It’s Jewish Seattle’s moment — let’s grab on and take advantage

It’s Jewish Seattle’s moment — let’s grab on and take advantage

By David Chivo, Special to The Jewish Sound

Our “mirror, mirror on the wall” moment has arrived. The Jewish Federation’s 2014 Greater Seattle Community Study provides a comprehensive picture of what Jewish life in Puget Sound looks like. Do we like what we see? Here are five observations to consider:

The good news is that it’s mostly good news! Population growth, a key barometer of communal health, shows we’re a community of 63,400 Jews, an astounding 70 percent increase since 2000-01. Moreover, we are a relatively young community that is affluent, well educated, civically and communally engaged, and comprised of households filled with children. We’re also relatively easy to find. Fifty-seven percent of us live in Seattle proper, while the rest of us live in adjacent communities to the east. Notably, one in four Jewish households lives in North Seattle. Finally, we connect to Jewish life at respectable levels. Eighty-six percent of respondents said they feel a meaningful connection to their Jewish heritage, while 82 percent said they attach value to Jewish traditions. However, only 47 percent reported feeling a connection to the Seattle Jewish community.

The big winner is the organized Jewish community. Two-thirds of respondents identify religiously with Judaism; another third in secular ways. Measures of affiliations are not vastly different from more established American Jewish communities. Most interestingly, those less affiliated have not shut out the Jewish community. Forty-five percent of interfaith families are still deciding what religion to raise their children. Seattle’s Jewish community can be characterized by the term “dispersity:” We’re diverse by every measure, dispersed geographically, and discerning in terms of what we want. How do we serve such a populace? One way is to invert the old model of getting Jews into centralized Jewish institutions, and instead find ways to bring high-quality Jewish offerings closer to where Seattle’s Jews reside.

The surprising news is about Jewish poverty…the lack of it. Make no mistake, our wisdom tradition teaches of our sacred obligation to take care of the needy. Yet we cannot gloss over findings concerning measures of poverty. Just 2 percent of households report being poor. Only 4 percent of families with children are earning less than $50,000 annually. Nearly 90 percent report that they and their families are in good health. And the vast majority are reasonably confident they can fund their retirements. What does this mean? Our community generously supports human service agencies such as Jewish Family Service and Kline Galland, and our caring must certainly continue. However, future planning must acknowledge our need for new and additional philanthropic revenue to strengthen the quality of Jewish life in Seattle.

Bring on Sponge Boychik… or in other words, focus on the kids. About 25 percent of Seattle’s Jewish community are children (infant to 18). And while 77 percent of young families say that raising their children Jewishly is important to them, participation rates in programs for children are low. Indeed, powerful Jewish “socializers” such as Jewish day camp (26 percent), Jewish youth group (23 percent), and Jewish overnight camp (22 percent) all show room for significant improvement. Research by Prof. Mark Rosen of Brandeis University proves that if you Jewishly engage families through initiatives for their children, their connections to Jewish life will increase and these connections will be sustainable. As such, focusing on families with young children is a crucial strategy.

We have to do this together! Like the five books of the Torah, the 2014 Greater Seattle Community Study describes what we look like as Jews — and as a people bound to one another at a unique point in our history. The findings underscore the beauty of our community and the latent potential that we have yet to realize. What our ancestors discovered during 40 years in the desert was that no single individual, nor one single group, was sufficiently prepared to mobilize the Israelites to forge their future. Instead, they needed a sense of unity, a sense of common purpose, and a sense of shared beliefs to enter their promised land. Three thousand years later on lands adjacent to the Pacific Ocean, our situation is not so different. The study tells us that we have remarkable opportunities in Seattle, perhaps more so than in most other Jewish communities. To realize them, we must work together, and in so doing we bestow a gift onto ourselves and onto the generations of Puget Sound Jewry to come.


David Chivo is the North America director of Beit Hatfutsot, the Museum of the Jewish People, in support of its renewal campaign. Previously, he served as executive vice president at the Jewish Federation of Greater Seattle, which commissioned the community study.