Time To Rethink the New York Jew

Study Leaves Out Suburbs and Ignores Splits Among Orthodox

Younger, Poorer and More Orthodox: A new study says a lot about New York’s changing Jewish population. But there’s much it leaves out, too.
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Younger, Poorer and More Orthodox: A new study says a lot about New York’s changing Jewish population. But there’s much it leaves out, too.

By J.J. Goldberg

Published June 15, 2012, issue of June 22, 2012.
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If you’re thinking that the newly released survey of New York’s Jewish population looks uncannily familiar, like you’ve seen it somewhere before, that’s because you have. The astonishing trends unearthed by UJA-Federation of New York’s researchers bear a striking resemblance to the much-reported demographic patterns currently keeping Israeli leaders awake at night.

What both great Jewish communities are discovering is an exploding population of Haredi Jews — also known as black-hat or ultra-Orthodox — who are profoundly disconnected from the broader Jewish population, from secular education, Western culture and the modern economy. Coupled with that, galloping Jewish poverty on a scale no one imagined a generation ago, with large and growing Haredi families the biggest single driver, though by no means the only one.

There are critical differences. In Israel, the dilemma of the Haredi population boom is sharpened by the wholesale exemption of Haredi young men from army service, putting the burden of the country’s defense on an ever-shrinking non-Haredi share of the population. Israel’s political leadership is currently mulling ways to end the exemption and begin drafting Haredi youth en masse, but Haredi leaders vow to fight it “to the death,” as numerous senior rabbis have declared.

In New York, the increasing heft of the Haredi community is amplified by the actual shrinking of the non-Orthodox population. Conservative and Reform families are producing growing numbers of unaffiliated and uncommitted young Jews who, in turn, form interfaith families, most of whose children are not raised as Jews. That’s what the new survey shows, in meticulous detail.

Looking at recent population figures in the world’s two largest Jewish communities, it’s not entirely fanciful to wonder if the modern Jewish experience of the past two centuries — the culture that produced Einstein and Freud, Gershwin and Chagall, Kafka, Buber, Ayn Rand, Jonas Salk, Betty Friedan and Bob Dylan, not to mention the sovereign Jewish state of Israel — isn’t turning out to be a historical blip.

Before we let our imaginations run away with us, several caveats are in order. First and foremost, that new survey of New York-area Jews isn’t really a survey of New York-area Jews. It’s a survey of Jews in eight of the 23 counties comprising the New York metropolitan area. It covers the five boroughs of New York City plus Long Island and Westchester, including 1.54 million Jews in an overall population of about 12 million. Why only these? Because they happen to be the counties whose Jewish institutions are organized and funded by UJA-Federation of New York, for obscure historical reasons. The federation needs to know what services to provide to whom and where; hence the survey.

The other 15 suburban counties of the New York metropolitan area — two in upstate New York, three in Connecticut and 10 in New Jersey, combined population about 7 million, including upward of 500,000 Jews — are served by a dozen-odd smaller Jewish federations. Some conduct their own surveys. Others don’t.

This is important because most of the startling findings in the new survey are located within the five boroughs of New York City, including 92% of the rapidly growing Orthodox population, 92% of the large Russian-speaking Jewish community and 78% of the 361,000 poor Jews. The suburban Jewish communities, comprising about half of metropolitan New York’s roughly 2.2 million Jews, look very much like Jewish communities elsewhere in the country. They include small but growing Orthodox populations — 10% or more, up from 6% or 7% in recent decades — and surprising levels of poverty, mainly seniors, single-parent households, disabled and growing numbers of unemployed.


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