Jewish community in Bay Area sees significant growth

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When the Emanu-El, precursor to the Jewish Bulletin, first rolled off the presses 100 years ago, the Bay Area was home to approximately 13,000 Jews.

Today that number has grown to an estimated 250,000.

The Bay Area is among this country's top 10 Jewish population centers, according to demographer Gary Tobin, who says the region's Jewish population ranks behind those of New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Miami and Philadelphia, and runs neck-and-neck with Boston's.

In 1988, Tobin — now director of Brandeis University's Institute for Community and Religion in San Francisco — published a major demographic study of the Bay Area Jewish community. At that time, approximately 223,000 Jews lived in a geographic area including San Francisco, Sonoma, Marin, Alameda, Contra Costa, Santa Clara and San Mateo counties.

Jews comprised 4 percent of the total population of those areas.

Tobin has not conducted another demographic study since then. But judging from general as well as Jewish demographic trends, he estimates that at least another 25,000 Jews have made the Bay Area their home within the last eight to 10 years.

Many of the new arrivals, he points out, are emigres from the former Soviet Union who have settled largely within San Francisco proper. Silicon Valley, a hub of high-tech activity, has also attracted significant numbers of Jews.

The latter occurrence reinforces the fact that although San Francisco's Jewish population has grown significantly over the years, the greatest increases have taken place outside the city.

A 1958-59 Jewish population study, for example, found some 16,710 Jews living on the Peninsula; by 1986 that figure had risen to 47,415, an increase of 184 percent. Marin has also seen a Jewish boom. While an estimated 2,700 lived there in 1959, by 1986 the number had increased to 19,143, a growth of more than 600 percent.

Those numbers can be attributed, at least somewhat, to general demographic trends.

The Bay Area experienced a high rate of growth in the 1970s and 1980s, attracting newcomers who sought employment, education and a comfortable, cultured, weather-temperate lifestyle.

"The Bay Area has grown so much, and so has the Jewish community," Tobin says.

But more significant than the increasing numbers within the local Jewish community, Tobin stresses, are shifts in character. The most dramatic change, he believes, is in the structure of the Jewish family.

Forty years ago the intermarriage rate was drastically lower, as was the divorce rate, Tobin notes. Most couples were at least visibly heterosexual, and there were fewer women in the labor force.

Because of the Bay Area's progressive nature, whatever the trends in the national Jewish community are, "they are exaggerated here," adds Tobin.

"That means that the rate of change and response here needs to be even quicker."

Leslie Katz
Leslie Katz

Leslie Katz is the former culture editor at CNET and a former J. staff writer. Follow her on Twitter @lesatnews.