Stained glass at Congregation Sherith Israel depicts Moses brining the two tablets down from Half Dome and El Capitan in Yosemite. (Photo/file)
Stained glass at Congregation Sherith Israel depicts Moses brining the two tablets down from Half Dome and El Capitan in Yosemite. (Photo/file)

Is our state’s Jewish community crumbling?

It’s no secret that significant demographic, economic and social changes are taking place in California. These include: an “out migration” as more middle-class Californians are leaving the state; the aging of the state’s population and the corresponding expected decline in the number of school-age children; and overpriced housing as well as a high tax structure, both serving as disincentives for new families and new businesses to enter this market.

As a result, we are likely to see an aging California Jewish community, with fewer younger families and singles to support the charitable interests of the community, its institutions and synagogues.

This will create significant pressures not only on governmental bodies but also on Jewish social service institutions. Meeting these accelerated needs with fewer donors will represent a major challenge to many of our communities, our synagogues and schools.

The impact is already being felt. The financial barriers have made it more difficult, for example, on the part of some prominent Jewish organizations to recruit top-level professionals. It is not that people do not want to move to California, but that they cannot afford to do so.

Between 2011 and 2017, roughly 25,000 Jewish adults left the service area of the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation, many from the city itself but also from Marin and Sonoma Counties and the Peninsula, according to a major Jewish community survey published early last year. (Many of them might have ended up in the East Bay, which experienced a similar gain in Jewish population over the same period, the survey showed.)

The “Portrait of Bay Area Jewish Life and Communities” study also concluded that 33 percent of residents in S.F.-based Federation service areas planned to “probably” or “definitely” move, though not necessarily leave the Bay Area, within the next two years, indicating both a weak or weakening attachment to their current communities and a general pattern of migration from expensive areas to less expensive ones.

The costs associated with “doing business in California” are reflected in the expensive character of Jewish life. The ability of our schools, synagogues and organizations to manage operating costs and personnel expenses, to hold down dues and tuition charges, or to be able to purchase additional facilities represent dramatic yet different aspects of the economic challenges faced by communal institutions.

RELATED: As Bay Area Jewish federations consolidate, what does it mean for the community?

J. reported recently on the closing down of the Jewish Federation of the East Bay and Jewish Community Foundation, with its assets and operations being transferred to the S.F.-based Federation and Endowment Fund. Other mergers and consolidation of schools, synagogues and other services may well be required if this state’s vast Jewish infrastructure will be able to support and sustain vital services.

The Jewish community likewise will need to rethink its service delivery priorities when facing a significant rise in the need for senior services at all levels of care. Our congregations and schools will need to be realistic about the demographic picture with the forecast for declining numbers of new families and children.

None of these assessments is taking into account the possibility that younger Jews, many of whom are successful entrepreneurs, professionals and business people will “step up” to infuse California’s communal and religious institutions with the financial capital necessary to sustain and even grow these enterprises. This may be one of the unknown elements in calculating this scenario. For example, we are seeing the rise of various startup initiatives and Jewish entrepreneurial models of organizing, which may replace some of the legacy institutional structures.

Certainly, an overhaul of this state’s tax system, an upgraded public transportation program and the introduction of incentives designed to change existing driving patterns, and the creation of new business opportunities, among other initiatives may alter some of these population trends and economic forecasts. The Jewish community will need to be an active voice in helping to chart new economic and social policies for the state.

California Jewish communities may wish to consider adopting strategies employed by some smaller Midwestern and Southern Jewish communities. One such approach has involved helping to recruit new families with the introduction of financial-assistance packages. Some communities, such as Birmingham, Alabama, have employed the use of an outreach coordinator to attract potential families to relocate. Other communities have introduced ad campaigns with messages promoting the “quality of Jewish living.” Congregations in collaboration with Jewish social service organizations and JCCs have generated creative financial packages and membership options designed to meet the needs of families and to attract new participants.

These current external factors are influencing and shaping the Jewish economy of California. How the Jewish community understands and prepares for its future will be aligned directly with these various emerging demographic and economic trends. In anticipating these changes, federations and its social service networks, synagogues and schools, and advocacy organizations will need to act in consort to re-envision the Jewish community, manage institutional transitions and mergers, and advocate for responsible state tax policies and economic innovation.

Steven Windmueller
Steven Windmueller

Steven Windmueller is the Rabbi Alfred Gottschalk Emeritus Professor of Jewish Communal Service at the Los Angeles campus of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. His writings can be found on his website,