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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“The Jewish community’s poverty level [is]… a little bit below the general community,” Ukeles said. “My sense is that over time, that gap has narrowed.”

Rapfogel said that the study confirmed what his organization has been seeing anecdotally in recent years. The Met Council’s kosher food pantry program, which served 8,000 households per month in 2008, now serves more than 15,000.

“This came as no surprise,” Rapfogel said of the results. “We see it where it’s happening.”

Less Affiliated

Beneath the study’s stunning figures on the growth of the Orthodox lie numbers demonstrating a steep drop in affiliation among non-Orthodox Jews

The decline has been discussed much in recent years. But the new figures show the drop in stark quantitative terms.

A combined 583,000 people identified as Conservative or Reform in this year’s study — 80,000 fewer people than a decade ago.

The proportion of New York-area Jews who identify as Conservative Jews has dropped to 18% in 2011 from 23% in 2002. The proportion who identify as Reform Jews has fallen nearly as far, to 20% from 24%.

“These are not small changes from 2002,” Cohen said. “But we know they’re right, because they’re consistent with Conservative and Reform changes across the country.”

While the non-Orthodox denominations are shrinking, there’s a third category that is growing nearly as rapidly as the Orthodox. Termed “Other” in the survey’s charts, the group includes those who identified as Jewish but said that they are not members of any particular denomination, or that though they are Jewish, their religion is not Jewish.

That group, which clocked in at 19% of all Jews in the area in 2002, included 26% of all Jews in the area in 2011 — the second-largest single denomination after the Orthodox.

“My initial understanding is that lots of children of the intermarried came of age, and their children are now adults,” Cohen said, by way of explaining the growth. “So there are many more children with mixed parentages. As a result, they identify as Jews, but they’re not the kind of people that identify as a denomination.”

Cohen also said that the finding pointed to less solid boundaries around what it means to be Jewish. “The boundaries of being Jewish have become more fluid, so that people can identify as Jewish even if their religion is not Judaism,” he said.

One non-Orthodox Jewish leader dismissed the findings of declining affiliation among non-Orthodox Jews. “The numbers indeed do not tell the whole story. Nor are we surprised,” said Rabbi Steven Wernick, CEO and executive vice president of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, the Conservative Jewish umbrella group, in an email to the Forward. “The work we’ve been doing in revitalizing the epicenter of North American Jewry is beginning to show signs of success and is geared to directly address the implications that come out of this report…. This is a great opportunity for us.”

The Union for Reform Judaism, the Reform umbrella group, did not respond immediately to a request for comment.

Rabbi David Ingber, founder and spiritual leader of Romemu, a Jewish Renewal congregation in Manhattan, objected to the pushing together of a swath of categories in the study’s “Other” group.

“This study lumps together those with no religion or a religion other than Judaism with nondenominational Jews. That means that if I had been called up and questioned, I, a rabbi of a sizable Renewal congregation, would have been in this category,” Ingber told the Forward.

Meanwhile, as non-Orthodox Jews loosen their ties to the movements that have served as mainstays of the community for generations, the growing ultra-Orthodox community displays fewer connections to the sort of secular-oriented non-denominational institutions that have traditionally made up the New York Jewish mainstream.

While 41% of Conservative Jews in New York reported that they donated to UJA-Federation, which sponsored the study, only 11% of ultra-Orthodox reported donating to the organization. Less than one-quarter of Hasidic households reported that a member attended an event at a Jewish community center in the past year, compared with 32% of non-Orthodox households and 43% of Modern Orthodox households.

With additional reporting by Simi Lampert and Hannah Rubin

Contact Josh Nathan-Kazis at or on Twitter @joshnathankazis

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