Study sees strength in city Jewish community

Involvement, giving are high, especially by Orthodox in area

April 05, 2001|By Alice Lukens | Alice Lukens,SUN STAFF

Baltimore's Jewish population has the highest percentage of Orthodox Jews of any major American city, according to a new study of Jews in the area, and they also give more money to the larger Jewish community.

The findings were part of a study recently released by The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore, a nonprofit organization that raises money and runs programs for Jews in the metropolitan area. The group commissioned the study - its first since 1985 - to serve as a blueprint for its funding priorities.

Officials of The Associated say they were pleased to find that the Jewish community in Baltimore is stronger and more cohesive than they had thought. Ninety-five percent of respondents said that being Jewish is important to them, and 91 percent reported that they made philanthropic contributions in 1998. Of the married respondents, 90 percent have Jewish spouses.

"What surprised me was the importance of being Jewish to those who were being interviewed," says Shoshana S. Cardin, a former chairwoman of The Associated board and chairwoman of the management team and steering committee for the study. "That's higher than average. Many ... afforded themselves of the opportunity to observe Jewish traditions or learn them."

The Orthodox community in Baltimore is especially strong, the study shows. In 1999, 17 percent of the area's Jewish population identified itself as Orthodox, compared with 13 percent in New York, 10 percent in Cleveland, 8 percent in Detroit and 4 percent in Philadelphia. Nationally, about 6 percent of the Jewish community identifies itself as Orthodox.

The Associated has counterpart federations in other major cities, and Orthodox Jews here are more likely to give money to the federation, says Ron Miller, director of research for Ukeles Associates Inc., the New York firm in charge of the study.

Miller says Orthodox Jews in general tend to give less money to federations in part because they have larger families than average and often send their children to private Jewish day schools, which can create a financial strain. Lawrence M. Ziffer, vice president of community development for The Associated, says Orthodox Jews in many communities - although not Baltimore - also feel that their local federations overlook their needs.

Rabbi Herman N. Neuberger, president of Ner Israel Rabbinical College in Pikesville, says he is not surprised by the findings about Baltimore's Orthodox Jews. He says Baltimore is an attractive place for the Orthodox because of affordable housing and good Jewish schools. And he says Ner Israel attracts families who get married here, stay here and have families.

Miller says the study found that Reform and Conservative Jews are also heavily involved in the Baltimore Jewish community, as measured by synagogue affiliation, membership in Jewish organizations, charitable contributions and the number of Jewish friends they have. A higher percentage of Jews in Baltimore will attend a Passover Seder this week than nationally, he says.

"Baltimore ranks very high," he says. "It's not just that the Orthodox do this, it's that the entire community is encouraged by Orthodoxy and is involved in a commitment to Jewish values and living."

Perhaps because of its cohesiveness and the strength of its traditions, the Jewish community in the Baltimore metropolitan area has remained stable during the past 15 years. From 1985 to 1999, the Jewish population grew slightly, gaining about 4,000 individuals.

Jews now, as then, remain concentrated in a corridor running northwest of downtown Baltimore. A separate Howard County study showed that its Jewish population has more than doubled during the past 15 years to nearly 6,500 households.

Cardin says she was surprised to learn that half of the Jews living in the Baltimore area were not born here.

"That's a very high percentage," she says. "When I thought of a stable community, the stability included a large number who were born here, larger than 50 percent. That was really a surprise."

Study recommendations include:

* Reaching out to newcomers to make them feel welcome;

* Engaging more families with young children, especially intermarried families;

* Building on the strength of the Orthodox community;

* Expanding services to senior Jews; and

* Investing in young leaders.

Cardin says she was pleased that the study validated actions that The Associated leadership took more than 20 years ago when it decided to locate its headquarters across from the Lyric Opera House on Mount Royal Avenue, rather than moving to the suburbs.

"We felt that the future was not going to be 25 miles from here," she says. "It was going to be Baltimore."

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