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Who knows who L.A.'s Jews are?

Los Angeles hasn't done a demographic survey since 1997, leaving many questions open

by Julie Gruenbaum Fax

July 25, 2012 | 11:33 am

Susan Goldberg, rabbi of Temple Beth Israel of Highland Park and Eagle Rock, grew up in nearby Echo Park.

“There were no Jewish families around when I was growing up,” Goldberg, 38, said. Now that these neighborhoods are being gentrified, and a young, creative crowd is moving in, the Jews are coming, too.

Some five years ago, Temple Beth Israel, a nearly 90-year-old congregation, counted 30 individual members. Today, she said, “We’re bursting at the seams with young families, parents in their 30s and 40s who are living here, in Mount Washington, in Highland Park, in Eagle Rock,” Goldberg said.

But for all the anecdotal evidence that Jews are moving eastward, no one knows exactly how many Jews comprise this trend.

“We know they’re out there, because when we have events, they come,” Goldberg said. “But it would be so, so tremendously helpful to know where they are, who they are, how many there are.”

Los Angeles hasn’t done a Jewish community survey since 1997, and with nothing concrete in the works, organizations are “flying blind,” in the words of one demographer.

“No other large Jewish community has been without a study for such a long period of time,” said Jacob Ukeles, president of Ukeles Associates Inc., a firm that helped conduct New York’s recently released survey.

And that can have serious implications for how effectively a community responds to needs.

“We need to know who lives where, what they do Jewishly, what diversity exists among Jews, what needs they have, what resources they have and what they think on a variety of issues,” said Sarah Bunin Benor, associate professor of Contemporary Jewish Studies at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR) in Los Angeles. “That’s my take on it, from the perspective of somebody who wants to help Jews have a better life.”

Jay Sanderson, president and CEO of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, said conducting such a study is “rising to the top of our agenda.”

“We really need to do it. We know we need to do it, and I believe we will do it. We have to figure out the resources and how we’re going to pay for it,” Sanderson said in an interview.

A study of Los Angeles’ Jews, who are believed to number between 500,000 and 600,000, would likely cost somewhere around $1 million. In most cities with large and medium-sized Jewish populations, Federation pays for a survey once a decade. Los Angeles conducted community surveys in 1950, 1958, 1968, 1979 and 1997.

When Sanderson took office in 2010, no study was in the pipeline, and he said he had initially hoped to launch one quickly. But as the impact of the recession became more severe, Sanderson said, funds continued to be redirected to such programs as the Emergency Cash Grants, which has provided more than $2.6 million in relief to 5,350 recipients since 2009.

“Now, with everything we’re doing, we’re still trying to put a survey on the front burner,” Sanderson said.

Federation hopes to launch the process in the next year, Sanderson said — if he can figure out where the money will come from.

But the more time that goes by without a survey, the less efficiently the community is spending its dollars, demographers say.

“If you have a Federation that says they are the planning body of the community, where are they getting their information?” asked Pini Herman, a principal at Phillips and Herman Demographic Research. Herman was the L.A. Federation’s research coordinator for the 1997 survey; he has also worked on surveys in San Francisco, Houston and Seattle.

“The longer you don’t have a survey, the more you have to guess, and basically you’re snatching ideas and data out of thin air. And without any community study, there is no way to confirm or refute what they say,” Herman said.

Community leaders say they are eager to have current data.

“Synagogues call all the time, wanting to know where the Jews are moving. Are they moving into our area? Out of our area? Are we losing members because Jews are leaving this area, or for some other reason?” said Bruce Phillips, a principal, with Pini Herman, at Phillips and Herman Demographic Research and a professor of sociology and Jewish communal studies at HUC-JIR in Los Angeles. Phillips has conducted or published research on more than 20 Jewish community surveys.

Other questions in Los Angeles also need answering. How many Iranian Jews live here, and what is there economic profile? Their Jewish identity? Their integration patterns?

What areas are people moving to and away from? Are nearby cities that are experiencing growth, such as San Francisco, Phoenix and Las Vegas, doing so at the expense of Los Angeles, or along with Los Angeles? How many French and Latin American Jews have moved into the area, and are they being served? Has the Orthodox population increased, and if so, in what sectors?

