November 18, 2019

Who Are the Jews of the City of Angels?

Most Los Angeles Jewish voters support liberal positions on domestic policy issues, identify more as Democrats than as Republicans, and strongly disapprove of President Donald Trump’s performance. For the majority who oppose the president’s re-election, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) tops their preference list.

Most Jewish voters do not belong to a synagogue or temple and define their Jewish identity as “ethnic” rather than “religious.” At the same time, Jewish voters strongly endorse the preservation of Israel as a Jewish state, are worried about rising anti-Semitism, and express support of Israel even when there are policy disagreements with Israel’s government.

These are some of the major findings of the Jewish Voter Survey of more than 1,800 Los Angeles County Jewish voters, conducted by the Pat Brown Institute for Public Affairs at Cal State LA in partnership with Evitarus, under the direction of managing partner and lead researcher Shakari Byerly. The initial poll findings were released Oct. 3 at the Wilshire Boulevard Temple in Koreatown. In this story, we dive deeper into the data to help promote a community conversation.

The PBI/Cal State LA Jewish Poll is part of a pathbreaking project to survey four major racial and ethnic communities in Los Angeles County: Asian Americans and Latinos (conducted in 2016); and African Americans and Jews, both completed in 2019. The Jewish community is one of the core communities of L.A. County, with a long history of civic engagement and intergroup activity. We will be comparing the results across these communities to search for what they have in common and what is unique to each of them.

“We found an actively engaged Jewish community, deeply embedded in the civic arena, and highly informed about public affairs.”

Los Angeles is home to the third-largest Jewish community in the world after Israel and New York City, with an estimated population of half a million. Yet, there hasn’t been a full examination of L.A. County Jews for more than two decades — since a 1997 Jewish Population Survey sponsored by The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, which conducted a previous survey in 1979. 

We found an actively engaged Jewish community, deeply embedded in the civic arena, and highly informed about public affairs. To a degree unusual in today’s United States, Jewish voters of all ages follow events through newspapers in print or online (68%); they also sign petitions and send letters to public officials (77%); attend rallies and meetings (44%); and support both Jewish (44%) and non-Jewish (77%) charities and causes. Levels of education are extraordinarily high, with 77% having a college or postgraduate degree, including 37% with a graduate degree.

We asked several questions about Jewish identity and found that when given the choice, the majority (63%) of respondents thought of being Jewish primarily as an “ethnic” identity, compared with 25% who thought of themselves primarily as Jewish by religion. Most Jewish voters (69%) are “unaffiliated” with a synagogue or temple, while a third belong or someone in their household does. This finding is consistent with the 1979 and 1997 L.A. surveys finding synagogue membership to be 25% and 34%, respectively. Attendance at religious services is relatively low, with 46% saying “never” or “almost never,” and another 15% going approximately once a year (presumably for the High Holy Days).

On the other hand, 55% list a specific denomination, such as Reform, Conservative or Orthodox. In other words, more Jewish voters describe themselves as members of a denomination than are affiliated with a synagogue or temple.

Concerning the Holocaust, our survey demonstrates that the many years of effort by organizations and individuals to keep the recollections and testimony of that monstrous crime alive across the generations in the Jewish community has not been in vain.

A clear majority (58%) indicated that being Jewish was very or somewhat important in their lives. When asked what being Jewish meant, large numbers of Jewish voters said remembering the Holocaust (95%), being involved in social justice activities (87%), celebrating Jewish holidays (68%) and caring about Israel (69%). Nearly one-third (31%) follow Jewish-oriented media.

With the impending passing of the generation of those who could directly testify to the Holocaust, will the torch of remembrance be passed on? When examined by age, we find that younger voters have not “forgotten” the Holocaust. Our survey demonstrates that the many years of effort by organizations and individuals to keep the recollections and testimony of that monstrous crime alive across the generations in the Jewish community has not been in vain. The importance of that memory is shared by 90% of millennials (ages 18 to 38), 96% of Generation X (ages 39 to 54), 98% of baby boomers (ages 55 to 73) and 98% of the silent generation (ages 74 and older).

“Los Angeles is home to the third-largest Jewish community in the world. Yet there hasn’t been a full examination of L.A. County Jews for more than two decades.”

Nearly three-quarters (73%) of Jewish voters strongly endorsed the need for the preservation of Israel as a Jewish state, including 55% of millennials, 70% of Generation X, 84% of boomers and 88% of the silent generation. Jewish voters clearly support Israel, even where there are disagreements with that government’s policies. A heavy majority (86%) described themselves as “generally pro-Israel,” although that group comprised three segments: approximately one-fifth overall (19%) were “supportive of the current government’s policies”; 31% were “critical of some of the current government’s policies”; and 36% were “critical of many of the government’s policies.” 

