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Why Numb​ers Matter

January 14, 2010
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You don't have to be a Jewish policy wonk to be struck by the findings of the new Jewish population study of Greater Philadelphia.

Commissioned by the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia and released this week, the study provides a telling snapshot of who we are, how we live and how we connect Jewishly. As a window into our health, wealth and sustenance, it can serve as a critical tool for Jewish communal planners as they set policy and funding priorities in the months and years ahead.

Any solid research raises as many questions as it answers, and in this case, it also spurred some questions "we didn't know needed to be asked," as Federation CEO Ira M. Schwartz put it.

Among the most striking findings are those that focus on both sides of the life spectrum -- the "bookends of the Jewish shelf," as one member of the committee overseeing the study put it.

Ours is an aging community, with 45 percent of its 214,700 individuals over the age of 50 -- 19 percent of whom are 65 and over. These statistics spark all kinds of issues about how we are going to serve the needs of our elders as they live longer and increasingly seek to do so in their own homes.

At the other end comes the stark finding that only 22 percent of Jewish households in the region have children under 18. This places Philadelphia second only to Palm Beach County, Fla., a heavily senior region that nationally has the lowest percentage of households with Jewish children.

That ours is an aging community with a low birthrate is not news. Nor is it unique to the Jewish community at large. A recent article in Foreign Affairs magazine explores the implications of the same phenomenon in developed countries around the world. It, too, examines how an increasingly lopsided population will be able to meet the demand for services among a graying populace as fewer young people will be around to provide these services.

But in the Jewish world, the situation is more complicated. Besides the fact that just 36,900 children are reported locally, the intermarriage rate is increasing -- 45 percent of all marriages of respondents under 40 are intermarriages -- and only 29 percent of intermarried couples are raising their children soley as Jews.

Taken together, these figures raise short-term questions about the role and viability of Jewish institutions serving our youth. In the long term, it's about the Jewish community's ability to actually sustain itself.

For years now, Jewish communities have debated what the numbers mean, and how best to use our resources and ingenuity to ensure that the vibrancy we see in significant pockets of Jewish life continues to flourish. The Exponent's coverage of the study this week is just the tip of the iceberg. We will continue to delve deeper into these seminal issues as the community itself takes stock. Stay tuned. 

 

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