St. Louis Jews are looking to the future, trying to determine how they’re going to thrive in the coming years.
So for the first time in two decades, the community invested in an in-depth study examining the strengths and weaknesses of Jewish life in the region.
The results point to some surprising findings, including the growth of the St. Louis area’s Jewish community, as well as the number who are struggling financially. Meanwhile, observances of many Jewish rituals are in decline.
The study — based on approximately 1,000 phone interviews conducted last year of Jewish households — was prepared by Jewish Policy and Action Research group, which focuses on Jewish community population studies. Researchers compared the results of the study to data compiled from an earlier 1995 study.
Steven M. Cohen, a research professor at Hebrew Union College Jewish Institute of Religion, said the underlying question of the results is, “How do we make Judaism relevant?”
Cohen presented the study at a community forum Wednesday at Congregation Temple Israel in Creve Coeur hosted by the Jewish Federation of St. Louis. The results were formally released Thursday.
GROWTH AND MARRIAGE
The study found that both the number of Jews and Jewish households in the region has grown in the last 20 years, with approximately 61,000 and 33,000 respectively, an increase of 14 percent and 34 percent.
Part of the reason for the growth of Jewish households, meaning at least one member of the family identifies as Jewish, is due to the rise of intermarriage. That is, more Jews are marrying non-Jews.
The study also found that like the general population, Jews are marrying later in life: 60 percent of those ages 18 to 34 are single, while 70 percent of those ages 35 to 49 are married. The rise in the number of singles contributed to the growth in households, because researchers counted each Jewish individual living alone as a household.
The study, however, also pointed out that only 27 percent of intermarried couples raise their children exclusively Jewish. An additional 18 percent of intermarried couples raise their children as partly Jewish.
In contrast, 88 percent of inmarried couples — that is, where both partners are Jewish — raise their children as Jewish.
Inmarried couples are also more likely to belong to a synagogue than intermarried couples. According to the survey, 72 percent of inmarried couples belong to a synagogue, while only 26 percent of intermarried couples do.
According to the study, there have been relatively few Jewish newcomers to the region: Only 11 percent of all respondents had moved to the area since 2004.
On the flip side, few are leaving. The majority — 55 percent — were born in St. Louis. Researchers described the St. Louis Jewish community as “stable,” noting that 73 percent of participants said they had no plans to move away from the region. Most of the region’s Jews live in Creve Coeur, Chesterfield or University City.
But a significant number of Jewish households are struggling financially. Researchers estimated that 26 percent of Jewish households are “poor” or “near poor.”
Twenty-four percent of households reported that they were either “just managing” financially or “cannot make ends meet.” Nine percent said they were making $25,000 or less.
Many of those struggling financially — 25 percent of poor Jewish households and 28 percent of near-poor Jewish households — had skipped meals or cut the size of their meals because of concerns over money.
More Jews are nondenominational, referring to themselves as “just Jewish”: 47 percent identify as Reform, 20 percent as Conservative, 5 percent as Orthodox, and 21 percent as “just Jewish.”
The study also found that certain Jewish rituals are being practiced less often. A fewer number of Jews, for example, light candles on shabbat, the weekly day of rest that is a centerpiece of Jewish life.
At the same time, however, Jews, especially those who are young, report a strong attachment to Israel, as well as other specific religious practices: 47 percent of respondents ages 18 to 34 reported feeling very attached to Israel. Within that same age group, 77 percent also fast during Yom Kippur, the yearly day of atonement.
The Jewish community in the St. Louis region is evenly divided on the question of whether Israeli leaders are “making a sincere effort to bring about a peace settlement with the Palestinians.” Thirty-four percent answered “yes” to the question, but an equal number disagreed.
The study found that the Jewish community is philanthropic, with 91 percent of respondents reporting they had recently contributed to a charitable cause.
Leah Bernstein, 46, a nonprofit consultant from Olivette who attended the forum at Temple Israel, said she hoped the study would help “refine where the priorities really are” for the Jewish community, especially in terms of improving the quality of life for members.