The demographics of these Jewish voters held some surprises. Nearly two-thirds have lived in L.A. County for longer than 20 years, and only 1 in 5 have children younger than 18 at home. But despite the image of an affluent and settled community, there are plenty of Jewish voters struggling economically in a metropolis where housing is expensive and often out of reach for young people. Fully 40% of Jewish voters are renters, 7% live with parents and 1% are without housing. These housing patterns also reflect the challenge facing younger voters planning their futures in Los Angeles. Fifteen percent of Jewish voters have household incomes of less than $50,000 a year and 6% of less than $30,000.

While many characterize Jews as “white,” only 83% of respondents selected that designation. We found small but collectively significant numbers of Latino/Hispanic, African American, Middle Eastern and other Jewish voters who, together, defined themselves as nonwhite. A high percentage (12%) identified as LGBTQ. We also found 44% of Jewish voters came from households where one or both parents were not Jewish.

The longstanding tendency of Jewish voters to lean toward Democrats and to support liberal causes is reflected in our poll. Democratic identifiers (54%) far outweigh Republicans (13%). On the issues we tested, Jewish voters were strongly liberal, with the most intense backing for liberal social issues: 

Support for same-sex marriage 89%
Pro-choice 83%
Support for gun control 83%
Path to citizenship for undocumented residents 72%
Support Affordable Care Act 71%

Opposition to President Trump (75% disapproval, 70% strongly disapproving) and his reelection (74%) was significantly higher than the Democratic share of party identifiers, and was most intense among the youngest Jewish voters.

Among those voters who said they opposed Trump’s reelection, the largest support went to Warren. She outpaced former Vice President Joe Biden, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), Mayor Pete Buttigieg and Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.). Biden’s support comes from the oldest voters, Sanders gets his core backing from the youngest and Warren’s backing is consistent across age groups.

“Despite the image of an affluent and settled community, there are plenty of Jewish voters who are struggling economically in a metropolis where housing is expensive and often out of reach for young people.” 

On ideology, younger voters are the most liberal. On party, the lines are fairly similar across age groups.

Despite these numbers, the Jewish community is not a political monolith. For example, Orthodox Jewish voters endorse political positions at variance with the larger Jewish population.

We oversampled traditional Orthodox neighborhoods such as Beverly-La Brea and Pico-Robertson, and ultimately interviewed 99 voters who identified as Orthodox, which is just at the edge of statistical significance. Orthodox Jewish voters identified as strong Republicans (43%) compared with 6% of all Jewish voters. Only 15% of Orthodox respondents were strong Democrats, compared with 40% overall. Trump’s approval rating among Orthodox Jews is 70% compared with 23% overall, although one-quarter of Orthodox Jews strongly disapprove of the president. A clear majority of Orthodox Jewish voters endorsed the option of generally supporting Israel and the policies of its government.

On issues, Jewish Republicans endorse positions that are different from Jewish voters in the survey overall, with the closest alignment across parties being on the pro-choice position on abortion.

Jewish voters in Los Angeles County are very worried about rising anti-Semitism (75% extremely or very seriously concerned). Hate crimes against Jews and Jewish institutions have been on the rise, with violence in Pittsburgh and Poway and a recent attack near a synagogue in Germany raising new fears. The survey shows a considerably higher level of concern about anti-Semitism than the 1979 and 1997 Los Angeles Jewish population studies.

The anti-Semitism question allowed for open-ended responses, opening the door to a deeper understanding of Jewish voters’ concerns. We received a significant number of comments — some being quite extensive — indicating anti-Semitism in various forms is very much on the minds of Jewish voters. When put into categories, there were three types of comments about anti-Semitism. The most numerous concerned the rise of white nationalism and the “alt-right”; a smaller but significant number cited rhetoric from public officials and others on the progressive side regarding Israel and Jews; a third group cited more generalized phenomena, including Holocaust denial, a general rise in anti-minority sentiment, and anti-Semitism online and in social media.

The Jewish Voter Survey revealed a dynamic, diverse, engaged, concerned and committed Los Angeles Jewish community. The connection of this survey to our polls of three other major communities of Los Angeles provides a valuable perspective. Each community is deeply unified around certain core issues of survival and beliefs yet at the same time is divided internally over the gap between the religious and the secular points of view, and on key political and social issues. Each community is working to engage its younger members who, in turn, have their own points of view of what issues and commitments are most important.

“The Jewish community is  not a political monolith.”

We found very substantial differences between younger and older voters among Asian Americans, Latinos, African Americans and Jewish voters. Yet there were some areas in which the generations are on the same page. These age dynamics are critically important for understanding where each community is going and for the possibilities of intergroup work.

We have many more months of study ahead of us and look forward to sharing what we gather with the wider community. We will further examine the impact of gender, religious affiliation, racial identification and other variables. A survey like this is just one signpost, and more surveys will be vital. We hope it is the start of a productive conversation.


Raphael J. Sonenshein is executive director of the Pat Brown Institute for Public Affairs at Cal State LA. For more information about the Jewish Voter Survey and the institute’s four-group survey project, click here. The survey was supported by the Diane and Guilford Glazer Philanthropies, former State Sen. Alan Sieroty and a number of individual donors.