Most of the conversation surrounding that new survey of New York’s Jewish population, released in early June by UJA-Federation of New York, has been focused on its two big, gee-whiz numbers: the one-third of Jews in the region (40% in New York City proper) who are Orthodox and the 20% who are poor. It’s understandable that those findings would capture our imagination, since they fly in the face of our usual image of the affluent, urbane, freethinking New York Jew. But that’s only part of the story.
The Orthodox numbers are hard to ignore, of course, because they’re rising fast and reshaping the face of New York Jewry. Among children under 18 in area Jewish households, 61% are Orthodox. In turn, 61% of those Orthodox children are Hasidic; their families tend to be huge, poor and relatively uneducated in secular terms. In contrast, declining numbers of Jews in the region call themselves Reform or Conservative, while a growing proportion don’t identify with any denomination — in most cases because they’re not interested. Around 40% of non-Orthodox Jewish households are of mixed faith, and fewer than one-third of intermarrieds report that their children are being raised Jewish.
What emerges from all this is a picture of a Jewish future that is not only more pious and observant, but also poorer, less educated in secular terms and less engaged in the public life of the larger society. If you’re of an apocalyptic frame of mind, you might be tempted to conclude that a certain era in Jewish life, what we call the modern Enlightenment, is passing from the stage of history — not today or tomorrow, certainly, but gradually over the next few generations.
In fact, the picture is much more complicated. Between the two extremes of insular Hasidism and disengaged intermarriage, there’s a broad range of Jewish lifestyles of varying degrees of vitality. Much of what’s vibrant in American Jewish life is strongest outside New York, something that doesn’t show up in this survey. Nationwide, non-Orthodox Jews still make up the overwhelming majority of the community. Whether they thrive or decline in the coming decades will depend in large measure on how they address the growing numbers of intermarrieds and their children.
Moreover, not all Orthodox Jews are Hasidim. Other forms of Orthodoxy are less insular, more engaged with the broader Jewish community and with society at large. They include not just the Modern Orthodox, who are by definition closely enmeshed in the general Jewish community, but also the so-called Yeshivish, non-Hasidic wing of ultra-Orthodoxy. Both groups resemble non-Orthodox Jews — and differ from Hasidim — in their socioeconomic profile, secular education and levels of political activism. In theory, then, there’s a broad middle of the Jewish community that shares a wide range of common interests, not to mention a religious heritage. In theory, that is.
In practice, political activism divides Orthodox and non-Orthodox Jews more than it unites them. There’s an irony here; both sides try to combine a commitment to Jewish group interests with an understanding of the Torah’s values in their activism.