The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

D.C. area’s Jewish population is booming: Now the third largest in the nation, report says

Rabbi Jonathan Roos blows a shofar in September 2016 for preschool children at Temple Sinai in the District. A study found that just 7 percent of local Jewish children go to Jewish preschool. (Evelyn Hockstein for The Washington Post)

The Jewish community in the Washington region has grown to nearly 300,000 people, according to a new study of the region’s Jews, which paints a complex picture of Jews’ involvement in religious institutions and activities.

The number of Jews in the District and its Maryland and Virginia suburbs has grown by 37 percent since 2003, in a time of significant population growth — about 22 percent — for the region as a whole, according to the report by Brandeis University researchers. But only just over a quarter of Jewish adults belong to a synagogue or a similar Jewish community, and only 15 percent say they feel very connected to the local Jewish community here.

“There are way too many people who may be engaged Jewishly, but it’s on their own,” said Gil Preuss, the chief executive of the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington, which was involved in the study.

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The researchers at Brandeis’s Steinhardt Social Research Institute calculated that 6 percent of all Washington-area residents are Jewish, and that the Jewish community in the region is the third-largest in the United States — in a rough tie with Chicago, but far behind the New York area’s 1.2 million or so Jews and more than 500,000 around Los Angeles, Preuss said.

Since 2003, the Jewish population has shifted, and more Jews are now living in Northern Virginia, especially in Arlington and Alexandria, the study found. Today, 41 percent of the Jewish population in the area lives in Virginia, 37 percent live in Maryland and 22 percent live in the District.

Preuss views that finding as a call for more Jewish offerings in the area, to supplement the local synagogues and the Jewish Community Center in Fairfax. “There are some programs, but not nearly enough given the population,” he said Monday, when the study was released.

The study, which relied on 6,600 surveys of individual respondents and some limited phone sampling in the Washington area, reported local Jews’ political affiliations (72 percent of them are Democrats and 6 percent are Republicans), sexual orientation (7 percent are LGBT) and race (7 percent are nonwhite). It estimated that 2,400 Holocaust survivors live in the Washington area — just 1 percent of the local Jewish population.

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The researchers queried Jews about a variety of religious and cultural practices. Holiday celebrations in the home proved especially popular: 82 percent light Hanukkah candles, and 83 percent attend a Passover Seder.

As previous studies have indicated, Jews who marry outside the faith are less likely to be religiously engaged. The study found that 72 percent of Jewish couples attend High Holy Day services, while 29 percent of intermarried couples do; 52 percent of Jewish couples send their K-to-12-age children to some sort of a Jewish educational institution, such as Sunday school, while 15 percent of intermarried couples do.

This study pointed to the increasing frequency of intermarriage: 53 percent of Jewish adults in the Washington area who are in a relationship have a non-Jewish spouse or partner. The younger the couple, the more likely they are to be in a mixed-religion marriage. While 36 percent of Jews older than 65 in the study are married to non-Jews, about 50 percent of Jews in their 30s and 40s have spouses who are not Jewish, and 61 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds who are married or living with a partner have a non-Jewish partner.

“There’s still very significant engagement by intermarried households in the Jewish community,” Preuss said. “Some of it may not be the typical historical ways that we connect. Some of it we still need to develop as a community — how do different households find community, whether it’s social justice, or learning, or something else? What can we make of the data, and how do we now engage people how they want to be engaged?”

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He said he hopes the region’s Jewish organizations will use this study to reflect on that question. In addition to data, the report includes quotes from many local Jews, who share their frustrations with local institutions.

  • “For those who don’t have much experience with reading and understanding Hebrew, attending services can be very intimidating and turns people away entirely.”
  • “I have never been inspired by what I have heard at my temple. We joined the temple so our two boys could have bar mitzvahs but haven’t participated in Jewish affairs per se for the last 40 years.”
  • “I was raised Jewish but was never really a part of the Jewish community. I married out of my religion and struggle to keep a connection to my culture.”
  • “Young people gathering groups where the vibe is less ‘singles mixers.’ … I’d like something more substantive that was tied to a synagogue so I could begin to form a community rather than seeing new faces every time.”
  • “If you don’t have a partner or children, it’s hard to feel connected to the community. Something that crosses generations. Something that isn’t designed only for matures, singles, under 40, with kids, or without kids. Something that crosses the various divides.”

Others were quoted praising many aspects of the local Jewish programming.

“For me, I would love to be able to have a community where every single member of the Jewish community feels they are part of some Jewish community, some group with others,” Preuss said. “Because Judaism seems to be a religion, to be a people, that you do with others. It’s not something on your own.”

The researchers characterized only 14 percent of the local Jewish community as “minimally involved,” pointing out instead that some people are very engaged with perhaps Jewish culture or Jewish holidays even if they’re not involved in religious observances.

One strong theme in the local community points to the public-service focus of Washington. The region’s Jews seem to have particularly picked up on the Jewish teaching of tikkun olam, the responsibility to repair the world. In the Washington area, 81 percent of Jews (compared with 69 percent nationally) said that “leading a moral and ethical life” is essential to being Jewish. And 63 percent (again, above the national average) said that “working for justice and equality” is an essential part of the faith.

They’re living up to those ideals: In the past year, 87 percent gave to charity, including 51 percent who gave to a Jewish organization that serves the local area. And 41 percent of Jewish adults did volunteering in the past month.

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