Survey: L.A. Jews intermarry less than national rate

LOS ANGELES — The Jews of Los Angeles, often considered the most hedonistic and rootless in the United States, have some surprisingly good news for demographic doomsayers.

Jews here intermarry less than American Jews in general, their synagogue membership has risen sharply in the last 20 years, and only about 15 percent of marriages end in divorce.

These findings are based on a massive study, two years in the making, conducted by the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles. The last such survey was conducted in 1979.

Pini Herman, who conducted the study, said the Jewish population had increased by 3.6 percent to a total of 519,151 since the last study, making Los Angeles the second largest U.S. Jewish community after New York. Herman attributed the modest increase to a low birthrate and declining Jewish immigration to the city in recent years.

Los Angeles retains its reputation as "The Ellis Island of the West," with only one-third of current Jewish residents born in California, while 21 percent are foreign-born. The largest numbers of Jewish immigrants came from the former Soviet Union, Iran and Israel.

The study found that one-third of Los Angeles Jews belong to synagogues, compared to only 25 percent in 1979. The percentage of households identifying with the Reform and Reconstructionist movements grew, while those with Conservative or Orthodox affiliations declined.

While 81 percent of Los Angeles Jews are married to other Jews, compared to a national rate of 68 percent, there is a 41 percent intermarriage rate for Angelenos marrying in the 1990s. This is still lower than the 52 percent rate for the United States cited in the 1990 National Jewish Population Survey, although that figure has been widely questioned.

On the economic front, the Jewish median household income in 1996 was $52,050, about one-third higher than for the general population.

Doctors and lawyers are heavily represented in the Jewish work force, but, in the heartland of the entertainment industry, they are outnumbered by the nearly 10 percent of Jews who list themselves as writers, artists or entertainers.

Women represent 40 percent of Jewish doctors and dentists, 20 percent of lawyers and judges, 41 percent of artists and writers and 46 percent of executives and managers.

For the first time, the federation sought to gauge the number of gay and lesbian Jews. According to the survey, about 1.6 percent of households defined themselves as gay or lesbian.

The study followed the standards set by the 1990 National Jewish Population Survey in determining who should be counted as a Jew.

The survey defined as Jews those with at least one Jewish parent and who give their religion as Judaism; those with at least one Jewish parent, but who consider themselves secular; and Jews by choice, whether formally converted or not.

The Los Angeles study is based on more than 69,000 random phone calls, with follow-up questionnaires sent to 2,640 Jewish households. The study, which cost between $300,000 and $400,000 to produce, carries a margin of error of plus or minus 3 percent.

Tom Tugend

JTA Los Angeles correspondent