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Much of the growth appears to have come from the ultra-Orthodox including the Hasidic sectors. Though Pew did not break out age data for that subgrouping, the survey found that of the 10% of Jews who identified as Orthodox, only 3% said they were Modern Orthodox.
Less noticed were the exceptionally high birthrates reported by Orthodox Jews. Low levels of retention among older Jews who grew up Orthodox distracted from the birth rates and gave the impression that enough children were leaving Orthodoxy to keep the population relatively flat.
The new data challenges those assumptions.
High ultra-Orthodox birth rates are often visible in news media anecdotes For instance, when Israeli ultra-Orthodox rabbinical leader Yosef Sholom Elyashiv died in July 2012, he was said to have more than 1,000 living descendants.
Pew puts data to those anecdotes. The study’s numbers suggest that the Orthodox birthrate in the United States is far higher than that of most other religious groups. Pew found that Orthodox Jews averaged 4.1 children per adult, while America’s. general public averages 2.2 children. The Orthodox number is higher than the average for Protestants (2.2) and Catholics (2.4). Hispanic Catholics (3.1) come close, but still fall short.
These birth rates, which are helping to push the demographics toward an Orthodox majority, remain confounding to outsiders.
“Orthodox life is very, very different than a conventional lifestyle,” said Alexander Rapaport, 35, a father of seven. Rapaport lives in a Hasidic community in Brooklyn’s Boro Park and runs the soup kitchen network Masbia. He described a social structure designed to encourage and support large families — and that structure has apparently succeeded in more than doubling its share of the Jewish population in less than two decades.
Rapaport’s wife had the couple’s first child when Rapaport was 21. Their total of seven (so far) is about average for their community. Their latest, a 3-month-old, wears baby clothes passed down from a cousin born a year earlier.
“My wife didn’t buy any new stuff for my daughter,” Rapaport said. “My sister gave her all her stuff that she had for her daughter.”
Food, Rapaport said, is also inexpensive. “Most people in New York think of food, they think of eating out,” Rapaport said. In his community, it’s “chulent and gefilte fish eaten at home.”