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Jewish Journal

Opinion: Count-less

by Rob Eshman

August 17, 2011 | 1:03 pm

Rob Eshman is the Editor-in-Chief of The Jewish Journal

Rob Eshman is the Editor-in-Chief of The Jewish Journal

Here’s the dirty little secret about organized Jewish life in Los Angeles: We literally don’t know who we are.

All the organizations and decision makers act as if they know, but, I am telling you — whether you are a major philanthropist, a volunteer or just Jew-curious — they really don’t.

How many Jews are there in L.A.? No one knows for sure. Where do they live? No one has those statistics — because they don’t exist. While Jewish communal organizations, from synagogues to community centers to universities to welfare agencies, make million-dollar — sometimes hundred-million-dollar — decisions based on serving sectors of the world’s third-largest Jewish city, they have precious little up-to-date data to work from to consider whom they intend to serve.  

Think of the millions of dollars funneled to entice young, unaffiliated, presumably disaffected Jewish adults. Guess how many there really are? The answer: I don’t know. But then again, neither do the people raising and spending your money.   

What we are working off are guestimates that are, at best, almost two decades old and, at worst, self-serving and self-aggrandizing. Occasionally an organization will pay for a localized study, but in many cases, even those work off data from the Los Angeles Jewish Population Survey done in 1997 —14 years ago already — by The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles. And somehow the data always seems to support funding the project the study was designed to assess.

In the absence of fresh, independent, professional analysis, we have what amounts to a kind of mine-is-bigger-than-yours approach to demographics.

The Web site for the organization of young Iranians 30 Years After reports 30,000 Iranian Jews came to the entire United States in 1979. A Persian genetic research study estimated there are 45,000 in L.A. alone. The leader of one Iranian Jewish group assured me recently there are 250,000 Iranian Jews in the Greater Los Angeles area.

It seems 250,000 is the go-to number. The Israeli consulate today estimates that between 150,000 and 250,000 Israeli citizens live here, extrapolated from the 50,000 Israeli families it has on file. However, a recent independent study of Israelis somehow concluded the number is 200,000 — likely based on how hard it is to get a table at the Aroma Café on Sunday morning. As a reality check, the 1997 L.A. survey counted 15,000 Israel-born persons and 26,000 self-identified Israelis. The New York Jewish Federation commissioned a study in 2009 that found 81,000 Israelis live in the entire New York/Long Island area. Do three times as many Israelis live just in Los Angeles? 

And how many Orthodox Jews live in L.A.?  According to an Orthodox-promoted study that circulated a few years back, that population was growing rapidly and had reached 100,000.

Are you following on your calculator? That means out of a population of about 600,000 Los Angeles Jews (again, who knows?), half are Israeli, half of Persian origin, and 100,000 are Orthodox. 

It would be funny if it weren’t so wasteful. What successful business makes million-dollar decisions based on 14-year-old data? We might be spending real money on imaginary Jews. We are planning for a future based on information that is already antique. 

I’m not suggesting anyone is being intentionally deceitful. They’re just pushing their best — in some cases, their most optimistic — guess. But let’s be honest about the science behind it: zero.

Last month The Journal asked L.A.’s two preeminent Jewish demographers, Bruce Phillips and Pini Herman, to write an ongoing blog about the numerical realities of Jewish life. The blog, “Demographic Duo,” is now at our Web site, jewishjournal.com. In their first post, they challenged some key communal assumptions: What is the evidence that Jewish families are moving west? How many children of intermarried couples are really “lost”? Is the Jewish population really shrinking?

Given the amount of communal dollars raised to meet the threat of a disappearing Jewish population, this last point is especially significant.  Phillips suggests that the 1997 data show 5 percent growth in the Jewish population over the prior 18 years. 

“That’s basically a stable Jewish population,” he writes, “and that stability is impressive given that the white, non-Hispanic population of L.A. County declined over the same period from 53.3 percent in 1980 to 32.1 percent in 2000.”

Has that stability held? Phillips and Herman, careful academics that they are, won’t indulge a guess. But much strategy, money and time will be spent by others who will. 

Every Jewish organizational head I speak with bemoans the lack of a new survey. And Los Angeles is alone in the dark. The Chicago and Boston Jewish communities have done population surveys every 10 years. Cleveland just finished one. New York, which also does these surveys every decade, is currently fielding the Jewish Community Study of New York, the largest Jewish community study ever conducted outside of Israel, with a telephone survey of 6,000 Jewish households, including a large sample of cell phones.  

The problem is no one here wants to pay the estimated $1 million to $1.5 million that a thorough population study would cost, and no organization has stepped up to make it a priority. 

Is that because we can’t find $1 million to spend wisely? Or is it that we have become a community where each group looks after itself, and no one else really counts?

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