A demographic study in New York City is turning conventional wisdom about the Jewish population on its head. The affluent, liberal, assimilated Jewish stereotype may be just that – or there may be two or more distinctly different brands of Judaism that bear little resemblance to one another.
According to a study commissioned by UJA-Federation of New York, the overall Jewish population is growing, thanks to population increases in Orthodox and Hasidic Jews. About 40 percent of the Jewish population identifies itself as Orthodox, and 74 percent of all Jewish children in the city are Orthodox. The Jewish population in the New York metropolitan area, the largest concentration of Jews outside of Israel, has grown 10 percent to 1.54 million (1.1 million in the five boroughs of the city itself). People are living longer and having more babies, according to the study, thus contributing to the growth. Many more Jews, especially younger ones, are going to Jewish day schools.
That’s the good news. On the other side of the coin, the study found that other segments of the Jewish population are becoming less observant. Younger Jews not affiliated with any movement were less likely to go to Hebrew school than they were a half-century ago. Half of the non-Orthodox Jews were intermarried. Twice as many Jews as a decade ago did not attend a Passover seder. Reform and Conservative Jews have lost 40,000 members each in the last decade, and nearly a third of the respondents did not ally themselves with a movement at all. Many people described themselves as partially Jewish. Jewish engagement has dropped. According to the study, “fewer Jews feel that being Jewish is important (from 65% in 2002 to 57% in 2011),” and “fewer Jews feel that being connected to a Jewish community is very important (from 52% in 2002 to 44% in 2011).”
Nearly one fourth of the Jewish population would be considered poor according to federal guidelines. Most of those reside in Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) households.
“Because the Orthodox have radically different views on political issues from those of the non-Orthodox as well as generally identifying more thoroughly with Israel, this will inevitably alter the political balance of the community,” according to Jonathan Tobin, executive editor of Commentary magazine. “Though the numbers may be different elsewhere in the country, with about one-third of American Jewry located in Greater New York, there’s little doubt this means the Jewish community of the future will be far less liberal.”
According to Jacob B. Ukeles, a social policy analyst and one of the principal authors of this study, “There are more deeply engaged Jews and there are unengaged Jews.
These two wings are growing at the expense of the middle. That’s the reality for our community.”
The study raises many questions for the future of Judaism. Is there a future for the growing uncommitted segment of Jews on one end of the spectrum, and how much should the community be investing in trying to keep that part of the population “in the fold”? Will committed Jews who are struggling to maintain their institutions resent the fact that so much money is being spent on a segment of the population that appears to be unresponsive? What will the Jewish mainstream look like in 20 or 30 years? Are the political and social causes going to change? How should the infrastructure respond to the apparent trends?
Clearly, good studies need to be done elsewhere, because “new communities” like Orange County have very different needs and attributes than “older communities” like New York. While individuals may have the right to freely define what it means to be Jewish and how to exercise that right, communities may have to make hard decisions about where their dollars are spent and to what avail. There is no time like the present to begin asking the hard questions.