Dr. Ira Sheskin goes over the findings of the demographic study of Middlesex County’s Jewish community during a press briefing Jan. 9 at the South River offices of the Jewish Federation of Greater Middlesex County.
Photo by Debra Rubin
HOUSEHOLD STRUCTURE: Among Jewish households in the county, only 19 percent included a married couple with children under the age of 17 at home. Meanwhile, 48 percent of Jewish households included either singles or married couples age 65 and older. Source: The 2008 Greater Middlesex Jewish Community Study
CLUSTERED BY DENOMINATION: The survey confirmed a high concentration of Orthodox Jews in Highland Park/South Edison, while the plurality of Jews in the county’s aging south identified with the Conservative movement. Source: The 2008 Greater Middlesex Jewish Community Study
ANTI-SEMITISM: Only 8 percent of respondents reported personally experiencing anti-Semitism in the last year, the second-lowest of all communities surveyed. The number of households in which Jewish children age six-17 experienced anti-Semitism in the past year, above, was similarly minimal. Source: The 2008 Greater Middlesex Jewish Community Study
January 20, 2009
Middlesex County’s Jewish population is older, wealthier, more connected to their Jewish heritage, and less likely to be intermarried or experience anti-Semitism than that of many other Jewish communities.
However, those residents — because of their age — are also more likely to have health and social service needs that require extra funding, according to the first scientific community survey ever conducted.
The survey, funded by the Jewish Federation of Greater Middlesex County, tallies 24,000 Jewish households containing a Jewish population of 52,000 in the county, with a median age of 55 and including 8,400 Jewish children. In addition, 4,600 non-Jews live in the 24,000 households (mostly non-Jewish spouses and children not being raised as Jews).
About 9 percent of Middlesex County’s households are Jewish, one of the highest percentages in the state. Only Monmouth and Bergen counties have more Jews than Middlesex.
Among Jewish denominations, 35 percent of respondents classified themselves as Conservative, 29 percent said they were Reform, and 7 percent described themselves as Orthodox. Another 29 percent called themselves “just Jewish.”
What makes Middlesex stand out from other Jewish communities is that 40 percent of its Jews live in just one zip code (08831) covering Monroe, a concentrated center of retirement communities.
The phone survey was conducted by Dr. Ira M. Sheskin, a professor of Geography and director of the Jewish Demography Project of the Sue and Leonard Miller Center for Contemporary Judaic Studies at the University of Miami.
Sheskin, one of the best known of today’s Jewish demographers, conducted the survey of 1,076 Jewish households, which were identified after dialing 27,000 random phone numbers and numbers with “Jewish-sounding” names.
Sheskin was in Middlesex Jan. 8-12 to explain the results in various venues throughout the county.
A community summit meeting is planned for Feb. 22, after officials, committees, and the public have a chance to digest and analyze the information, said federation executive director Gerrie Bamira.
Sheskin was hired at a cost of $125,000 by the Middlesex federation, which conducts an umbrella fund-raising campaign for an array of local Jewish service providers, including schools, a family service agency, and a Jewish community center.
Such surveys have become essential planning tools for Jewish federations around the country.
“It is money well spent,” said federation president Lee Livingston. “We are looking to redirect our resources to the proper areas where they are needed most.”
Livingston acknowledged the survey confirmed some things the federation already knew. However, federation officials also noted that over the next 10 years, it would take in millions of dollars and that the information gleaned from the survey will allow it to make more informed planning decisions.
Last year’s campaign raised approximately $2.5 million, of which over $1 million stayed in the local community, with the remaining allocations going to Israel and other overseas needs, said federation associate executive director Susan Antman.
Of that total, about $320,000 was allocated for Jewish education. Recipients include synagogue religious schools and the area’s three Jewish day schools, Rabbi Pesach Raymon Yeshiva, Moshe Aaron Yeshiva High School, and Solomon Schechter Day School of Raritan Valley.
