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The Jewish Press of Tampa and the Jewish Press of Pinellas County are Independently- owned biweekly Jewish community newspapers published in cooperation with and supported by the Tampa JCC & Federation and the Jewish Federation of Pinellas & Pasco Counties, respectively. Copyright © 2009-2018 The Jewish Press Group of Tampa Bay, Inc., All Rights Reserved.


 

February 9, 2018  RSS feed
Front Page

Text: T T T

Pinellas/Pasco Jewish community is all over the map

By BOB FRYER Jewish Press

The Jews of Pinellas and Pasco counties are everywhere and nowhere.

When people consider moving here, it is not unusual for them to call Jewish institutions here and ask, “Where are the Jewish neighborhoods?”

Those of us already here know that the answer is “there aren’t any” – at least none with really high concentrations of Jews like we remember back home in Skokie, the Lower East Side or on vacation in Miami Beach.

There are about 23,450 Jews living in Pinellas County and 4,450 in Pasco County. Over the two-county area, Jews comprise just 1.9 percent of the total population, slightly below the national average of 2.1 percent.

While some neighborhoods do have higher concentrations of Jewish households, the recently completed 2017 Pinellas/Pasco Jewish Population Study concluded that “the Jewish population of Pinellas/Pasco is geographically dispersed and that there is no ‘core area’ of Jewish settlement” here. No similar demographics study has been done in Hillsborough County.

The point of the study was not to learn what Jews here already knew, but to determine just how many Jews are out there, where we live, how “Jewish” we are in terms of synagogue membership or participation in Jewish religious or cultural activities, how philanthropic we are, and what our needs are.

The study was commissioned by the Jewish Federation of Pinellas and Pasco Counties and Gulf Coast Jewish Family & Community Services and conducted by Ira Sheskin, chair of the University of Miami Department of Geography. Sheskin has done scores of demographic studies of Jewish communities throughout the nation and did the last comprehensive study in Pinellas, in 1994.

Painting a picture

The findings of the 2017 study not only provides a picture of today’s Jewish community here, but also tells us how we have changed from 1994 and how we stack up to Jewish communities throughout the United States.

Sheskin told the Jewish Press, he found the 2017 study “depressing.” If you are looking for the utopian Jewish community, it is certain you won’t find it here.

When compared to other Jewish communities, the Pinellas-Pasco Jewish community is older, less religious and less philanthropic than many, Sheskin said.

“You want people to feel connected to the place, but no one feels connected here,” he told a community presentation on the survey results. Without certain communal facilities like a JCC or day school, “there is a lack of a central Jewish community,” Sheskin said.

One thing Sheskin had never seen in a demographic study before was that the number of Jewish households went up, while the overall number of Jews actually went down by 1,750 since 1994. As a way to explain this phenomena, Sheskin said, “The community got older so there are fewer Jews per household. Also, there is more intermarriage.”

Though the study showed a high percent of folks who identified as “Just Jewish” and did not seem to be engaged with, or sometimes not even aware of, local Jewish institutions, he said the fact that they would spend up to 45 minutes on the phone to participate in the study shows an encouraging degree of connection to their Jewish identity.

The 1,090-page report include hundreds of findings. Among those that stand out: a low percentage of synagogue membership and attendance and a low percentage of those in Jewish households who donate to Jewish organizations.

Findings also show there is a high percentage of intermarried families, a high divorce rate and a low percentage of children up to age 17 living in Jewish households.

One very telling finding: from 1994 to 2017, the median age of local Jews increased from 46 years old to 62 years old.

On the bright side

The report did contain some positives. For instance:

• 98 percent said they were proud to be Jewish, 85 percent said they have a strong sense of belonging to the Jewish people and 70 percent said they have a “special responsibility” to care for Jews in need.

• 81 percent of Jewish households are involved in Jewish activity in that they are either associated with the Jewish community, observe a religious practice, contain a Jewish respondent who attends synagogue services at least once a year, or donated to a Jewish charity in the past year. As good as that figure looks, it was even better at 88 percent in ’94.

• The level of anti-Semitism experienced is appreciably lower now than in 1994. In the case of the 6-17 age bracket, the percentage of those who experienced anti-Semitism dropped from 30 percent in 1994 to just 3 percent in 2017.

• For most age groups, the level of attachment to Israel has increased since ’94.

While some findings may prompt people reading the study to see the glass half empty, Emilie Socash, executive director of the Pinellas/Pasco Federation, found room for optimism.

