According to the 2022 Community Study of Jewish Delaware and the Brandywine Valley, 93% of Delaware area Jews feel a sense of belonging to the tribe. Fifty-two percent feel a “great deal of belonging,” and 41% feel “at least some.” That’s the good news.
But the other side of the story is, if not alarming, at least undefined. Among almost 26,000 Delaware Jews, the denomination with the highest rate of identification, at 43%, is “no denomination.” Out of more than 12,000 Jewish households, only 31% are affiliated with a synagogue. And only 19% of Jews in the region claim to be “immersed,” meaning they maintain “high involvement in most aspects of Jewish life.”
The study, commissioned by the Jewish Federation of Delaware and conducted by Brandeis University, was based on a survey with 1,605 respondents. While that is not 100% of the community, it is revealing, and cause enough for the Jewish Federation of Delaware to consider some new approaches to community building in the 21st century.
“We have to constantly understand our community that’s often evolving, and we have to adapt to change,” said Seth J. Katzen, the president and CEO of the Federation.
Matthew Boxer, the assistant research professor at Brandeis who led the study, listed several recommendations in a PowerPoint summarizing his findings. They included promoting connections between different Jewish communities in the region, promoting ties to the local Jewish community for newcomers, strengthening outreach to interfaith families and investing in Jewish education, among others.
“I do think it is fair to say that there isn’t a tremendously strong connection to the local Jewish community. But that’s not unusual. It seems to be pretty common across the country,” Boxer said.
Katzen is taking those suggestions and turning them into a strategic planning task force that is going to take a deeper dive into the data. The Federation leader said that many of the findings confirmed what he already knew. But several were surprising, especially the number of interfaith families in the community. That number was more than 50%. But the Delaware Federation has not organized much programming for interfaith families in the past.
Two other priorities moving forward need to be offering Jewish learning opportunities and engaging the next generation, according to Katzen. The Delaware Federation does not have enough millennial leaders. But the president wants to bring more in. How to build those connections, though, is unclear.
Katzen said the first step is getting community input. But he also has some ideas. The CEO is thinking about opening a lifelong learning and leadership development center. He wants to talk to synagogue leaders about how they can collaborate more. And finally, he hopes to meet younger adults “where they are” to see what they want out of Jewish practice.
“Some want to be culturally engaged. Some want to be spiritually engaged. It’s much more segmented. We have to find commonality. I think that’s a task of the Federation,” Katzen said. “You can’t just create a program, do it at the JCC, and people will flow in. It’s no longer the case.”
Ellisha Caplan, 46, is involved in the Jewish community with her husband, Nigel, and their two sons, Sam, 15, and Aidan, 10. The family belongs to Congregation Beth Emeth in Wilmington. Both boys attend religious school. And since the Caplan parents, who are from Virginia and England, respectively, do not have family in the area, they built a close circle of friends from the Siegel JCC, where their children attended preschool.
The mother said that “Jewish life, being Jewish, is at the center of our lives.” But she also admitted that it is competing with other activities.
“We have a lot of things going on,” she said.
Arlene Johnson, 63, also raised her two children, now 30 and 27, in the synagogue, Temple Beth El in Newark. The kids went to Hebrew school and became b’nei mitzvah. Johnson remains a member at Beth El and calls the community “one big family.” At the same time, similar to the Caplans, she said, “Judaism is part of my life.” But she feels like she’s part of two communities because she has a separate circle of non-Jewish friends.
“But the Jewish part is extremely important to me,” Johnson said. ■