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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Because of the politics of the Jewish federation system, however, half the suburban Jews are missing from this survey. The result is a sort of fun-house mirror image of New York-area Jewry, with a lopsided city population overshadowing shrunken suburbs.

A second caveat concerns Orthodox Jewry. As the survey carefully notes, though news reports often don’t, there are three distinct Orthodox communities in New York. The first, commonly known as Modern Orthodox, is marked by its ordinary dress and full integration into the life of the city and the overall Jewish community. Its income and education levels are slightly higher than those of non-Orthodox Jews.

The other two Orthodox subgroups are commonly grouped together as Haredim or black-hats, but they are two distinct populations. The division follows the 250-year-old rift between mystically oriented Hasidim and their scholastic opponents, or misnagdim, variously known today as Litvaks, Lithuanians (in Israel) or Yeshivish (in New York Orthodox slang).

Hasidim are best known for their ecstatic forms of worship and fervent devotion to their rebbes or grand rabbis. As the new survey shows, they’re also distinguished by high levels of household poverty (66% make under $50,000 per year), low levels of secular education (63% high school or less) and high birthrate (average 5.8 children per woman). Moreover, fewer Hasidim than other Orthodox Jews profess strong attachment to Israel (56%, compared to 82% among Yeshivish and 75% among Modern Orthodox).

Chabad-Lubavitch Hasidim, though best known, are a small and atypical subgroup. They’re familiar mainly because they’re the only Hasidic group that regularly talks to non-Orthodox Jews.

Yeshivish Jews more closely resemble Modern Orthodox and non-Orthodox Jews in education and income, though they’re closer to Hasidim in birthrate (5.0 for Yeshivish, 2.5 for Modern Orthodox, 1.3 for non-Orthodox. Statistical replacement level is 2.1). Yeshivish are also far less numerous than Hasidim. Of the 493,000 Orthodox Jews in the survey, Hasidim accounted for 239,000 or 48%, Yeshivish for 97,000 or 20%, and Modern Orthodox for 157,000 or 32%.

Of course, the children are the future. The survey found 339,000 children under age 18 in the eight-county area, of whom 208,000 or 61% lived in Orthodox homes. Of those 208,000 Orthodox children, Hasidim made up 127,000 (61%), Yeshivish totaled 39,000 or 19%, and Modern Orthodox were 42,000 or 20%.

What does all this tell us about the American Jewish future? If it resembles this survey, we’re going to be more devout, poorer, less educated and increasingly indifferent to Israel. But this survey is only part of an unfolding story. The rest depends on what we make of it. Over the next few weeks I’ll be exploring the survey’s findings about Conservative, Reform and uncommitted Jews, as well as intermarriage, poverty and politics. Even a fun-house mirror can teach you something if you know how to look at it.

Contact J.J. Goldberg at goldberg@forward.com


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