American Jews

Commentary by Dr. Gerhard Falk


American Jews

The number of Jews in America is estimated in various ways. Those who consider only Jews with synagogue affiliations claim that there are only about 4,400,000 Jews in this country. If we add to these affiliated Jews those who view themselves as Jewish although not affiliated with any Jewish religious group then we can count as many as 6,061,000 Americans who claim to be Jews in random telephone interviews.

Accordingly, 9.1% or 1,651,000 of New York State citizens say they are Jewish. This is the largest concentration of Jews in any of the states. Jews constitute 5.7% of the population of New Jersey, 4.9% of the people of the District of Columbia, 4.2% of Floridians, 4.4% of Massachusetts citizens, 4.1% of the people of Maryland, 3.1% in Connecticut and 2.9% in California. In all other states Jews are very few. In some states Jews are more or less 2% of the population but in most states Jews are 1% or less of the American population. Our share of the total American population is no more than 2.2% and perhaps less, depending on how we define who is a Jew.

Despite our small numbers, we are well liked by the American population. This is best understood by looking at the list of Jews in Congress and other political offices. While one senator from New York, Charles Schumer, is Jewish, both senators from California, Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein are Jewish. Do you think our ancestors who came here in 1902 would have believed that two Jewish women would ever represent the state of California in the U.S. Senate?

Now look at this: Russ Feingold and Herbert Kohl are the two Jewish senators from Wisconsin, where Jews constitute 0.5% of the population. We all know Joseph Lieberman, erstwhile vice-presidential candidate, is U.S. senator from Connecticut. But did you know that Carl Levin is senator from Michigan, which has only 107,000 Jews, constituting 1.1 % of that state’s population? Pennsylvania has elected the Republican Arlen Specter to the senate several times. He is the only Jewish Republican in the senate and comes from a state whose Jewish population is only 2.4%. Paul Wellstone of Minnesota is one of 42,000 Jews in a state with a population of 4,776,000 so that Jews are only 0.9% of Minnesotans and finally Ron Wyden, the Jewish senator from Oregon, represents 3,316,000 Oregonians of whom 0.9% or 30,500 are Jews.

Ten of the 100 U.S. Senators are Jewish. We are five times over-represented in the U.S. Senate because the non-Jewish population votes for Jews not because the candidates are Jewish but because the American population is generally not bigoted.

Likewise, there are 27 Jews in the House of Representatives, constituting 6.5% of the membership. Again we are 3 times overrepresented because religion is not a factor in American politics.

Right now, seven Jews are running for governor in this fall’s elections. In earlier years, Jews have been governors in Alaska, Idaho and Utah as well as in New York. There are of course also numerous Jews in state legislatures and in other political offices.

These political successes may well reflect our economic success. The median income in the United States is about $25,000 a year. That means that one half of all Americans earn more than that, and one half earn less. The median Jewish American income is double that, i.e., $50,000 a year.

About 40% of American High School graduates go to college. However, 85% of Jewish high school graduates go to college. We also have a vast number of graduate students and a great percentage of Jews with graduate degrees such as M.B.A., M.D., Ph.D. etc. etc. This is not necessarily cause to be proud since diploma chasing did not save the European Jews from the Holocaust even as Israel survives because the Jews of Israel know how to use a gun (Throwing books at armed murderers doesn’t work).

It is of course magnificent that we are so successful. It ought to be understood, however, that all Jews are not wealthy and that many Jews have become invisible because they are poor. This is largely true because our Jewish organizations are almost always non-representative of our Jewish communities. For example, 66% of board members of Jewish organizations earn more than $150,000 a year and only 17% earn less than $100,000 a year. This is necessary because board members make the needed contributions to keep our communal organizations alive. In earlier years many of these wealthy board members had come from poor backgrounds and therefore had some sympathy for the poor. Today, many board members come from wealthy families so that they may not know what Jewish living costs today.

Look at this: The average synagogue assessment in America is $1,100, tuition in Jewish day schools costs $22,000 for two children, average day camp fees for two weeks for two children costs $1,200, average stay for one month in a residence camp for two children is $5,000, Jewish community center dues are $500 and the minimal gift to the annual Jewish Federation drive is $250 (The statistics are provided by the American Jewish Committee).

There are obviously many Jews who cannot possibly afford to do all of this and contribute $30,000 of their $50,000 income. Nevertheless, there are also a good number of Jews who could easily afford a synagogue membership and do more than that. The fact is that Jewish assets in this country are in the trillions.

Among the 10% of Jews who live a Torah-true life and who are called “orthodox” (Greek for straight belief) a great deal of money is spent on Jewish education despite the lesser average income of orthodox Jews as compared to all Jewish income.

We also have among us, as previously stated, a good number of Jewish poor. The idiot stereotype that all Jews are wealthy and successful is perpetuated by our enemies but also by ourselves. The fact is that 24% of Jewish households are “low income”.

These Jews cannot afford most or any of the expenses that Jewish life demands. They cannot send their children to a Jewish day school. They cannot be members of the Jewish Community Centers. They cannot afford synagogue memberships. Therefore those of us who can do so must contribute what the poor cannot afford because their membership is needed to insure our survival.

A good number of the poor among us are old. While 13% of Americans are over 65, 19% of American Jews are over 65. This has to do with our low birth rate as well as our longevity. The fastest growing segment of our population are those over 85.

In Buffalo, N.Y. as in all other Jewish communities around the country, a number of community resources must be funded all the time if we are to continue. Here in Buffalo we support the Jewish Community Center, the Weinberg Campus (Home for the Aged) Jewish Family Service, the Bureau of Jewish Education, the Holocaust Resource Center, the Kadimah School (Day School), Hillel for Jewish college students, Chabad, also for Jewish college students, the Jewish Discovery Center, an educational foundation, and, most important of all, twelve synagogues. (Greek for assembly).

In addition, we must and do support Israel.

I have presented here a good number of facts collected by the American Jewish Committee. These statistics show us the extent of our obligations. Evidently, it is very expensive to be a Jew in America. Yet, it is not beyond our reach. Obviously, all of us cannot do everything nor support every Jewish cause. We can, however, choose to support some of the Jewish activities available to us. We may want to support only a synagogue or Israel or both. We may want to support the Jewish Center or the Family Service or all of them. In any case we must do something lest we waste our lives in selfishness.

Read again the book by Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning, and then decide what you want to do for yourself by giving to others.

Shalom u’vracha.

Dr. Gerhard Falk is the author of numerous publications, including Stigma:  How We Treat Outsiders.

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