Anecdotal evidence about subpopulations can be deceiving, Phillips said, as it’s easier to count visible Jews who are frequent users of community resources — for instance, the Orthodox, or immigrant populations. The unaffiliated are more likely to go undetected if you rely on visibility or data from Jewish organizations.

A topic open to debate is how many Israelis are in Los Angeles. While some estimate there are hundreds of thousands of Israelis in Los Angeles, Herman says his own research points to a number closer to a maximum of 25,000, a figure corroborated by the official Israeli count of how many people have left their country.

The Los Angeles Jewish population, once concentrated on the Westside and in the San Fernando Valley, is migrating toward the East Side and north to areas such as the Conejo, Santa Clarita and Simi Valleys.

Several organizations are investing both money and resources in the East Side, including Federation, which has funded a new staff person at East Side Jews, a nondenominational Jewish community that has attracted hundreds of young, hip Jews to its irreverent monthly holiday celebrations and social events. East Side Jews recently became part of the Silverlake Independent Jewish Community Center, an organization that is on a short list to receive significant Federation funding for a renovation and expansion project.

At the same time, Temple Beth Israel’s Goldberg said, Jews in the area remain underserved. When she needs to refer people for social services, she is often told that Jewish agencies don’t extend out to her part of town. In addition to leading Temple Beth Israel, Goldberg serves as rabbi-in-residence for East Side Jews, a position co-supported by Wilshire Boulevard Temple, which is also interested in being part of the East Side Jewish renaissance.

Indeed, Wilshire Boulevard Temple is in the middle of a $150 million project to restore and revitalize its historic sanctuary and campus in Koreatown. Before embarking on that project, the congregation commissioned its own demographic study of the area — roughly from West Hollywood on the west to Eagle Rock and Pasadena on the East, stretching from Adams Boulevard on the South up to Studio City and Glendale.

“I intuitively felt that young Jews were moving eastward, but intuition is not always right,” Wilshire Boulevard Temple’s Rabbi Steven Leder said.

Their study, which cost them about $25,000, found around 30 percent growth in the area over the last 10 years, with the most significant increases in the population of childbearing and -rearing age. That information convinced the synagogue’s leadership to buy up the rest of their square block to make room for more parking, an expanded day school, religious school and social service center.

Having data has also made it easier to approach donors, Leder said.

“It’s important to know that there is hard data to support your assumptions when you’re trying to raise money,” he said.

Wilshire Boulevard Temple’s study was based on Jewish surnames in voter registration listings — a method that may have left out Jews who have a non-Jewish parent or who are married to non-Jews, a population that, anecdotally at least, accounts for much of the growth on the East Side.

And a small, highly targeted study such as the Wilshire Boulevard one doesn’t offer the totality, or accuracy, of a larger study, demographers say.

For instance, Federation recently conducted a survey of nearly 800 Jewish adults younger than 45, before launching major initiatives specifically targeting young Jews.

That survey, which is still being analyzed, yielded useful data about attitudes and needs, according to Benor, whom Federation hired to analyze the data. But because the data was collected via a chain of e-mail addresses that originated with Jewish organizations, it probably doesn’t accurately represent the unaffiliated, people on the fringes of Jewish life or many immigrant populations, Benor said.

“The survey isn’t really useful for answering demographic questions,” she said. “It is useful for answering questions about needs and preferences in a small subsection of young Jewish Los Angeles.”

Other anecdotal evidence has provided some information. Federation, for instance, estimates that, since 2008, an additional 75,000 to 100,000 Los Angeles Jews have become financially unstable, a number it bases on data collected from Jewish social service agencies. Phillips says those numbers are plausible, and they tell Federation it needs to move resources there.

But, he added, “If you want a more comprehensive picture of Jewish poverty in L.A., a population survey would be a better tool.”

While Sanderson agrees that a study could help refine and guide programs, he believes Federation already has a good read on the community.

“I don’t think we’ll learn anything that will dramatically change the work we’re already doing. I think it will validate things we’re doing,” he said.

He points to existing programming geared toward intermarried families, and, he said, whether the intermarriage rate is 50 percent or 65 percent won’t dramatically alter those programs.

But demographers offer a host of stories to challenge the notion that new data doesn’t lead to change.

