Changing Face of New York Jewry

Led by Orthodox, Population Grows and Shifts Dramatically

kurt hoffman/getty images

By Josh Nathan-Kazis

Published June 14, 2012, issue of June 22, 2012.
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In 2012, the average New York Jew looks a little less like Jerry Seinfeld and a little more like Tevye the Milkman.

New York’s Jews are poorer, less educated and more religious than they were 10 years ago, according to a landmark new study of the city’s Jewish population.

They’re also less liberal: More than half of the Jews in New York City live in Orthodox or Russian-speaking homes, both of which lean heavily conservative.

The study, conducted by UJA-Federation of New York, counted 1.5 million Jews in New York City, Long Island and Westchester, up from 1.4 million just 10 years ago. That growth is almost entirely due to a huge surge in New York’s Orthodox population, which rose by more than 100,000 people over the past decade.

The numbers point to a seismic shift in what it means to be a New York Jew as Manhattan’s Jewish population shrinks and Brooklyn’s explodes, and as people disaffiliate from the more liberal Jewish denominations.

Source: UJA-Federation of New York

In the five boroughs of New York City itself, 40% of Jews currently identify as Orthodox.

The fast-shifting figures promise looming changes in how Jewish political power is wielded in New York, and in the relative influence of the city’s long-standing non-Orthodox institutions.

These trends are poised to accelerate. While one-third of New York-area Jews are Orthodox today, six out of 10 Jewish children in the New York area live in Orthodox homes. Hasidic children alone constitute 37% of the area’s Jewish children.

“We have a community that is large, that is growing, that is diverse and that is challenged by poverty, by elements of disengagement, and also strengthened by diversity, by growing areas of Jewish involvement,” said Steven M. Cohen, a leading sociologist of the Jewish community and one of the report’s three authors.

The $1.7 million study is the largest of its kind ever undertaken in the United States, according to its sponsors. Researchers conducted 6,000 telephone interviews with Jewish households, randomly selected using a variety of methods.

(This reporter’s mother sat on a 22-member advisory board that approved the design of the survey in the fall of 2010. She has had no involvement in the study over the past year and a half.)

The survey’s findings pose an array of major challenges to the city’s Jewish establishment. The survey found among New York Jews fast-rising levels of poverty that appear to be unparalleled in recent history. Researchers also found a steep drop in affiliation among non-Orthodox Jews, and low levels of support among Orthodox Jews for the institutions that the non-Orthodox have long dominated. The survey also identified demographic trends that could have consequences for how New York Jews’ political interests are defined.


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