Los Angeles’ Jewish community--the third-largest in the world--now numbers just over 519,000, with steady migration from around the nation and the world offsetting a relatively low birthrate, according to the first census of the area’s Jewish population in nearly two decades.
While migration has helped keep the area’s Jewish population steady since the late 1970s, the Jewish community’s center of gravity has increasingly moved westward over the past 20 years.
While longtime Jewish neighborhoods in the San Fernando Valley and on the Westside continue to have the biggest concentrations of Jewish residents, some of the fastest-growing areas of Jewish population are now in the Conejo Valley and Simi Valley in eastern Ventura County and the South Bay, according to the study.
The population of the Fairfax District, for instance, slipped from 75,000 in 1979 to 55,000 in 1997. Over the same period, the total population in the west San Fernando Valley more than doubled, from 19,000 to 40,000, while that of the South Bay tripled, from 5,000 to 17,000. Just across the Ventura County line, Simi Valley and the Conejo Valley now boast 38,000 Jews. In 1979, the Jewish populations in those Ventura County areas were so small that the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles did not bother to take a count.
The population survey was conducted in 1997 by the Jewish Federation, but not released until now. It covers the area served by the Jewish Federation, which is most of Los Angeles County and a portion of eastern Ventura County. The population count of 519,151 is up 3.6% from the 500,869 in the 1979 survey.
The totals do not include Jews in the Long Beach and San Gabriel Valley areas, which are served by separate Jewish federations, nor Jews in Riverside and Orange counties. Including those communities would increase the area’s Jewish population to an estimated 590,000.
While the number of Jews has stabilized, the general Los Angeles population has continued to grow--meaning the proportion of Jews in the Los Angeles area is now 5.5%, down from 7% in 1980.
The survey paints a portrait of a Jewish community that is better educated and wealthier than the region’s non-Jewish populations. It is also graying, with one in five Jews in the region now older than 65--nearly twice the level found in 1979.
Perhaps partly because of the aging of the population, the percentage of area Jews affiliated with a synagogue has also gone up. The study found 34% of area Jews belong to a synagogue, up from 25% in 1979. The figure is lower than the 41% of Jews nationwide who are synagogue members, but is similar to the 38% of non-Jews in West Coast states who report in surveys that they belong to a church.
Among the major branches of Judaism, the number of Orthodox households declined from 5.2% to 4.3% of the overall population. The proportion of Conservative households also dropped, from 33.9% to 28.2%.
Reform households grew, from 37.2% to 39.9%. Reconstructionists also saw an increase, from less than 1% to 2%.
Unique among major American religious groups, Jews in most large American cities subject themselves to such surveys on a recurring basis. Almost always they are conducted by regional Jewish federations, which serve in each metropolitan area as an umbrella fund-raising agency for an extensive social service network.
The primary aim of the census is to provide facts and figures for those who decide which charities and community projects receive money the Jewish community raises for charity each year.
In 1997, the Los Angeles federation raised $42.7 million; more than half the money is used locally, the rest in efforts to aid Jews in Israel and nearly five dozen other countries.
But the census also serves a secondary need--a particularly Jewish one. As the authors of the survey put it in an introduction to their results, Jews “have an intense curiosity and a strongly felt need to know who we are as a Jewish community.”
“I would say who we are and where we’re going,” adds Gary Greenebaum, a former member of the Los Angeles Police Commission and a rabbi who serves as head of the local office of the American Jewish Committee.
“My sense is that we conduct these surveys as much out of fear as curiosity. We worry whether our numbers are declining or if we’re assimilating away.”
Along those lines, the survey found that in addition to the “core” population of 519,151 Jews, there are another 70,668 non-Jews who live in Jewish households and 29,154 people who have Jewish backgrounds but either practice other religions or are being raised in other religions.
While those two groups are not included in the survey’s analysis of the Jewish community, experts say it would be foolhardy to ignore them.
“That’s a number that needs to be taken seriously,” said Daniel Gordis, a rabbi and a dean at the University of Judaism in Bel-Air. “One in six people is in at least a partially Jewish household in this survey. That would have been unthinkable 75 years ago.”
“There once was a Jewish world and a non-Jewish world. That boundary has been blurred,” he added. “The implications of that--for outreach, for Jewish laws, for synagogue membership, for programming, for spiritual journeys--are profound.”