“The thing that stood out to me was how connected to the Jewish community were those who may not have synagogue affiliations. More than 40 percent attended a Jewish event in the past year and more than 80 percent had done something Jewish in their home. That makes me feel there is a level of Jewish engagement that can grow,” Socash said.

As for whether the findings are good or bad, Socash said, “It is all just data. There is no place for judgment, or even worry; it is all just data.”

Socash said what the data tells her is, “We have the opportunity to be a welcoming and inclusive community, one that is known for offering programs for the reality of our community vs one that is stuck in a belief of how communities should be.”

In regard to the increase in the median age, Socash said, “We have a lot of adults who would appreciate even more activities … We spent a lot of time programming for young families and we need to recognize those adults also need events, programs and services.”

Given how Jews here are scattered throughout the area, Socash said, “We need to go where they are.”

While not ignoring the local Jews already plugged in and engaged in Jewish life, the challenge is to reach out and try to engage the significant number who identified themselves as “Just Jewish” as opposed to particular streams of Judaism such as Orthodox, Conservative or Reform.

Recently the Federation promoted a Hanukkah family event that aimed to be inclusive of all types of families, including LGBT, single parent and intermarried families. The Federation also has held PJ Library events at local public libraries. Given the results of the study, it is likely more attempts like this, to reach those who might not be as likely to show up at a synagogue, will be held, Socash said.

Five “areas of concentration” emerged from recent discussions of the study results: Israel, Jewish culture, demographics, children and education, and public relations. The Federation created committees to address these five topics and it will likely be months before an overall strategic plan is developed to address needs indicated by the study. (See Federation statement on these topics, page 11.)

From a rabbi’s perspective

Understandably, from the perspective of a longtime rabbi in the community, the low percentage of synagogue membership and low percentage of those attending synagogue or other Jewish religious events is not ideal, says Rabbi Gary Klein of Temple Ahavat in Palm Harbor.

He said he was originally okay with the population study being done, but in hindsight feels it revealed little that the local Jewish community did not already know, and that the funds could have been better used to enhance synagogue programming.

In order to build a stronger Jewish community here, he said synagogues need to be the heart of Jewish life and they need to work hard to that end. He also noted that the community has been hurt by the closing of the Pinelals County Jewish Day School in 2010 and the JCC of Pinellas a few years later. Those institutions are the sort that families look for when choosing a community in which to live where to move. But synagogues with strong programming can help mitigate the lack of a JCC and Jewish day school, he said.

“While I am concerned about the trends here and in other communities, I think we have a wonderful community and can sustain it into the future,” Rabbi Klein said, “I think the synagogues play a disproportionate role in sustaining it. I am firmly committed to help make it as vibrant a community as it can be.”

Rabbi Klein said the Federation is “doing a good and appropriate job. They do not need to do more, but I think we need to strengthen our synagogues.”

Federation President Steve Klein noted that the Federation is already working in that direction, “helping expand synagogue programming through innovation grants.”

With the Federation’s lead in completing the first comprehensive demographics study in more than 20 years, Steve Klein said, “So many more firsts will be tackled as we are armed with this new data.”

Socash said, “Doing the survey at a time when the community does not have a JCC and Day School, gives us an interesting perspective about the needs and wants for these type institutions. When we look at the behaviors people reported, the data shows our community wants to gather and to learn together and we need to consider how our entire institutional structure can meet these needs and wants.”

Exploring new models

The Federation is actively exploring models used in other Jewish communities without such institutions, she said. “What we had, did not work, so it would be irresponsible to try to resurrect what we had that did not work. But that does not mean we cannot have what our community needs in the future.”

Does that mean we won’t have have a brick and mortar Day School in the future? Socash would not rule out the possibility of a new Day School, but said “I think the better use of our creative energy is not what could have saved the old model but what we might come up with in the future to meet the needs of the future.” She said she has “a lot of hope and inspiring ideas to examine.”

Two Federation board members voiced ideas as to how to address the study findings.

Toni Rinde feels the study shows the need to create a Jewish identity among children. “Camp, programming, and community involvement shape the Jewish identity of young people in order to assure the endurance and perpetuity of the Jewish people for years to come,” she said.

Louis Orloff pointed to study data that showed many who identified themselves as Jewish are not getting news about the local Jewish community through the Jewish Press. Finding a way to reach those folks, he said, “will help bring our community together and build pride for all that we have.”

To find the full report on the demographics study, go to www.jewishdatabank.org.


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