By Grant F. Smith

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Evolving Jewish Demographics in Virginia

Estimates from the 2011 DJN [Distinctive Jewish Names] update study: Just under 10,000 Jewish persons live in 5,000 Jewish households (HH) in the Richmond, VA area. An additional 3,100 non-Jewish persons live in these households (24% of the total of 13,000 people in Richmond Jewish HH). Jewish Federations of North America[1]

Overall in the United States, Jews only make up about 2.2 percent of the population.[2] The largest population concentrations are New York City, Miami, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Chicago, San Francisco, Boston and Baltimore-Washington. As a state, Virginia is nowhere near the top of the list.

Demographics estimates about Virginia vary. The U.S. Census Bureau does not ask relevant questions about religion or ethnicity, and has not done so since the 1950s. In the race category, the 2020 census form will allow people to respond that they are white, black, or native American, as well as Chinese, Filipino, Asian Indian and other categories. Under “white” it allows respondents to elaborate, suggesting “Print, for example, German, Irish, English, Italian, Lebanese, Egyptian, etc.” Theoretically, a percentage of respondents could respond “White” and then write in “Jewish” into the census response. But the result would likely be highly inconsistent, and whether or how it would be reported equally uncertain.

The Jewish Virtual Library, an online resource run by former American Israel Public Affairs Committee newsletter editor Mitchell Bard, once kept close track of populations by state and claims that:

In 2001 approximately 66,000 residents were of the Jewish faith, comprising just 0.9 of the state’s [Virginia’s] total population. One of the fastest growing Jewish populations in the country, the largest Jewish community resides in Northern Virginia (35,000), followed by the Tidewater (20,000), Richmond (12,500), Roanoke (1,050), and Charlottesville (1,000). Fredericksburg, Harrisonburg, Petersburg, Staunton, and Lynchburg have small Jewish populations. Northern Virginia was once considered not a place where Jews would live, but its Jewish population has grown.[3]

Pew’s Portrait of Jewish Americans

Pew Research stepped up to the challenge of measuring what matters to Jewish Americans when it released its “Portrait of Jewish Americans” in 2013. In it, Pew claimed, “the question of how many Jewish Americans there are does not have a simple answer. That’s because the number of Jews in the U.S. depends on how one defines a Jew…” Pew settled on casting a “wide net” for the purposes of its analysis, and then allowed online users to apply filters to an interactive tool to either narrow or widen the estimated total population based on different definitions:

There are about 4.2 million American adults who say they are Jewish by religion, representing 1.8% of the U.S. adult population. But there are roughly 5.3 million Jews (2.2% of the adult population) if the total also includes ‘Jews of no religion,’ a group of people who say they are atheist, agnostic or “nothing in particular” when asked about their religion but who were raised Jewish or have a Jewish parent and who still consider themselves Jewish aside from religion. This is the net Jewish population as defined by the Pew Research report.

Pew’s analysis of Jewish assimilation through intermarriage with non-Jews and that two-thirds of Jews claiming no religious affiliation were not raising their children as Jewish added to the alarm of Jewish federation leadership, which had long been tracking the issue. Pew also claimed that 82 percent of Americans of Jewish faith did not belong to Jewish organizations. Those surveyed were only “somewhat” or “not at all” attached to Israel (70 percent) with most never having traveled there. (57 percent). Some 44 percent stated that they thought Israeli settlement building was a bad idea.

2017 Greater Washington Jewish Community Demographic Study

Perhaps alarmed by Pew’s data, on February 6, 2018, one of the nation’s most politically active Israel affinity organizations, the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington which covers Northern Virginia, Maryland and Washington, DC released its own survey.[4] For good reasons federations have moved away from using the term “assimilated” and “non-assimilated” as discussed in the first chapter. This Jewish federation survey report used the term “inmarried” for Jews married to Jews, and “intermarried” for households with a Jewish and a non-Jewish partner.

Some of the survey data and analysis should probably be taken with a grain of salt. The federation that sponsored it has an advocacy role and likely hopes to leverage such data into influence. Nevertheless, the results are credible, somewhat consistent with Pew and revelatory as a recent snapshot of Virginia and beyond.

The study estimates the “Greater Washington DC” Jewish community consisted of 300,000 Jewish adults and children in 2017. This population grew 37 percent between 2003 and 2017, while the overall population in the same region grew only 22 percent over the same period. This Virginia, Maryland, DC population politically identified as 72 percent Democratic Party, six percent Republican Party and 22 percent independent or other.

