Tides Along the Hudson

That new Jewish demographic study released in New York this week examined only the Jews of metropolitan New York. Folks in other communities might be tempted, therefore, to think that the survey’s astonishing findings — including skyrocketing poverty and a surging Orthodox population — are none of their business. But that would be a big mistake. The fact is, anyone who is the least bit concerned with the future of Jewish life in America should be taking a long, hard look at the New York UJA-Federation population survey.

There are two good reasons. The first is that New York is still home to the nation’s largest and most influential Jewish community, bar none. One of every four American Jews lives in the New York area covered by the study. The borough of Brooklyn alone is home to more Jews — 450,000 of them — than any American city except Los Angeles. Strictly from a numerical standpoint, you can’t understand American Jewry today or tomorrow if you don’t understand New York Jewry. The fact that New York is the world’s media and financial capital only amplifies the impact.

The second reason is that the New York community is not like the Jewish communities in other American cities. Indeed, it’s becoming increasingly unlike the rest of American Jewry, and it’s doing so at a faster pace than anyone imagined.

The changes are staggering. During the last decade the proportion of poor Jews in New York City has doubled to 21%. The rise is due mostly to explosive growth in two populations that haven’t kept up economically, Orthodox Jews and Russian immigrants; between them, the two groups now account for about 44% of the city’s Jewish population. New York Jews are becoming dramatically poorer, more Orthodox and more immigrant-based, while the rest of American Jewry, most evidence shows, is heading in the opposite direction.

And precisely because the New York community is such a big and critical chunk of the whole, this process of differentiation — polarization is more like it — poses a gigantic challenge to the Jewish community nationwide. Simply put, what are New York Jews to their cousins across the Hudson River? What does American Jewry mean to the Big Apple? How can the two halves be made whole?

Studies in Polarization

Sorting out the puzzle is complicated by the fact that the New York community is itself a study in polarization. The survey shows huge increases during the last decade in the numbers of Jewish New Yorkers who identify themselves as Orthodox and as secular, while in the middle, Conservative and Reform Jews are declining. In effect, New York Jews are sorting themselves into two distinct groups, bunching up at the edges while the center disappears.

That’s not what’s going on elsewhere. Recent studies and anecdotal evidence suggest that Jews in most communities continue to identify mainly as Reform and Conservative, with only slight increases at the fringes. True, there’s evidence of a polarization nationwide between a few who are increasingly observant and a larger group that’s decreasingly so. But in most of America, that religious fault line runs within families, not between populations. It’s a porous boundary, not a demographic gulf.

It’s not immediately obvious from the findings released this week, but New York-area Jews are two communities in another sense, too. Of the 1.4 million Jews identified in the study, about 430,000 live in three suburban counties. (Another half-million live in six other suburban counties that the study ignored, for reasons of Jewish organizational politics.) What’s not spelled out is that these suburban Jews resemble their fellow suburbanites around the country in most respects — demographic, economic and religious.

Thus, nearly all the study’s eye-popping disclosures — poverty, immigration, Orthodoxy — have to do with the Jews inside city limits, just under 1 million strong.

Politics and Poverty

What will be the impact of the demographic and social changes in New York City? Don’t be distracted by the finding that the Jewish population within the city proper has declined by about 5% during the last decade, a fact that got a good deal of media attention this week. As the study also notes, the decline was slower among Jews than among other non-Hispanic whites. As a result, Jews have risen to about 35% of New York City’s non-Hispanic white population.

Given the realities of racial politics, that probably means that Jews have, despite a slight population dip, actually increased their weight in the balkanized calculus of power in America’s largest city. Indeed, New York’s famously voluble Jews could wield as much collective clout in regional and national politics as they ever have, if they can figure out how best to organize themselves on the shifting, post-millennium landscape.

As the numbers make clear, this evolving political force will bear little resemblance to the New York Jewish liberalism of legend. With nearly half its population either Orthodox or Russian-speaking, the community described in this week’s survey can hardly be described as liberal at all. The world’s largest Jewish community is, for the first time in a century, essentially conservative. That’s a big part of the reason why New York City has chosen Republican mayors in three consecutive elections.

It may also help to clear up another mystery that has bedeviled liberal Jewish activists in Washington and around the country in recent years: why liberals have such a hard time gaining a hearing for their views despite their certainty that they speak for a majority of American Jews.

It’s true that a majority of American Jews remains firmly liberal on a host of domestic social issues. But majorities only count when they can be harnessed. Much of the American Jewish political community has been operating without focus for more than a decade; frustrated with New York’s growing conservatism, activists have tried to ignore it, but in so doing they cut themselves off from the community’s center of gravity, which is still New York.

This week’s study should also help its subjects, the Jews of New York, to begin rethinking their relationship with other communities around the country. If Jews in Indiana need their brethren in New York, the reverse is no less true. New York Jewry is part of a great, nationwide community. For all their differences, the two halves need one another.

A search for a common agenda might start with the harsh facts of Jewish poverty. The scope of need unearthed in the survey is plainly far beyond the ability of private agencies to redress. Caring for the poor is the duty of society; that’s something on which liberalism and Jewish tradition agree. In alerting us to how we differ, the New York community survey can begin to remind us how much still unites us.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Forward.
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Tides Along the Hudson

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