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What’s in a Number?

The Census results have been released, and the Jewish population of Western Australia has officially grown to 5,855 self declared Jews.  This is up from 5,294 in the 2006 Census and 5,125 in the 2001 Census.  The growth rate, of more than 10%, is in line with the Australian Jewish experience as a whole.  The 2001 Census showed 83,992 Jews in Australia, 89,000 in 2006, and in the recently released 2011 data, a 9.58% increase to 97,335 people.

Traditionally enumerators and analysts have suggested an under enumeration of 20%, in which case, there would be about 7,000 Jewish people in Western Australia.  I believe this estimation to be fairly accurate.

It has been noted that the general Australian trend for “religious denomination” shows the continual trend towards secular affiliation.  Many Jews in Australia do not define their Jewish identity in religious terms, yet still mark their census forms as “Jewish” as a matter of pride.  Other Jewish people feel uneasy about disclosing their identity, and as the checkbox option of “Jewish” is not included on the form (due to the relative community size Jewish people need to check “other” and list their Jewish affiliation), there is a propensity towards under enumeration.

With or without an embellished figure, our population as a Jewish community is small.  In a State of 2,239,170 people, we comprise the sum total of a little over a quarter of one percent.  Our limited visibility is continually declining.

Other diverse ethnic and religious communities in Perth continue to grow at extraordinary rates.  In the religious states, 57.9% of Perth remains Christian, 2.1% (36,350) are Muslim, and 1.1% (19,800) are Hindu.  Yet the minor religions, and many ethnic Asian communities of Perth have grown by several hundred percent during the last term of Census.

It is pleasing to see that the Perth Jewish population is increasing and not declining.  However beyond the numbers, it is, as they say in yiddish, nischt azaiy pashoot, not so simple.

Whereas 69.1% of the Australian population was born in Australia this figure falls to 62.3% for Western Australia.  For Perth Jews, the figure is less than 40%, highlighting the important influence on migration.   Perth Jewry has always been, and will for the forseeable future remain a transient community.  The immigration also contributes to the younger demographic within our community, and somewhat conceals the aging profile of the more static and permanently based portion of our community.

If the Perth Jewish community wanted to take a real census and health check, it would be to track some other statistics from 2001, 2006 and 2011.  If the number of collective paying shule memberships, other community group memberships, the number of Carmel School enrolments, or the value of charitable funds collected were used as a gauge, I believe the story told by the numbers would be somewhat alarming.  I believe it would validate the claim that we have much activity to be highly proud of.  Yet at the same time the profile would evidence that we are not living within our means, and that the overheads associated with operating organistions and maintaining infrastructure far exceed our ultimate capacity to continue to fund what we currently enjoy.

About 15 years ago there was a major initiative in Perth, led by Carmel School in the form of an immigration committee.  Dubbed “10,000 by 2000” the objective was to lift the Jewish population to that level by that year.  By riding the wave of South African immigration at that time, the work of this initiative was moderately successful.  However the energy of that period has long since waned.  I often wonder what our community would be like today if that vision had been fully realised?  I wonder how our living environment would be so dynamically different if the Northern Suburbs communities had flourished under the inspired Rabbinic leadership that was created and recreated on several occasions.  What if the many dozens of religious observant families that left for the sake of an advanced yeshivah level education for their children had stayed here and been able to build that infrastructure locally?  How different would our census profile look?

Of course, the Jewish experience anywhere in the world is driven by quality, and not quantity.  We have so much to be proud of and thankful for, and are far from the brink of despair.  Yet the census data is perhaps a prompt towards a call for action by the Perth Jewish community.  It is high time that another whole of community conversation was initiated so that we can map out of future communal ambitions and structures.

Linked to this, the next probable source for a migration wave is the Eastern States of Australia.  The Perth Jewish community remains Australia’s third largest Jewish community and represent 6% of Australian Jewry.  Western Australia as a State is the economic powerhouse of Australia, and with a little assistance from Queensland is delivering Australia its wealth and employment growth.  WA is outperforming and outgrowing Australia in every respect.  The Perth Jewish community need to identify this and ride the wave of migration westward.

Beyond the issue of migration, sit many other important areas of focus.  Future leadership and succession, internal and external sources of funding for our institutions, social support for our members in need, educational strength and development, aged care, and religious identity are some of the important matters that need the attention of every Jewish person in Perth who cares about the future of this community.  I’m yet to be convinced that the current leadership of our many community organisations are fully sensitised and responding appropriately to the collective impact of these issues.

So in five and ten years time, where will our community be?  Will we continue to evolve in an unstructured manner and watch the census data flow like a paint by numbers template.  Or will we manage our own destiny by not allowing matters of sustainability and affordability to creep up on us unnoticed, as we have already seen in several instances.

If the Perth Jewish community grows by another 10% by the time the next Census is recorded in 2016, our net population will have increased by 585 people.  In broad economic terms that it a static physical outcome.  So how about 10,000 by 2020?  It may be twenty years later than first envisioned, but nonetheless a worthy target to collectively assign ourselves.

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