Their levels of education, income and professional achievement are stellar, with 92 percent having earned at least a bachelor’s degree (versus only 33.4 percent of the general U.S. population) and 28 percent holding post-graduate degrees (versus 13.1 percent of the general population).[5]

They occupy influential career positions commensurate with this advanced training, including federal, state or local government jobs (37 percent), education jobs (14 percent), science, technology, engineering and math jobs (13 percent), business and finance jobs (13 percent) the legal system, and human-service sector jobs (12 percent).

Their high rate of employment across federal, state, district or local government implies that within the survey population of Virginia, Maryland and DC 57,424 Jewish adults work inside government. If the same government participation rate holds for the entire state of Virginia, it implies 22,500 Jewish Virginians also work in government.

In terms of income, 40 percent reported an average household income of $150,000 per year, with 16 percent reporting income of greater than $250,000 yearly. In 2016 the U.S. Census Bureau reported median U.S. incomes reached their highest level ever at $59,039. Only 12 percent of the Jewish population surveyed reported their household income as less than $50,000 per year.

Wealth, Charitable Giving and Campaign Contributions

This wealth translates into charitable giving at very high levels according to the study, with 87 percent having donated in 2017. In 2016, the overall share of American households giving to charity was estimated at around half (53.1 percent) according to a study by the University of Michigan Lilly School.[6]

If the survey asked any questions about political giving, the data and analysis were not published. However, data disclosed about household income and charitable giving can be used to make an estimate of the potential aggregate political campaign contribution  power of the surveyed population.

A detailed study conducted by nonprofit software and services provider Blackbaud compared one million contributors to the 2012 election cycle from the Federal Election Commission database to its own proprietary database of 21 million U.S. households making charitable contributions. It found 400,000 matches, and published data about the correlation between giving to charitable organizations and giving to political campaigns.[7] Blackbaud’s overall conclusion was that:

 Giving of inviduals who prize engagement—who see community action as a positive…are interested in the full political and social spectrum of how we go about achieving change.”

The study found that households with earnings at or below the median U.S. income were largely irrelevant as political campaign contributors (Accounting for 12.5 percent of total 2012 political giving.) Since 81 percent of the 155,000 Jewish households in the VA-DC-MD survey earn over $50,000, with each household 34 percent more likely to donate to charity than average households, what inferences can be drawn about this population from the perspective of Virginia state politicians?

Cross referencing the Blackbaud study with census and other data suggests that Virginia politicians targeting “campaign contribution  relevant” households within nearly three million state households would encounter approximately 860,000 households of interest. The vast majority of them (800,000) would be non-Jewish and 60,000 would identify as Jewish. The total potential annual campaign contributions of relevant Virginia households, cross referencing Census and Blackbaud data would be $115 million per year. The correlation between higher charitable giving and greater household wealth would make Jewish household campaign contribution potential in Virginia nearly $25 million per year, vs $90 million for all other campaign contribution relevant households.

This means that just seven percent of campaign contribution  relevant households could deliver 28 percent of total potential contributions. A great number of these households would likely prefer giving to Democratic Party candidates. But what specific issues would politicians perceive they needed to emphasize in order to tap that segment?

According to the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington survey of Virginia, Maryland and DC, the affinity for Israel of the state of Virginia may be higher than the national average explored by Pew Research in 2013. Some 68 percent of the region’s Jewish residents have been to Israel at least once, and 4 percent of the population surveyed actually have Israeli citizenship. Over half—54 percent of the population—claim close family or friends live in Israel.

Given these more geographically focused data points, it is reasonable to assume the professional, wealthy, highly educated Jewish population of the Virginia, Maryland, DC area is by nature one of the most heavily courted and listened to by politicians—and that politicians emphasize “support for Israel” as their default setting. A Virginia politician probably believes that taking a proactive position on the Israel issue might provide entry into a potential $25 million annual Virginia campaign contribution  bucket, perhaps intuitively without knowing particular numbers.

