth in absolute numbers were the Norfolk-Virginia Beach, Va., area, up 3,000 to an estimated total of 18,000; Atlanta, up 4,000 to 60,000; Raleigh, N.C., up 1,125 to 2,500; and Savannah Ga., up 250 to 2,750.

One of the authors of the American Jewish Year Book article, Dr. Barry Kosmin of the North American Data Bank, warned that counting Jewish population “is not an exact science,” which can be influenced heavily by collection procedures.

“In most cases where a figure differs from that shown last year, the increase or decrease did not come about in one year but occurred over a period of time,” Kosmin said.

IMPACT OF SOVIETS UNCLEAR

The study does not take into account the recent influx of Soviet Jewish emigrants, because it measures changes in Jewish population surveys between 1988 and 1989, just prior to when the large-scale Soviet immigration truly began.

Jeffrey Scheckner, who co-authored the article, said that “everyone is questioning to what degree the Soviet Jewish population” will affect the overall numbers. He said he was expecting many Jewish communities to do new population surveys in the coming years to measure the impact of the Soviet Jews.

New York state had both the highest number of Jews, 1,844,000, and the highest percentage of Jews overall, 10.3.

California had the next highest number, 909,000, followed by Florida, with 585,300; New Jersey, with 411,000; and Pennsylvania, with 345,800.

After New York, the highest percentage of Jews was found in New Jersey, where they made up 5.4 percent of the total population. In Florida, they were 4.9 percent of the population, and in Massachusetts, they were 4.7 percent.

Scheckner said that communities tabulate the number of Jews in a variety of ways, usually using combined methodologies including lists from federations and synagogues, checking Jewish names in phone books and random telephone surveys. He said that growing intermarriages have made the task more difficult.

“It’s difficult to determine who really counts,” he said. “How do you count a non-Jewish spouse who lives in a household that celebrates Chanukah and buys kosher meat?”

The article published in the yearbook, he said, counts only Jews, not non-Jews living in Jewish households.

But he said that many communities have begun tabulating two separate lists — one of Jews and one of those living in Jewish homes with some connection to Jewish life.

NEXT STORY