New wide-ranging survey of US capital shows many area Jews are observant, though few affiliate with religious institutions

By Ben Sales, TOI

TA — Jews in and around the nation’s capital do plenty of Jewish things. Many of them just don’t do those things as members of Jewish institutions.

That’s one of the main takeaways from a wide-ranging survey of Washington, DC-area Jews published this week by the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington. Much of the metro DC Jewish community travels to Israel and follows the news there. Its members may take part in services and observe key Jewish cultural rituals more than the national average. And its young people attend Jewish cultural events.

“There’s a lot more program participation and synagogue attendance than there is membership in synagogues and institutions,” said lead author Janet Krasner Aronson. “One way to view that is that the community offers a lot of ways for people to participate without membership. Another way is that the institutions have not kept up with what people are looking for.”

Conducted by the Steinhardt Social Research Institute and commissioned by the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington, the survey of more than 6,000 took place from May to August of 2017. Aronson’s co-authors are Len Saxe, Matthew Brookner and Matthew Boxer.

Here are five of its biggest takeaways.

The Washington DC area has nearly 300,000 Jews

The Washington DC metropolitan area — defined as the District of Columbia and its Maryland and Virginia suburbs — has seen its Jewish population grow 37 percent over 14 years. In 2003, the area had 215,000 Jews. As of 2017, it has close to 300,000.

Jewish women participate in the Women’s March in Washington DC, January 21, 2017. (Rebecca Stoil/Times of Israel)

That number makes it one of the six largest Jewish communities in the country, around the same size as the Bay Area’s Jewish population (350,000, according to a new study) and Chicagoland (also close to 300,000). The Jewish communities in Southeast Florida and Los Angeles regions both number about half a million people, according to data in the Bay Area study, while the New York City area’s is roughly three times that size, at 1.5 million.

But DC can count on staying power. Although DC might have a reputation as a magnet for 20-somethings in short-term government and research jobs, 60% of Jews have lived in the area for more than 10 years. And only 22% of all Jews have any plans to leave the area.

(Local Jews were surprised to learn that more Jews are now to be found in Northern Virginia, 41%, than suburban Maryland,  37%, or the District, 22%.)

DC Jews are more Democratic than American Jews in general

Americans Jews have a longstanding reputation for voting Democratic. Around 70% of Jews voted for President Barack Obama in 2012 and Hillary Clinton in 2016 — the highest numbers among any religious group. In September, 77% of Jews said they disapproved of President Donald Trump’s job performance. Fifty-four percent of Jews identify as Democrats nationally, while 14% nationwide are Republicans.

But Jews in the DC area are even more Democratic than that. Seventy-two percent of area Jews identify as Democrats, while only 6% identify as Republicans. The remaining 22% are either independent or affiliate with another party. The most Democratic sectors of the Jewish population are 18 to 29 year olds and those older than 65.

In general, the capital is perhaps the most Democratic city in the country. In 2016, more than 90% of local voters voted for Clinton.

They’re especially religious — but don’t belong to synagogue

The paradox of the DC communal study, according to the researchers and Gil Preuss, the CEO of the local Jewish federation, is that while Jews in the area observe rituals and go to Jewish programs at relatively high rates, they’re also relatively unaffiliated with traditional Jewish institutions.

A Kol Nidre service at Adas Israel, Washington’s largest Conservative synagogue (David Polonsky/JTA)

DC-area Jews observe Jewish religious rituals at higher rates than Jews nationwide — though the numbers are not always directly comparable. More than half of DC-area Jews attended High Holiday services, and 20% attend a service at least monthly, while the equivalent numbers nationwide were about 35% and 20%, according to the Pew Research Center’s 2013 study of American Jews.

A third of DC-area Jews keep some kind of kosher, as opposed to 22% of American Jews who say they keep kosher in the home. More than 80% of DC-area Jews attend a Passover seder, as opposed to 70% nationwide (and 50% in the Bay Area, according to the new study).

But Jews in the DC area also affiliate at lower rates than American Jews overall. Nearly 40% of DC Jews are unaffiliated, compared to 30% nationally. Just 27% say Judaism is part of their daily lives.

Five percent of DC-area Jews are Orthodox, 21% Conservative and 29% Reform. Nationally, those numbers are 10% Orthodox, 18% Conservative and 36% Reform.

While 31% of Jews nationally belong to a synagogue, the number is slightly lower in the DC area, at 26%. And within that number, a fifth belong to an independent prayer group or Chabad. A lower percentage of DC Jews give their kids formal Jewish education than do Jews nationwide.

Most of them have been to Israel

In one area, the Jews in and around DC stick out — Israel. Two-thirds have visited the Jewish state, compared with 43% of Jews nationally. A similarly higher number has gone on Birthright’s free 10-day trips to the country.

Participants in a Taglit Birthright program celebrate at an event held at the International Conference Center in Jerusalem on January 14, 2015. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

Beyond that, more than two-fifths of Jews in and around DC follow Israel news at least once a week. A slightly higher percentage of DC-area Jews “very much” have an emotional connection to Israel than the equivalent number nationwide — 34% vs. 30% — though a slightly higher percentage in the DC area also says it has no emotional connection — 14% vs. 10%.

On the peace process, DC Jews lean to the left. Two-thirds support a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, while only 9% oppose the idea. Two-thirds also believe either some or all Israeli West Bank settlements should be dismantled.

Young people are intermarrying — and also staying involved.

The intermarriage rate in the DC area is about the same as it is nationwide — 44% of all Jews are intermarried, including about 60% of younger Jews. But 61% of intermarried couples in and around DC are raising their children Jewish, as opposed to about a third of intermarried couples nationally.

Young Jews in the area are also staying involved in Judaism. While the researchers noted that these figures may be slightly high, the study reports that a majority have gone to at least one Jewish program this year. That includes a whopping 41% who have attended a program at Sixth and I, a historic synagogue and program center in the capital.

“We have the opportunity to present programming, to engage them, to really connect them to each other and to Jewish life,” said Preuss. “Because they’re searching. They’ve already made the statement that they care. The question now is how creative, how open are we, and what do we do?”

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