The Jewish Federation of Greater Washington survey validates one of Pew’s 2013 conclusions, “…due to lack of interest or lack of opportunity, nearly half of Jewish households and families remain largely disconnected from the organized Jewish community.”[8] But that does not make it an un-addressable community that lacks interconnectivity and internal communication channels. That is because, according to the survey:

Personal friendships and interactions are important to the Jews of Greater Washington. The vast majority (95%) of Jews in Metro DC have at least some friends who are Jewish, and 60% say at least half of their closest friends are Jewish. Informal and cultural activities include Jewish activities and participation in Jewish life outside of the framework of organizations. Discussing Jewish topics was the most common activity, followed by eating Jewish foods and seeking information about Judaism online. Jewish culture includes reading Jewish books, listening to Jewish music, or attending Jewish performances or museums.[9]

Israel advocacy to generate Jewish community support in the form of campaign contributions is likely a “no-brainer” for Virginia politicians. But what about the growing numbers within the Democratic Party base—including Jews—that hold increasingly negative views about Israel because of its policies?

In an April 1-15 2019 Pew Research Center poll, 61 percent of Republicans held favorable views of the Israeli government while 67 percent of Democrats held unfavorable views.[10] The issue seems like a clear example of a bona fide difference between two parties that have somewhat indistinguishable policies when it comes to endless war, interventionist foreign policy, and deference to big business and Wall Street.

An addressable “Israel Accountability” demographic?

Could grassroots Democrats in Virginia and elsewhere be courted through “hold Israel accountable” messaging from politicians seeking to pressure that country on its human rights issues and motivate a fair deal with Palestinians? On the surface, the overall environment seems increasingly favorable. In general, the majority in the country believe U.S. aid to Israel is excessive, with 58 percent saying it was “too much” in 2018, and 60.2 percent saying the same thing in 2019.[11] So why don’t any Virginia Democratic Party politicians aspiring for state office target this potentially large voting population via “hold Israel accountable” messaging?

One reason may be that politicians probably believe that any move in that direction would mean permanently dashing hopes of receiving support from Virginia’s establishment Jewish campaign contributor segment that holds high affinity for Israel. And the challenges in finding and addressing potential Jewish dissidents and non-Jewish donors within the $90 million general campaign contributor segment are daunting.

If 60 percent are generally in favor of cutting aid to Israel, they represent an addressable donor market of $54 million. This is consistent with polling that suggests that up to 30 percent of Virginia’s population are evangelical Protestants holding strong beliefs that supporting Israel is a religious mandate. [12]

But if the hypothetical politician wanted to launch campaign messaging to the remaining members of the pool, he or she would probably have to position excessive foreign aid and unconditional support to Israel within an acceptable category in order to communicate with voters and pass muster with mass media outlets. If the politician framed aid to Israel as a “government/poor leadership” issue, polling data suggests that would resonate as the top issue for only 24 percent of the population.[13] But even if completely successful, it reduces the hypothetical addressable campaign contribution  pool to only $13 million. The politician would also quickly discover there is not really any efficient way to tap existing networks to communicate with this segment. Aside from a few loosely organized human rights groups with email lists and Facebook pages, there are not many means for efficiently communicating with people wanting to support politicians determined to hold Israel more accountable.

Another challenge facing any politician attempting to legislate policies for the “accountability” segment is that such policies would likely be defeated before they were fully drafted. With 22,500 Jewish Virginians working in various levels of government and 76 percent holding emotional attachments to Israel (17,100), given the high levels of intercommunication, word about accountability measures would spread quickly, and effective countermeasures might become the topic of the week.

Word would also likely quickly get back to stakeholders in Israel. Some of these messages might even be sent by Israelis. That is because if 4 percent of the Virginia state (like the greater VA-MD-DC) Jewish population are also Israeli citizens, with a connection beyond emotional attachment to Israel, word would also quickly spread to that country by the estimated 684 concerned Israeli dual citizens holding Virginia government jobs. This all might be why the “default” setting for Virginia politicians is mostly automatic, robust support for Israel. Of course, robust automatic support for Israel alone is insufficient to win Jewish voters. That has already been convincingly demonstrated.

President Donald Trump officially recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, installed a slate of hardliner Israel partisans to negotiate an Israel Palestine settlement, and recognized Israel’s sovereignty over Syria’s Golan Heights. None of this caused any significant defection of Jewish Democratic Party supporters who vote with Democrats because they are not single issue voters and also care deeply about health care, social justice, immigrant welfare and climate change.[14]

Unlimited Corporate and Individual Campaign Contributions

Also, the Virginia campaign contribution  scene and political calculations are much more complicated than the extrapolations presented above. Within the 24 percent of greater Washington Jews not holding any emotional attachment to Israel, some are very “detached” indeed and actively working with likeminded fellow Jews and others to hold Israel accountable. These individuals and their extended community can easily be contacted at groups such as Jewish Voice for Peace.

