Saturday, March 3, 2012

Demographics Tell a Story

Much of our time at the Council of American Jewish Museums’ conference (CAJM) was based in the many local Jewish institutions.  They were impressive institutions based on both size and breadth, a necessity with a metropolitan Jewish population of about 67,000 to serve.  By contrast the Twin Cities Jewish community, where I now live, has about 39,000.  That seemed enormous to me based on my original reference point, my hometown of Peoria, Illinois which has 800. *

I have noted these statistics from the Berman Institute because a talk at the conference really highlighted the fact that while Jews represent a small percent of the total population they tend to concentrate in larger metropolitan areas and compose a significant population base.  This means that while they may represent a minority, their experience is often not that of a minority.  Except for those of us who grew up in smaller cities, the Jewish experience in America often revolves around an urban core and is surrounded by a large Jewish community. 

I am often quite fascinated by demographic information as it informs the experience of our society and foretells the changes that are yet to come.  A very interesting speaker on this topic was Deborah Dash Moore, a Professor of History at the University of Michigan.  Moore is an author and serves as the Director of the Jean and Samuel Frankel Center for Judaic Studies.  She provided a map of where Jews lived in 2000 and pointed out that while Jews roughly exceed 2% of the general population, they represent a much more significant proportion of many populations centers. 

She traced the history of Judaism in the early United States and shared a response from George Washington to the Jews of Newport at the Touro Synagogue.  Here he echos their language reinforcing that this new government provided“to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance… All possess alike liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship”.  This welcoming message laid a framework that drew many Jews to America in subsequent years.

Moore traced the growth of the five largest cities in terms of Jewish population through time contrasting it with Europe.  In 1877 NYC with 73,000 was comparable to Vienna (72,000) and Budapest (70,000) while still dwarfed by Warsaw with 127,000.  The top five cities (New York, San Francisco, Philadelphia, Chicago and Baltimore) represented half of the Jewish population in the US. During the early 1900s demographics began to change with one third of Eastern European Jews coming to America.

By 1905 NYC represented 772,000 Jews versus Warsaw with a mere 306,000.    The top five cities of Jewish population (New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, Boston and St. Louis) represented one million of the two million American Jews.  Immigration laws tightened in response to this flood of immigrants, but by 1927 New York City held 1.8 million Jews while Warsaw remained constant as the largest Eastern European Jewish population at 310,000.  In the US, Cleveland edged St. Louis out among the top five. The growth of the NY population began to stabilize around two million in 1940 and 1955 as more population began to move to suburbs.  The more recent metro data that I noted above indicates a 2002 Jewish population just shy of one million in the city and about 1.4 million in the metropolitan area.  Still they represent the largest single ethnic group in the city creating a rich cultural ferment that is reflected in the influence of Jewish culture on the larger society.

* Berman Institute- North American Jewish Data Bank University of Connecticut

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