Monday, September 28, 2020 -
Print Edition

Inflating the Jewish population count

It’s not the dollars. It’s not the adjectives (‘thriving,’ ‘growing’), it’s the actual number of Jews.

There’s a lot of head scratching these days in Northern California’s East Bay. How does success fail? How does a century-old Jewish agency that supposedly served 122,000 people suddenly find itself unable to serve even one of them? What’s going on?

The Jewish federation serving Northern California’s East Bay will dissolve on July 1. “Core” programs and operations will be absorbed into the San Francisco Jewish Community Federation and Endowment Fund. So much for the Alameda, Contra Costa, Napa and Solano counties sustaining their own federation, which has “struggled,” despite a “growing” Jewish population and “thriving” synagogues. Something doesn’t add up.

Quite literally.

Supposedly, the San Francisco Bay Area has the fourth largest Jewish community in the US, with 350,000 Jews and 148,000 households. Supposedly, 122,000 of those counted live in Alameda, Contra Costa and Solano Counties.

Note: 350,000 Jews and 148,000 households — not 148,000 Jewish households. Those 148,000 households contain 123,000 non-Jews. In a nutshell, the reason why the East Bay federation cannot sustain itself, and why the Contra Costa County JCC abruptly closed in 2011, and why the Tehiyah Jewish Day School north of Berkeley shuttered last year, and why the East Bay’s “largest”Jewish senior residence and assisted living center announced last March that it would be taken over later this year by a nondenominational nonprofit — the reason for all this is artificially inflated Jewish demography.

We don’t have the people we say we have.

We don’t know the true numbers.

Because we count anybody.

Somehow, the artificially larger numbers make us feel good; supposedly in order to enable us to sustain our institutions. The reality is just the  opposite. Lacking a sober, realistic count of Jews, we don’t know how much to spend, how much to build, how much to save. Lest developments in San Francisco fall subject to this kind of rose-colored- glasses demography, the CEO of the San Francisco federation put it plain:

“It’s not a merger, because it’s not two organizations coming together. One is going out of business, and the other is saying, ‘how can we work together?’”

The one organization that is going out of business, the East Bay federation, is transferring $136 million in managed assets and operations. It’s a lot of money. But the money didn’t make a difference.

Because there weren’t a lot of people, Jewish people.

This is a sad tale repeated all over the US. Fundraising is “up.” Endowments are in the billions. The Jewish population is “growing.” Everything is “thriving.” We have fallen for smoke-and-mirrors.

We have forgotten so many basics, such as:

• Demographic counts limited to Jews; not including people whom we wish were Jews or who could be Jews or who we think we should serve as if they were Jews;

• Hebrew literacy;

• Jewish environments. So many of our institutions, in a misunderstanding of what it is to be Jewishly welcoming, decided to open membership to the world, all the while expecting that in such environments Jewish kids would be encouraged to date and marry Jewish kids.  So far gone is this expectation that we have convinced ourselves that it is “inevitable” that Jews will marry out and “there is nothing we can do about it.”

Still more: Many say that there is nothing we even need to do about it because we are stronger for the increased numbers. Tell that to the East Bay federation and all of the institutions there that have folded or drastically weakened there — despite very impressive balance sheets.

It is, of course, difficult to sustain Jewish identity, commitment, life and observance in our unprecedentedly open society. But it is downright impossible if we kid ourselves into thinking that good fundraising and demographic studies that count anybody will sustain the Jewish people.

We cannot be a welcoming people without preserving our numbers and our nature. This requires careful nurture and a degree of Jewishly concentrated attention, only after which we can — and do — populate the many socially contributory professions, from medicine to social work.

The East Bay Federation began in 1918. It was a venerable organization. Just before it folds, it will mark its centennial, at a June 19 “celebration.”

Beware, be sober, be Jewish and not just in name or demographic count, lest many more such “celebrations” become American Jewish destiny.

Copyright © 2019 by the Intermountain Jewish News

Leave a Reply