Demographer Ira Sheskin

Q: Recent studies indicate that the Jewish population globally is growing. Is that the case?

IS: That data keep shocking everybody, including me. Sometimes we find that communities feel there are a lot of people moving in — and there are! But what we don’t see is that there are almost as many people moving out.

Across the nation, when we look at the factors that drive population growth, we do find that more Jews are moving into the U.S. than are moving out. Particularly, they are moving to the U.S. from places like South America and Israel. Here in Florida, we have Jews coming in from Canada. We’re not talking really large numbers, but there is some growth.

Now you would think that in a population that is 16 percent elderly — which is what Jews are nationally — there would be more Jewish deaths than Jewish births. Yet the interesting thing is that every time we do a study — with the exception of Detroit and Broward County, Fla. — we keep finding more Jews. In its last study, Detroit showed a decline in its population estimate. We’ll see this time. I’m hoping we find that there’s been some increase in Detroit’s Jewish population.

Q: There’s a strong perception in the Detroit Jewish community that we are the exception to many trends. Would you agree?

IS: I’m really looking forward to the Detroit study. I often use Detroit as an example of a community that has something that almost none of the Florida communities have — and that’s the fact that so many people who live in Detroit were born in Detroit. In Detroit, people feel they belong here; they’ve been here for generations and honestly can say, “This is my Jewish community.” The connections are remarkable.

Personally, I’m not looking to leave Florida, but if I were looking to move — in terms of weighing the Jewish communities, Detroit would be near or at the top of my list.

In Detroit, we find a stable Jewish community that has many, many dedicated members, based on the numbers of Jewish agencies in place and all the great things happening here Jewishly. In terms of the infrastructure and quality of the Jewish communities we see across the country, it would be hard to see Detroit being beat.

Q: As you’ve studied Jewish communities around the country, what notable trends are you beginning to see?

IS: One of the notable trends we’re seeing nationwide as the Jewish population continues to age is that most communities are having trouble getting young people involved although we are beginning to see some impact of Birthright.

More specifically, a trend we see with millennials is their reluctance to join anything; they don’t want to be labeled Democrat, Republican, Conservative, Orthodox or Reform. They’re not getting involved at the same rate as previous generations.

Additionally, in many communities, we are seeing a leveling off of the intermarriage rate. In fact, the intermarriage rate is a little lower for those under 35 than those 35 to 49 in some communities.

Another interesting trend (though I can’t say it’s nationwide because I’ve only tested it in three or four communities) is that the percentage of people under age 35 who currently are married is much lower than it was 20 years ago. People are waiting longer before they are getting married. However, that is not the trend in the Orthodox community, and Detroit has a higher percent of Orthodox than most U.S. Jewish communities.

Demographer Ira Sheskin

Another trend: In terms of Jewish identity, we see the community going in two distinct directions. We find some people becoming “more Jewish” for lack of a better phrase, and others heading in the opposite direction, but still being Jewish. When we look at the 2013 Pew Research Center study of American Jews, 95 percent of the people in that study were proud to be Jewish, but there’s also a high percentage who aren’t doing much about it.

In contrast to some dismal findings in other communities, in our 2005 study of Detroit, 96 percent of Jewish households had some involvement in Jewish activities in the past year. So, in that regard, Detroit really does stand out. It will be interesting to see what the numbers tell us this time around.

Vivian Henoch Special to the Jewish News

A longer version of this interview is available on myjewishdetroit.org, where Vivian Henoch is editor.

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