Tuesday, February 04, 2014

Interview with Joshua Comenetz, the Creator of the U.S. Jewish Population by Congressional District Map

Back in December, I shared the fascinating map of the U.S. Jewish population by the 113th Congressional districts. I was so intrigued by this project that I contacted the individual who created the map, Joshua Comenetz, and he was nice enough to answer some questions. If you like maps, geography, population mapping or even the University of Florida Gators, I think you'll enjoy this interview.

First, what is your background and how did you get involved with creating U.S. Jewish Population by Congressional District map?

As a consultant, I do population mapping and demographic studies of both U.S. and foreign areas. I've been doing religious population mapping, mainly Jewish, for nearly 20 years. The congressional district map is a companion to the National Map, a county-level Jewish population map completed in 2012 and also available on the Berman Data Bank website. Both were Berman Summer Research Fellowship projects--fellowships sponsored by the Data Bank.

How does one get to be a population mapping consultant?

I started doing consulting work as a way to have more hands-on work, especially when I was a professor. First I did some redistricting work, but more recently it's mostly been Jewish population. I'm not aware of anyone else who does Jewish population mapping.

How long did it take you to compile the data and create the [U.S. Jewish Population by Congressional District] map?

The project was completed during 2013, as a part-time research project. A revised version of the maps (I received better data for the districts in the NYC area) was just posted online.

Did anything surprise you about the results?

Not that much because I'd already done the county map. It's interesting that the data show at least a few Jews in every district, and how clustered the Jewish population is in some states. The county map shows no Jews in a large fraction of counties, partly because information about Jews in rural areas is sparse.

I was surprised by the amount of Jews that live in the eastern Arizona Congressional district. While I definitely don't want to dispute your results, um, was this correct?

There are definitely inaccuracies in the maps, mainly because of the limitations of the source data. These include out-of-date demographic studies in fast-changing areas, and lack of good data in many rural/small town areas. However, the southeast Arizona district is probably approximately accurate. The Tucson area is split between two districts, including that one. Tucson's Jewish population was estimated at 22,000 in 2002, and a 2006 update of that study found little change. The Jewish institutions in Tucson (according to Google Maps) are clustered in the eastern part of the area, i.e., in the congressional district you mention, and the Census Bureau ancestry/language data also suggest more Jews living in that part of the area. That led me to assign more of the Tucson area Jewish population to the eastern district.

My parents both grew up in small towns, but each of these areas had at least one synagogue. There's not much of a Jewish population in either town today. The reason I mention this is because I'm wondering if there is any comparative data in Jewish population from previous years (with the understanding that Congressional districts change)? If so, are there significant differences between now and 30 or 40 years ago?

As you say, congressional districts change, so it would be hard to compare those numbers over more than a decade. However, county or city data in the American Jewish Year Book goes back to the 1890s for some areas, and you can see long-term patterns of growth and decline.

While you may not be in the prognostication business, where do you see in this map in 20 or 30 years? Any trends you foresee?

In general, Jews move around more than the American average, related to educational and work opportunities and retirement. In growing places, the Jewish population is often growing even faster than the total population. In slow-growth areas, the Jewish population often grows more slowly than the total population, or declines. It seems likely that Jewish population growth will continue in southern and southwestern states, while there will be little change or even decline in much of the midwest. Some northeastern cities will not see growth, but others such as Washington/Baltimore, New York, and Boston will keep growing because of job opportunities and rapid increase in Orthodox communities. Orthodox increase is the key Jewish growth trend of the 21st century.

Finally, I saw that you worked as a Geography Professor at the University of Florida. Are you a fan of the Gators football team, and if so, will they be better in 2014?

I have not followed football, but I was in Florida when UF won the football and basketball championships in the same year. (Sean's note: Essentially, Joshua Comenetz is responsible for the success of the Gators football and basketball teams too! The teams haven't been as good since he left.)

Thanks again to Joshua for taking the time to answer my questions. For more information about the Jewish Maps of the United States by Congressional District, check out the Berman Jewish Databank. You can also check out Joshua's 2012 Jewish map of the United States by county and his website PopulationMapping.com.

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