Survey seeks updated look at Jewish population of S. Jersey

Celebrating "My Jewish Pop," the first survey of South Jersey's Jewish population in 22 years, are, (from left) Ronit Boyd, Ed Rivnik, Jennifer Dubrow-Weiss, and Judy Love.
Celebrating "My Jewish Pop," the first survey of South Jersey's Jewish population in 22 years, are, (from left) Ronit Boyd, Ed Rivnik, Jennifer Dubrow-Weiss, and Judy Love. (TOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer)
Posted: October 08, 2013

The last time a study was done on the Jewish population in South Jersey was 1991. That survey led to increased services for children and adults with special needs, and the development of a senior living center for older Jewish residents, Lions Gate, in Voorhees.

A survey now underway attempts to provide real data - not just anecdotes - on where the local Jewish population lives, prays, how they marry, and what services they need most.

"The [Jewish] population has changed in 22 years," said Debbie Ret, 50, of Franklin Township, Gloucester County, president of Congregation B'nai Tikvah-Beth Israel in Sewell. "Where people live has changed, but the people themselves have changed, too."

Ret, a physical therapist, recently took the survey online, My Jewish Pop, being administered by the Jewish Federation of Southern New Jersey.

There will be town-hall meetings in December with synagogue leaders after results have been analyzed and tabulated.

The federation, an umbrella organization of nonprofits and agencies that provide services to the community, said response to the monthlong survey, which started Sept. 9, so exceeded expectations, especially among Jewish seniors, that it was extended a week to Oct. 11. The extension was also arranged to get enough responses from Gloucester County.

"We have a lot of assumptions," said federation planning director Ronit Boyd, "but you can't write grants or fund programs to create programs based on assumptions.

"It's like working in the dark," she said. "We are going to turn the light on."

Michele Ettinger, chair of the federation's Jewish population study, said the survey aims to uncover household demographics, migration, and behavioral patterns, among other trends, of Jews in Burlington, Camden, and Gloucester Counties. Data will be shared with local synagogues, day schools, and other organizations and will be key to the federation's strategic planning.

"We hope to . . . ascertain social service needs, launch or sunset programs," Ettinger said.

The survey coincides with the Pew Research Center's Religion and Public Life Project, which on Tuesday released findings of its own national survey that showed a major shift in identity among Jews in the United States.

Jews make up about 2.2 percent of the American population, according to the Pew report. Of those, 1.8 percent identify themselves as Jewish by religion, and 0.4 percent by other factors.

The Pew report found more Jews were marrying outside their faith (58 percent); among non-Orthodox Jews, the figure was 71 percent, two-thirds did not belong to a synagogue, and one out of four did not believe in God.

The growing trend toward secularism is impacting the next generation, said the report, with two-thirds of "Jews of no religion" who have children not raising them Jewish.

In New Jersey, 4.9 percent of the population is Jewish, according to a new population study the Pew Report relied on - the American Jewish Population Project - by the Steinhardt Social Research Institute at Brandeis University.

About 23,000 adult Jews live in Burlington, Camden, and Gloucester Counties, according to the study. Total Jewish population in the tricounty area is estimated at 38,000 to 45,000.

In Pennsylvania, Jewish households make up 2 percent of the state's population, according to the study.

"Nationally, in general, Jews are highly concentrated in a few metropolitan areas," said Leonard Saxe, director of the Steinhardt Institute. "Eighty percent of the Jewish population lives in 10 states, and they're mostly coastal states around the largest metropolitan areas, such as New York, Boston, and Philadelphia."

Though Jews, particularly young adults, tend to migrate to urban areas for jobs and housing, "It's very difficult to discern patterns at the county level," Saxe said.

Boyd said the hope was that the My Jewish Pop survey would serve as the local version of the Pew report.

Ret, for instance, answered the question, "Would your spouse consider themselves to be Jewish?" in the negative. "My husband is not Jewish."

Jim Ret, 50, doesn't consider himself to be of any particular faith, but he was raised Methodist. The couple reflected the growing national trend of interfaith marriages among Jews.

"About a third of my congregation members are in interfaith marriages," Debbie Ret said. "Partly, its more acceptable.

"I was raised in a very nonobservant family," she said, "so at the time that I was getting married, it was not that important to me that my husband be Jewish."

Of more concern to her, however, is that there are not enough places in South Jersey to buy kosher foods at supermarkets or restaurants.

"They are all in Cherry Hill," she said. "It's an hour drive for me to get to Cherry Hill."

The federation hired the Melior Group, a research marketing firm in Philadelphia, to develop and administer the survey and conduct the statistical analysis.

Nearly 2,000 have taken the survey. Participants took either the online survey or called in to a survey center. Boyd said the Oct. 11 extension only applied to the online survey.

"The population has not grown much, but there's been a migration," Boyd said of early trends. "There's a larger Jewish population in Burlington County."

Boyd said that as data were still being collected, she could not draw conclusions yet on why that was.

Shari Shapiro, 30, a stay-at-home mother from Voorhees and a volunteer for the federation, took the survey and hoped it would yield answers.

"The Jewish used to be on the west side of Camden County, then they migrated more east," said Shapiro, "and now, we don't know where they are going."

The survey can be taken at www.myjewishpop.com.


sparmley@phillynews.com

856-779-3928 @SuzParmley

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