The Real Jewish Geography

By Alex Joffe
Friday, November 16, 2012

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? 

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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