The population count is based on a year’s worth of polling--more than 60,000 telephone calls--that focused upon 2,640 Jewish households whose members agreed to answer a detailed questionnaire. The totals were extrapolated from the polling data following standards set by a 1990 nationwide survey of Jews.
The survey’s authors, led by principal researcher Pini Herman, point out the totals do not--actually, cannot--include every Jew in the area. The poll carries a margin of error of plus or minus 3 percentage points for the overall sample. The error is larger for smaller subgroups. But the population estimate and the accompanying analyses were conducted under standard, and scientifically reliable, methods.
In all, according to experts such as Steven Bayme, the New York-based director of communal affairs for the American Jewish Committee, the Los Angeles census is rich with “a good number of what I’d call fairly mild but significant surprises.”
The largest single group in the area’s Jewish population is baby boomers, age 33 to 51, the survey found. Boomers make up about one-third of the area’s Jewish population.
The Jewish median household income tallied $52,050, about one-third higher than the $34,965 median household income in Los Angeles County as reported by the U.S. Census, the survey found.
Also, nearly all adults in the Jewish population have finished high school, with 57% holding at least a college degree and more than half working in professional occupations. About 10% of the Jewish work force is employed as a writer, artist or entertainer. Women make up about 20% of Jewish lawyers and 40% of Jewish doctors and dentists.
A majority of Jews are married, but Jewish women and men are marrying later. Most of those married, 81%, are married to other Jews. Over the past five years, Jews in Los Angeles intermarried at a rate of 41%--lower than the national rate of 52%.
The Los Angeles Jewish community is the second-largest in America, behind the New York City area. A 1996 estimate by the American Jewish Committee, the most recent estimate available, fixed the total for the New York metropolitan area--including northern New Jersey and Long Island--at 1.94 million.
New York and Los Angeles have the largest Jewish populations of any metropolitan regions in the world. Taken as a whole, Israel has the world’s largest Jewish population--an estimated 4.5 million.
The Los Angeles Jewish community has been No. 2 in the United States since 1955. But according to the survey, the population has stayed relatively stable since 1979 because of migration, not fertility.
During the year it took to conduct the survey, 5,401 babies were born into Jewish households, slightly down from the 5,530 babies born in 1979.
The size of the average Jewish household in Los Angeles dropped from 2.27 people in 1979 to 2.1 in 1997. That contrasts with 2.91 for all Los Angeles households, according to the U.S. Census.
Within the Jewish community, household size varies by denomination. Orthodox households are the largest, averaging 2.7 people, followed by Conservative with 2.3 and Reform and Reconstructionist at 2.1 apiece.
Only one-third of Jews who live here were born in California. A remarkable 21% are foreign born, contrasted with 8.6% nationwide. Most of the foreign-born are from one of three countries--the former Soviet Union, Iran or Israel.
The former Soviet Union was the birthplace of 24,526 area Jews. That number, the survey’s authors say, includes only the immigrants themselves--not spouses or children living with foreign-born parents.
Changing the definition--broadening it to include family members--changes the total dramatically, to about 70,000 people of what the survey terms “Russian descent.”
Similarly, the survey shows an estimated 14,170 Jews who were born in Israel. But 52,400 area Jews identify themselves as living in a household in which at least one person considers himself or herself an Israeli.
Such discrepancies, according to the survey, may explain “widely differing perceptions” of the size of the Russian and Israeli communities here.
What’s indisputable, according to the census, is that over the past two decades the Jewish community in Los Angeles has been moving westward.
Like others, Jews have been in search of areas that are more affluent, have better schools or other amenities, the survey said.
Bernard and Melanie Gero bear out the numbers. The parents of three children 8 years of age and younger, they live in Thousand Oaks, where “the crime rate is low, the housing affordable and the schools are meant to be good,” Bernard Gero said. “It’s comfortable living, a hamische environment,” he said, using a Yiddish word usually translated as “homey.”
The survey also inquired into one of the most controversial issues facing the Jewish community: the “who is a Jew” question.
Of the 519,151 total, 476,559, or 91.8%, identify themselves as “born Jews,” those who have at least one Jewish parent and who report their religion as Jewish.
Another 4.9%, or 25,474, are “born Jews with no religion"--those who were born Jewish but now identify themselves as atheists, agnostics or report “none” when asked their religion.