Antman said the federation also locally allocates funds to other institutions and agencies, such as Jewish Family & Vocational Service of Middlesex County, Jewish Social Services Agency, and the Jewish Community Center of Middlesex County, which provide significant programs and services for seniors.
The survey found that despite the median age of the Jewish population — 55 — there are approximately 10,000 Jewish children (8,400 being raised Jewish) in the county, with the largest majority, 23 percent, living in Highland Park/south Edison.
NJJN attended a Jan. 8 presentation made to institutions, organizations, and agencies and a Jan. 9 press briefing, both at the federation’s South River offices.
Sheskin, who has conducted other such surveys in 43 Jewish communities nationally, said Middlesex County’s Jewish population has dropped modestly since 2000 but appears to have stabilized, boosted by continued growth in Monroe’s adult communities.
“There has been a continued shift to the south,” said Sheskin. “About two-thirds of households who have moved to Middlesex in the past five years have moved to the south. Half the new residents are retired.”
The population loss was most dramatic in the northern parts of the county, such as in Woodbridge, north Edison, and Perth Amboy, where synagogues and Jewish institutions have closed in recent years as Jews moved out.
Sheskin said five zip codes in the county had three-quarters of the Jewish population. “This makes Middlesex the most clustered community out there,” said Sheskin, as he showed a map indicating clusters in Monroe, Highland Park/South Edison — with its high concentration of Orthodox Jews — and East Brunswick.
One upside to concentrated populations is that it makes the delivery of services easier, Sheskin said, such as health care or meals-on-wheels for Monroe’s seniors.
Fourteen percent of married Jews reported they are intermarried, the second-lowest percentage of any of the 55 Jewish communities surveyed. Middlesex’s community also came in among the highest among those surveyed in participation in the following religious practices: always or usually attending a Passover seder (83 percent), always or usually lighting Hanukka candles (84 percent), always or usually lighting Sabbath candles (25 percent), keeping a kosher home (23 percent), and having a mezuza on the front door (83 percent).
Only 8 percent of Jews reported personally experiencing anti-Semitism in the last year, the second-lowest of all communities surveyed, with only South Palm Beach in Florida coming in lower, at 7 percent. By contrast, 31 percent of Jews in the Orlando area reported experiencing anti-Semitism.
The median household income for Jews in Middlesex County is $90,000 with 44 percent of households reporting an annual income of more than $100,000. By contrast the median household income for county residents is $75,000 with only 35 percent having incomes above $100,000, said Sheskin. Middlesex ranked fourth-highest in incomes above $100,000 among Jewish communities surveyed.
The graying of the population is borne out by the finding that 36 percent are 65 and older, including 23 percent who are over 75 years. Importantly, the 20,000 Jewish elderly represent about 20 percent of the 100,000 elderly persons in Middlesex County.
Among the attendees at the Jan. 8 presentation were Stephanie Fitzsimmons, nurse manager at St. Peter’s University Hospital, and Lisa Catlin, administrator of the hospital’s adult day care center in Monroe. The hospital operates satellite nursing offices at six adult communities in Monroe.
Catlin said she thought the survey was “fantastic because it will help us look at the needs of the elderly in Monroe. We really need to take a look at the needs of the Jewish community because they are a huge percentage of the population there. It’s not that we don’t already, but after listening to the information today, maybe we need to look even closer.”
Laura Safran, federation allocations director, spoke enthusiastically of the attendance at the Jan. 8 presentation, which included about 60 people, “many of whom we’ve never had contact with.”
The survey, she said, “will allow us to partner with many agencies throughout the county. There are grant writers here. This will allow us to really work outside the box.”
Isha Vyas, history services grants coordinator for the Middlesex County Cultural and Heritage Commission, pointed to findings showing that 37 percent of respondents had attended a theater, music, or dance program in the last year because it had Jewish content. She said that would help her agency with future planning.
“We wanted to learn what programming the Jewish community would be interested in,” she said. “After sitting here today I’ve become more aware and have lots of ideas.”