Also, not only are Virginia politicians tapping contributors from across the United States, Virginia is among a handful of states that allow direct, unlimited campaign contributions by anyone under state election law. That means all individuals and corporations whether located in Virginia or not.

Candidate for governor Terry McAuliffe received two out of state donations totaling more than a million dollars that looked like down-payments on pro-Israel policy. The first was $572,636 from Haim Saban, producer of the “Power Rangers” franchise whose most famous quote is, "I'm a one-issue guy, and my issue is Israel." In 2003, after Saban donated $7 million to the Democratic National Committee, then-party chairman McAuliffe called Saban and told him, “you’re the man!”[15]

The other gubernatorial race donor was $776,076 from billionaire JB Pritzker who is now the elected governor of Illinois and longtime supporter of pro-Israel charities such as Friends of the IDF, which builds recreational facilities for Israel’s military.

Across the United States, compiling lists of vocal, billionaire pro-Israel Jewish political mega contributors are easy and has become a bit of a cliché. Sheldon Adelson, Michael Bloomberg, Paul Singer, Bernard Marcus, Seth Klarman, Daniel Abraham, Leslie Wexner, Irving Moskowitz, Stephen Spielberg.[16]

In contrast, if there are as many Jewish mega-donors using their wealth to influence politicians to hold Israel accountable, they are not yet widely publicly known. If they do exist, they probably contribute privately to non-profits or dark money groups rather than as individuals or corporations in a manner that is publicly disclosed. To do otherwise would be to place oneself at risk of being ostracized, boycotted, labeled anti-Semitic or a self-hating Jew, or marginalized in other ways.

Although foreign nationals are technically banned by federal law from contributing to political campaigns, there is little standing in the way of a U.S.-incorporated subsidiary of a foreign corporation making a significant contribution to Virginia politicians.[17] Many Virginia state legislators are in “constant campaign mode,” some receive tens of thousands of dollars per week from corporations and individuals. Spending by “dark money” groups that claim not to coordinate with candidates, but which invest additional millions in advertising including social media campaigns, further complicate any watchdog efforts to link campaign contributions to legislation and other political action made on behalf of the contributor.

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[2] Pew Research Center, Religion and Public Life, A Portrait of Jewish Americans, October 1, 2013, “Population Estimates”

[3] “Jewish Virtual Library, “Virginia”

[4] Brandeis University, Steinhardt Social Research Institute, version 1.2, March 21, 2018. “2017 Greater Washington Jewish Community Demographic Study”

[5] U.S. Census Bureau, Educational Attainment I the United States: 2018

[6] 2018 Giving USA report, citing the University of Michigan Lilly School’s Philanthropy Panel Study.

[7] Blackbaud, May 23, 2016, “Giving in an Election Year”

[8] Brandeis University, Steinhardt Social Research Institute, version 1.2, March 21, 2018. p. 83 “2017 Greater Washington Jewish Community Demographic Study”

[9] Brandeis University, Steinhardt Social Research Institute, version 1.2, March 21, 2018. p. 65 “2017 Greater Washington Jewish Community Demographic Study”

[10] Pew Research Center, April 24, 2109 “U.S. Public Has Favorable View of Israel’s People, but Is Less Positive Toward Its Government,”

[11] IRmep polls on American adult support for U.S. aid to Israel conducted through Google Surveys, 2017-2018,

[12] Pew Research Center, Religion and Public Life, Adults in Virginia, “Religious composition of adults in Virginia,”

[13] Gallup poll, March-September 2019 average percentage of Americans, “Most Important Problem”

[14] NPR, Morning Edition, August 22, 2019, “Trump’s 'Disloyalty' Claim About Jewish Democrats Shows He Doesn't Get How They Vote”

[15] Daunt, Tina, Los Angeles Times, April 22, 2009, “Loyal friend to Israel and Democrats”

[16], Top Individual Contributors, All Federal Elections,

[17] Schwarz, Jon, The Intercept, June 1, 2016, “VA Gov. Terry McAuliffe Took $120k From A Chinese Billionaire — But The Crime Is That It Was Legal”