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The Real Jewish Geography

If demography is destiny, geography is the stage on which destiny is played out.  A new series of high resolution maps, produced by geographer Joshua Comenetz of for the Mandell L. Berman Institute North American Jewish Data Bank, provide a view of American Jewish life that is seemingly familiar—but, beneath the surface, spread unevenly across the 50 states. What do these maps tells us about where the American Jewish future lies? 

Relevant Links
The Book of Numbers  Lawrence Grossman, Jewish Ideas Daily. Jewish ambivalence about demography goes back to the Bible. And while the dean of contemporary Jewish population studies has none of the usual hang-ups, he grants that Jewish numbers are indeed in trouble.
New York Jews: Growing in Numbers, Growing Apart  Leslie Lenkowsky, Jewish Ideas Daily. The good news is that New York’s Jewish population is rising again. The bad news is that this population is becoming increasingly needy. 

Earlier compilations were more limited.  The Census Bureau’s American Community Survey, for example, records languages like Yiddish and Hebrew and birthplaces like Israel, but not religion.  Previous maps have relied on more general sources, like the American Jewish Year Book and surveys of communities that identify themselves as including Jews.  But Comenetz, using sources like the American Community Survey and the North American Jewish Data Bank, along with his own thoughtful inferences, for the first time reconstructs the distribution of Jews across the United States down to the level of 3,200 counties.  His picture of the Jewish population in the United States and Puerto Rico is a pointillist one. 

At the most general level, the maps are familiar, reflecting well-known migratory history.  Most Jews are clustered along the coasts, from Washington D.C. to Boston and from San Diego to San Francisco, with smaller populations around Portland and Seattle.  There are clusters around the old industrial heartland: Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Detroit, Chicago, St. Louis, Minneapolis.  There are the more recent migrations, following the sun and new opportunities to Atlanta, Denver, Phoenix, Dallas, Houston and, of course, Florida.  In all, there are 22 urban areas each of which has over 40,000 Jews; 13 have over 100,000.  But is this really Jewish America? 

Historical comparisons are revealing. In 1960 the American Jewish Year Book estimated the American Jewish population at 5.37 million.  Comenetz’s present figure of 6.74 million will no doubt be controversial because it is so high—but the total U.S. population was 179 million in 1960 and grew to 310 million by 2011. At the broadest level, American Jews have very nearly chosen not to reproduce. 

Beyond raw numbers, there is literal Jewish geography.  In 1960 there were 110,000 Jews in all of Florida; today there are that many in Miami-Dade County alone.  But what of the 22,000 Jews who lived in Kansas City, Missouri in 1960? Today in the four counties around Kansas City there are perhaps 5000 Jews.  Or the 150 Jews of Ardmore, Oklahoma in 1960, whose Temple Emeth, founded in 1890, was the first synagogue in the state?  Today there are only two Jews in the whole county; Temple Emeth was dissolved in 2004, its records transferred to the American Jewish Archive. 

Thus, Comenetz’s maps and data invite a deeper look, transporting us into private realms—historical contingencies revolving around myriad individual decisions to come, stay, and move on.  Lee Country in eastern Alabama has some 30 Jews, no doubt connected to Auburn University and Congregation Beth Shalom.  But why does Barry County in western Michigan have no Jews, while there are some 1,500 in neighboring Kalamazoo County to the south?  Why do Jews, tumbling across landscapes, accumulate in some places like grains of sand while others are swept nearly clean? 

History can perhaps explain why Jews are live all across New York State, from 561,000 in Kings County—Brooklyn—to nine in Allegheny County in the state’s southwest.  But what kinds of lives, Jewish and otherwise, do the 100 Jews in Livingston County, New York live, or the 50 in Stewart County, Tennessee? What do they bring to their neighbors and communities, as individuals or Jews?  Conversely, what does it mean for Comanche County, Texas or Roberts County, South Dakota that there are no Jews at all?  Such questions turn two-dimensional data into lives, communities, and politics that affect all Jews and Americans. 

The issue is hardly just anthropological curiosity.  For one thing, the data demand that we break free of American Jewish life’s stultifying emphasis on coasts and urban centers.  American Jewish lives are everywhere, and the sparks of communal life are found in places that only the parochial find inexplicable. But the policy implications are equally significant: how often are Jews outside the populous centers considered, much less brought into the larger American Jewish conversation?  Is it condescending even to ask why these Jews live where they do? 

In a still larger sense, individual geography shapes collective destiny.  There is, for example, the question of critical mass.  Jewish culture cannot be easily sustained or reproduced indefinitely even by the most determined individuals or families.  Social reproduction requires schools, synagogues, and kosher food. One can order kosher food from the Internet and perhaps, one day, participate in a minyan the same way. But over time, can individuals or tiny communities sustain Jewish distinctiveness?  American Jewish history suggests not; but the population numbers suggest that this is not always the paramount goal of either urban or rural dwellers. 

Then, there is the Jewish relationship with America and Americans at large.  The fact that most Jews are essentially restricted to two dozen urban centers means they will remain out of touch with the rest of Americans, who will be equally ignorant of Jews.  Perhaps there will be a renewed cycle of Jewish migrations to small town America, like those of 150 and 100 years ago ago—though this would run counter to the larger geographic trends that are emptying rural America.  The more likely scenario is an ever more intense clustering of Jews in the pressure cookers of an expanding urban and suburban America, where some 80 percent of Americans now live.  There, Jewish assimilation and intermarriage proceed apace, along with the ethnic balkanization and interest group politics of which Jews have a shrinking share. 

