Population Study Finds Jewish Community Growth

Roughly 64,800 Jews make up the Twin Cities Jewish community, a sharp increase from 2004-era estimates of 40,000 people, according to the newly-released Jewish population study commissioned by the Minneapolis and St. Paul Jewish Federations. 

Minneapolis still holds the edge over St. Paul, with more than half of the total Jewish population — and of the 34,500 Jewish households in the Twin Cities area — concentrated in Minneapolis and its nearest suburbs. (Households are Jewish if they include at least one Jewish adult.)

The rest of the Jewish community is distributed evenly across St. Paul, its nearest suburbs, and the outer suburbs of the Twin Cities. The study covers the area of Hennepin, Scott, Carver, Wright, Sherburne, Anoka, Ramsey, Dakota, and Washington counties.

The study, funded mostly by the Harry Kay Charitable Foundation and managed by the Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies at Brandeis University, is based on survey data collected in late 2019 from 3,326 respondents. (The Harry Kay Charitable Foundation is a funder of TC Jewfolk’s parent organization, Jewfolk, Inc.)

The respondents were reached by mail, phone, and email from a master list of contact information provided by Jewish institutions.

On the whole, the study shows a community firmly in the norm of Jewish trends across the country. Roughly half of adults are intermarried. Institutional affiliation is low, but Jewish identification is high. And data is provided on Jewish economic security and health needs that have likely been exacerbated since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic.

To define who is a Jew, the study took a broad perspective, said lead researcher, Dr. Janet Aronson, on Thursday morning, speaking on a Zoom call organized by the Harry Kay Center for Leadership Excellence. 

The study included “essentially anyone who identifies as Jewish,” Aronson said. No one definition of Judaism was given weight over another. 

“Some [respondents] say their religion is Jewish, some of them say their ethnicity is Jewish,” she said. “And in addition, they have one Jewish parent or more. They were raised Jewish or they converted to Judaism.”

The effect of intermarriage is clearly visible in the data. The Twin Cities Jewish community grows to 88,400 people when counting the non-Jews living in Jewish households.

And out of all households, 7% include someone with a Russian-speaking background; 9% include at least one LGBTQ individual; and another 7% include at least one person of color — none of whom are necessarily Jewish. 

Almost half of all children being raised Jewish in the Twin Cities area have intermarried parents (36% are being raised by in-married parents, with the other 17% growing up with single parents).

Though intermarriage is often blamed for the erosion of the Jewish community, most Jews, regardless of their marital status, are simply not affiliated with communal institutions. 

Just 23% of Jewish households pay dues to a synagogue. Four percent of Jewish households belong to a JCC. 

Among children, 9% of age-eligible Jews attend a Jewish preschool, and 12% go to a Jewish summer overnight camp. 

And less than half of all Jewish adults went to a synagogue service or program during the previous year. Many said they faced barriers in connecting with the local community, most commonly “not finding interesting activities” and “not knowing many people.” 

In particular, Jews who didn’t grow up in the Twin Cities area criticized the cliquiness of the local community. 

One anonymous respondent is quoted in the study saying, “We find the community here is largely of people with deep roots in the community, and they are a bit insular…we often feel like outsiders.”

Another quoted respondent was blunter: “Although we have been here for a long time, we often hear ‘you’re not from here are you?’” they said. “How long do you have to live in a place to be from that place?”

Notably, about half of the adults in the Jewish community were raised in the Twin Cities area. 

But Jews are still doing Jewish things, even without institutional or communal affiliation. Eighty percent of adults light Hannukah candles, and 72% host or attend a Passover seder. Over half celebrate Shabbat in some form, either with a meal or by lighting the Shabbat candles. And 42% of Jewish adults fast on Yom Kippur.

Alongside data about Jewish affiliation and attitudes toward the community, the population survey also covers economic and health trends. It’s here that the needs of Jews in the Twin Cities area, beyond community and spirituality, are visible. 

In 2019, thirty-one percent of Jewish households didn’t have enough savings to cover three months’ worth of expenses, an indicator of how close families are to poverty. Seven percent would be unable to pay for an unexpected $400 expense. 

Roughly a third of Jews with pre-college children worried about paying for college, and a little under a third of Jewish adults worried about saving enough money for retirement. 

“Economic anxiety is present,” said Dr. Leonard Saxe, director of the Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies, on the Harry Kay Zoom call on Thursday morning.

“I think what the study does is help you appreciate that traditional ways of looking at economic issues, ‘how many people are poor,’ doesn’t really tell you what’s happening in the community,” he said.

“The need to understand economic issues in the community…has been underscored by what’s happening in the pandemic, which has pushed those people who were living on the edge into a very difficult situation. And the community is going to have to think about how it wants to respond.”

But that response — to any of the trends outlined — will be with little guidance from the Brandeis researchers, beyond the data in the population study. Jewish leaders have to evaluate what’s happening in the Jewish community on their own, Saxe said.

The study is “about describing who you are. It’s not about evaluating how good or not good the community is. It’s designed to provide information,” he said.

“We’re not trying to give you a prescription of what you should do, it really is about empowerment.”

For more information, read the full report here.