More Jewish Geography– Israel vs. the San Francisco Bay Area

When people talk about Jews and Israel, many appear to view the Jews as a monolithic group. This would be a mistake. My previous post shows that, as a percentage of the world’s population, the Jews are barely a rounding error at approximately 13.3 million out of a global population of 6.6 billion, or 0.20%. Further, there are more Jews in the United States than in Israel, and the Jews in the United States account for approximately 1.9% of the 295 million Americans.

So how are the Jews divided between themselves? First, most people who identify themselves as Jews do not observe their own religion—either in Israel or in the United States. Second, in Israel, a monopoly on Jewish ritual observance has been granted by the government to the ultra-orthodox or haredim, who account for only about 6% of the Jewish population, in return for their support of the majority governing coalition in the Knesset (Jewish Parliament). Wikipedia provides us with some important statistics about Israel’s divided Jewish population:

According to Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics, at the end of 2004, 76.2% of Israelis were Jews by religion. Muslims made up 16.1% of Israelis, 2.1% were Christian, 1.6% were Druze and the remaining 3.9% (including Russian immigrants and some Jews) were not classified by religion.[2]

Official figures do not exist as to the number of atheists or otherwise non-affiliated individuals, who may comprise up to a quarter of the population referred to as Jewish.

According to one study, 6% of Israeli Jews define themselves as haredim (or Ultra-Orthodox); an additional 9% are "religious" (predominantly orthodox, also known in Israel as: Zionist-religious, national-religious and Kepot Srogot); 34% consider themselves "traditionalists" (not strictly adhering to Jewish Halakha); and 51% are "secular". Among the seculars, 53% say they believe in God(s).

I have also reviewed the 2004 Jewish Community Study published by the Jewish Community Federation of San Francisco, The Peninsula, Marin, and Sonoma Counties, which reveals very interesting demographic information about the Bay Area Jewish community. Since 1984, the Bay Area Jewish population has increased by a whopping 91% to approximately 228,000 people. Recognizing that the Bay Area may is more liberal than the rest of the United States and that Northern California Jews may be among the most liberal people in the world, a side by side comparison of the religious identification between Bay Area Jews and Israel’s Jews is very interesting:

2004 Data



SF Bay Area



















Jewish Renewal




At most, 15% of Israeli Jews are Orthodox, compared to 3% in the Bay Area. By any standard, this represents a very small minority.

Why are there no Conservative or Reform Jews in Israel? Because, according to the State of Israel, Reform and Conservative Judaism do not officially exist. (There are Reform and Conservative synagogues in Israel, with active congregations, but they receive no State funding, whereas the Orthodox synagogues are richly supported by the State.)

Meanwhile, 55% of Bay Area Jews are either Reform or Conservative (I grew up as a Conservative Jew in Puerto Rico and now belong to one of the largest Reform congregations in the United States, San Francisco’s Temple Emanu El). Approximately 1.5 million, or 26%, of American Jews are Reform out of 5.7 million Jews in the U.S.

34% of Israeli Jews are “traditionalist”. I don’t know what that means, but I am guessing that it means they would be either Reform or Conservative if that option existed in Israel. (Reform and Conservative Judaism have emerged over different intepretations of Halakha.)

And a whopping 51% of Israeli Jews are “secular”, meaning non-observant. This means that 85% of Israeli Jews operate OUTSIDE of the only recognized Jewish religious practice—orthodoxy.And this is a Jewish state that is a democracy?

According to the Federation Survey, between 53% and 80% of Bay Area Jews, divided by age group and family unit, belong to “NOTHING”. This means that, while they may describe themselves as Reform or Conservative or Reconstructionist or Orthodox, they are, for all intents and purposes, unaffiliated with an organized Jewish religious organization.

So there are many similarities between the San Francisco Bay Area’s Jews and the Jews of the State of Israel—most of them are unaffiliated, very few are orthodox, and the majority in both countries are not recognized by the Jewish State as being eligible for official recognition and support.

To be clear, I am an active supporter of Israel in both business and in my philanthropy, and I feel great solidarity with the people of Israel during these times of extreme angst and turmoil. But one might think that, with all of the tragedy we have endured as a people for thousands of years, with our dwindling numbers, and with the increasing trend of anti-Semitism in this world, we Jews could find more reasons to come together than to remain fragmented in the Diaspora.

Be Sociable, Share!

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.