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Who are Chicago Jews, and what do they want? The results are in.

Amid many gloomy predictions that American Jewry is shrinking, disengaging and assimilating, comes bracing news from Chicago: um, maybe not.

A just-released Chicago Jewish population study — the largest one ever — found that the community is instead growing and diversifying:

• The study shows that the Jewish population in Chicago is nearly 320,000, an increase of 3% in the last decade.

• The number of households that identify as Jewish is up 19%.

• Nearly 1 in 10 of those households include at least one member who identifies as LGBTQ, 14% including someone who identifies as non-white or Hispanic, and 7% including at least one person of color.

• Interfaith families are also on the rise, up from 20% in 2010 to one-third of married and partnered adults today identifying as interreligious.

Experts say the study, sponsored each decade by the Jewish United Fund of Metropolitan Chicago (JUF), shows Jewish Chicago is strong, growing and changing. Understanding how to adapt to those changes, however, is not an easy process.

The 2020 study, conducted in collaboration with NORC at the University of Chicago and Brandeis University’s Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies, was released recently in a 218-page review and a more digestible nine page summary. It presents a quantitative and qualitative survey of Jewish Chicago across 10 regions, providing even more responses than the most recent national Pew study of American Jewry.

The big findings revolve around levels of engagement, and over just what constitutes communal involvement.

Some 44% of Jewish households report they do not affiliate with a denomination, a number that reflects national trends, and only 26% of households saying they belong to a Jewish congregation, down more than 25% since 2010. And increasingly, people who belong to a certain congregation often do not identify with that particular denomination. One may belong to a Conservative shul but not identify as Conservative.

JUF-Population-Study

Courtesy of JUF

Brandeis University’s Janet Aronson, a principal investigator in the study, said these numbers indicate we need to shift the conversation about Jewish life. When we read that affiliation is down, or people are not identifying with denominations anymore, we have created a false binary understanding, as if these facts are equated with being a “good Jew” versus a “bad Jew” she said.

“I think we are trying to create some language around new ways of understanding Jewish engagement,” she said. “Declining levels of synagogue membership does not amount to the end of the Jewish community.”

There are lots of ways to be Jewishly engaged, Aronson pointed out— social justice programs, cultural events, even celebrating Jewish food.

It would be wrong to assume these diverse residents “are unengaged,” said the JUF’s Sabrina Townsend, one of those tasked with evaluating the study. “They may identify in a different way and participate in Jewish life. This survey is instead a call to action for us to understand how they are participating, what they are looking for, and what they are doing.”

The pandemic, according to the finding, had an impact on all these questions.

During the pandemic, two in five Jewish adults made changes in their religious life, with 14% of Jewish adults increasing their engagement, such as observing Shabbat or attending services more often, while 26% decreased their participation.

(One disturbing post-pandemic finding: 20% of households are struggling to make ends meet, with concerns over mental health being the greatest issue. The highest rate for mental health needs are among those aged 22-39.)

The solutions to these changing patterns of engagement, said Rabbi Leonard A. Matanky of Congregation KINS, would be to shift programs, “ to address the needs of the entire Jewish community including greater engagement with early childhood, Israel, the PJ Library, all entry points. A Shabbat dinner is an entry point.”

“There needs to be a new paradigm,” Aronson agreed, and she encourages people who use this study to enhance Jewish engagement rather than lament that it is changing. This old binary way of viewing what it means to be Jewish “implies that there is this ladder and we’re supposed to move people up the ladder,” she said.

The study, she said, points to the need to accept diverse ways of participating in Jewish life as the new normal.

“We’re not in a blip moment of Jewish history,” Jay Tcath, JUF executive vice president said, “We are in a new reality. What brought us here can bring us across the finish line. To succeed in a competitive marketplace, with their marketing and programs, Jewish institutions and non-Jewish institutions need to adapt.”

Aronson hopes that Chicago organizations use the report to better understand their constituents’ needs to better reach or reshape their mission. Many questions explore people’s attitudes, about what is the meaning of being Jewish, for example, or to what extent being Jewish is a part of their life.

One surprise, across the five age groups the study uses to analyze Jewish engagement, is that the group with the least communal Jewish life is 40 to 69 year-old singles.

“I would say this is a group that systematically the Jewish community does not pay a lot of attention to,” Aronson said, noting that while this may be a group that is hard to engage, it offers a tremendous opportunity.

Divorcees, single parents, people who have been widowed, or those who do not have an interest in traditional family structures may wish to engage in Jewish life in various ways. They also share similar concerns over aging parents and elder care, for example, or social justice issues.

Jewish leaders said ultimately the survey will help them fine tune policies and programs to meet a changing—and growing—Jewish population.

“Ultimately,” said Rabbi Matanky, “data drives decisions.”

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