The geographic data may also place the tired question of American Jewish politics in a new light.  Norman Podhoretz famously asked whether liberalism was the new religion of American Jews.  The geography, however, suggests that American Jews are liberal because, at least in part, they adopt the predominant values of the communities in which they live.  Whether such extreme concentration is politically or spiritually healthy for Jews and for America is an open question. 

There are no guaranteed formulas for Jewish survival in America.  Such survival will be possible only if Jewish survival becomes a Jewish value that transcends geography. 

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KC on November 16, 2012 at 1:27 am (Reply)
Just wanted to make a comment about Kansas City. The data you link to estimates that Johnson County, Kansas alone has 15,000 Jews, 10,000 more than the number you give for the '4 counties surrounding Kansas City'. The KC metro officially comprises about 15 counties and Johnson County is by no means peripheral. It is the fastest growing county in the area, the second largest county in the metro, and the largest suburban county (it's second only to Jackson County, MO). The question of what happened to KC's Jewish community, therefore is not a difficult one to answer: just as Jews moved from the Lower East Side and the Bronx to Long Island, North Jersey, and Westchester, KC's Jews moved to Johnson County.
Sadder But Wiser on November 16, 2012 at 10:20 am (Reply)
A Jew can live in a cluster within one of the 2 dozen urban centers, live the life of an Orthodox Jew, yet totally interact with non-Jewish society - and become acculturated by that non-Jewish society. At the same time that Jew is affecting those Jews and non-Jews with whom he interacts. This will increase the probability of his progeny remaining Jewish. What form that future Judaism takes, will be written about by future historians, sociologists, demographers and even Rabbis.
Izak B. Dimenstein on November 16, 2012 at 11:43 am (Reply)
Besides the question of the difficulty of every demographic statistic such as the unit of count, Jewish demography has inherited weakness such as the perennial question: Who is Jewish? Is there a difference between Jewish and Jew? If we let alone these almost unsolvable questions, one point of the article can be emphasized. Yes, “perhaps there will be a renewed cycle of Jewish migrations” but it will not be to small towns like 100 years ago. Middle size cities where intellectual and business life is not less intensive that in two dozen urban areas. Why would Jews live in the decay of Detroit, when they have a better and safer life in, already mentioned, Kalamazoo in western Michigan area that has a developed pharmaceutical and biotechnology industry?
Moving from Chicago suburb, I live just 100 miles north, in Grand Rapids, another middle size city of West Michigan, where you can find a quit intensive Jewish life independent of religious affiliation coordinated by Jewish Federation of Grand Rapids.
Jews will not go to disappearing rural places, but migration away from large urban areas will continue, especially keeping in mind the oncoming four years of expansion of the welfare state, predominately in large urban areas.
guest on November 17, 2012 at 2:00 pm (Reply)
It's amazing that this map says 6.7 million, while the Economist says 5.2 million.

The map it'self also seems wrong. I know for a fact that there are more than 100,00 0 Jews in Orange and San Diego county in California.
I also know that the greater Los Angeles area, and greater San Diego area do NOT touch eachother like the map implies.
Michael G. Dworkin on November 17, 2012 at 9:57 pm (Reply)
As a suburban Detroiter, I don't know of very many Jews who have moved to Kalamazoo, but I do know that besides the pharmaceutical industry, Kalamzaoo is home to Western Michigan University and Kalamazoo College and a soon-to-be medical school, as well, which help explain why there are as many Jews in the area as reported in this article.
charles hoffman on November 18, 2012 at 1:39 am (Reply)
Critical mass - that which is needed to carry on Jewish communal life with a large enough population to self-sustain and to provide sufficient variety of life and sufficient opportunities for social interaction and maintaining institutions.

A community which isn't large enough to maintain and populate at least one day-school and at least 2 or 3 synagogues will rarely be capable of attracting newer members in their family-formation years, nor will it be able to keep its 20s and 30s as their opportunities for life-partners are constrained.
Jeff Salkin on November 18, 2012 at 12:19 pm (Reply)
While I agree with the overall thrust of this article and found the maps sobering and fascinating, I believe that there are many errors in the study. For example, the spread sheet says that there are no Jews in Harris County, Georgia. Not so fast. I know at least ten of them. Yes, ten is closer to zero than, say, twenty or a hundred or a thousand, but I wonder how many other inaccuracies there are in this county by county Jewish population count. While this does not change the overall thrust of the demographic issue, and it does show that the preeminent populations of American Judaism are, by and large, located in twenty discreet communities, I am worried about other inaccuracies in the study. That said, I will also affirm the heroism of Jews in small towns and isolated counties who do whatever is humanly possible to maintain their Jewish traditions and create some semblance of community.
mlurie on November 19, 2012 at 11:26 am (Reply)
This piece has been updated to correctly state Joshua Comenetz's affiliation. -- The Editors
E. Grumi on January 26, 2013 at 4:12 pm (Reply)
The largest Jewish Community between Chicago and Southern California is the St. Louis one.
Bit of a hidden secret. I lived there for a couple of years and found it very welcoming, friendly people, and quite traditional, more so than elsewhere.

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