Ukeles said both Cleveland and Pittsburgh assumed their younger populations were shrinking. But a population survey revealed that the perception was fueled largely by anecdotal data, including the fact that children of community leaders had moved out. But young people were actually moving in and were not yet on Federation’s radar, partially because some were moving to areas that were not traditionally Jewish.

New York’s just-released survey revealed that Modern Orthodox Jews are among the most generous supporters of UJA-Federation — a surprise that will surely alter what was thought to have been a tense relationship, Ukeles predicts.

A survey in Phoenix decided the question of whether to build a new community center in the southern or the eastern part of the city, and a San Francisco-area study found that nearly all Jews in Marin County are intermarried, but many of them are seeking a Jewish connection.

In Los Angeles, the 1997 survey found a larger number of indigent Holocaust survivors than was previously known, and new programs were developed to serve them.

Most community studies don’t simply stop at basic numbers, but also delve into attitudes, affiliations and beliefs.

A survey can tell not only how many Jews are intermarried, but also whether those families identify as Jews and how they express their Judaism. It can measure attachment to Israel among various segments, and can evaluate the efficacy of formal and informal Jewish educational experiences — day school, camp, Hebrew school, Birthright Israel.

The community determines exactly what questions get asked.

Most survey firms conduct focus groups to find out what data points could help service providers refine their programming, Phillips said.

In the sprawl of Los Angeles, a new survey would first have to figure out which areas to sample, according to Phillips. New populations in Santa Clarita have not been counted before, for instance, but areas of low Jewish density require more phone calls, and thus are more costly. (Orange County has never done a Jewish survey, Phillips said.)

In the chosen areas, firms conduct randomized calling — surveyors plow through hundreds of thousands of viable phone numbers to come up with a Jewish sample.

But getting that sample is difficult.

Randomized calling has suffered greatly from the onslaught of telemarketers, and the result is that many people do not answer calls identified as toll-free numbers, and hang up at any indication of a cold call. Ukeles says his firm includes cell phone numbers — many young people don’t have landlines — but not all surveyors do.

Once the data is collected, the analysis will begin. And to further complicate matters, answers are not always black and white: If someone works in a soup kitchen on Sundays with a bunch of other Jews, is that a Jewish activity?

Even further, the seemingly simple question of who is Jewish has dogged demographers since the 1990 Jewish community survey. Is self-identifying as a Jew enough? What about people who don’t self-identify, but have one, or even two, Jewish parents?

The national Jewish surveys done in 1990 and 2000 were the subject of much controversy because of questions like these. Additionally, in the 2000 survey, data was said to have been lost, misunderstood and miscounted.

Demographers, it turns out, also tend to be a feisty crowd, and after both national surveys they publically ripped into their peers’ methodologies and analysis.

But Phillips said that what outsiders perceive as catfights are pretty standard for the academic world, where merciless peer reviews are common. He points out, too, that all the demographers who criticize each other continue to work together and share data sets.

Phillips also said that community leaders sometimes don’t want to hear what the data are saying.

“It threatens the authority and agenda of lay leaders if you do a study that shows that what they think is important is actually not that important, or not true,” Phillips said.

Right now, The Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA), the umbrella group that usually sponsors a national Jewish census every decade, has no plans for the next one. The last national study cost $6 million over seven years, including marketing, data collection, reports and recommendations.

“I think there was a sense that, given the controversies over the 2000 study, the people who we would have had to approach for funding were exhausted by the whole process. There was not the will in either the funding community or across the federation system to go through that again,” said Laurence Kotler-Berkowitz, director of research and analysis at JFNA.

JFNA has redirected its research budget to collect and process data from local federations and to conduct micro studies and focus groups, Kotler-Berkowitz said.

Of course, once you have solid data, the biggest challenge is knowing what to do with it.

“A demographic study does not lead immediately to programmatic implementation,” John Ruskay, executive vice president and CEO of UJA — Federation of New York, told The New York Jewish Week. “It has to be understood, reviewed and tested to determine the best way [to approach issues]. It takes months, going to one, two or three years, to get this right.”

So the question remains as to whether Los Angeles’ Federation will be nimble enough to handle that.

“It’s going to require leadership, money and just enough process but not too much,” said Leder. “It’s a wasted million if there is not a programmatic response that follows.”

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