As Orthodox and Secular Jews Increase, Where is the Jewish ‘Center’?

The cover of "Jewish Community Study of New York: 2011," a survey of nearly 6,000 of the New York area's Jewish community.

Jewish publications had plenty to say about a recent study which found that New York’s Jewish population has shifted to become both more Orthodox at one end and more secular at the other — as well as more interracial and, in some sectors, poorer. A lively discussion ensued about whether or not these shifts signal a trend toward the political right.

Sponsored by the UJA-Federation of New York, the $1.7 million study, “Jewish Community Study of New York: 2011,” was released on June 12. The conclusions were based on calls to the homes and cell phones of 5,993 Jewish locals between Feb. 8 and July 10, 2011 in the five boroughs, as well as Nassau and Suffolk Counties and Westchester County, making it the the largest study of its kind in North America. Home to a third of all Jews in the United States, New York has the largest Jewish population outside of Israel.

According to a Jewish Week article by reporter Stewart Ain, Orthodox Jews now make up almost a third of the entire Jewish community in the survey area, and 64 percent of Jewish children here live in Orthodox households, which have high birth rates. These numbers contributed to a 9 percent increase in the Jewish population over the past decade.

Within the Orthodox sector, Hasidics make up the largest subdivision, with 16 percent of the overall Jewish population in the region covered by the survey, reported The Jewish Daily Forward, adding: “Ultra-Orthodox households are far bigger than non-Orthodox households. The mean number of Jewish members of a Hasidic household is 4.8, compared to 1.8 in a non-Orthodox home.”

The publication also noted the increase in the number of low-income Jews, especially among the Hasidic (or Chasidic).

The study found rising poverty rates among Jews. In New York City, 27% of all people living in Jewish households are poor, compared with 20% a decade ago. More than one in ten Jewish households is on food stamps.

Poverty rates are high among older Jews, and among the Orthodox. Hasidic Jews are the poorest Orthodox group – a full 43% of Hasidic households qualify as poor.

Despite the increase in ultra-Orthodox Jews, more than a third of the area’s Jews described themselves as not particularly observant, The Jewish Week reported:

At the same time, 37 percent of Jews here define themselves as nondenominational or “Just Jewish,” a figure that has doubled since 1990. The Conservative and Reform movements each lost about 40,000 members over the decade.

Overall population of Jewish New Yorkers. (Chart from UJA-Federation of New York, via The Jewish Daily Forward)

When it comes to Jewish identity, The Jewish Week’s Stewart Ain drew a distinction between a growing “edge” and a shrinking “core.” Increasingly secular Jews at one end of the spectrum and multiplying ultra-Orthodox Jews at the other have raised questions about where the “center” of Jewish society resides, politically and culturally.

All of the growth on the so-called edges of the community — the Orthodox and the “Just Jewish” — has observers here wondering what’s become of the center or core, however romantic the notion of a “core” might be in a society where the social fabric has been fraying for generations, and definitions of Jewish identity are more fluid than ever.

Looking at the new data, a person close to the study admits, “We don’t know where the center is.”

To further convolute the concept of the “center” and what it means to be Jewish, a third category is growing nearly as fast as the Orthodox: the “other.” The Jewish Daily Forward‘s Josh Nathan-Kazis reports:

Termed “Other” in the survey’s charts, the group includes those who identified as Jewish but said that they are not members of any particular denomination, or that though they are Jewish, their religion is not Jewish.

That group, which clocked in at 19% of all Jews in the area in 2002, included 26% of all Jews in the area in 2011 — the second-largest single denomination after the Orthodox.

“My initial understanding is that lots of children of the intermarried came of age, and their children are now adults,” Cohen said, by way of explaining the growth. “So there are many more children with mixed parentages. As a result, they identify as Jews, but they’re not the kind of people that identify as a denomination.”

The survey also found an increase in multiracial Jewish families, and another Jewish Week article, by Julie Wiener, examined the phenomenon. Twelve percent of Jewish households fall under this category of “multiracial or nonwhite,” which could mean interracial couples, adults with interracial children, Jewish couples with non-white adopted children or non-whites born Jewish or converted.

Speaking of her own experience, April Baskin, 28, president of the Jewish Multiracial Network, grew up with a white Jewish mother and an agonistic African-American and Native American father who, she recently found out, had Jewish ancestors.

It was in college that she first felt singled out for being multiracial. Like many other non-white Jews, she at times feels frustrated by always having to explain her background and answer questions from Jews who are curious why she looks different. “I moderated a panel at the retreat about what kind of questions do you get asked, and one guy on the panel said, ‘I just print out 30 copies of my bio and hand it to people” as soon as they start asking questions, Baskin said, laughing.

The UJA-Federation study found that non-white Jews are less likely to be deeply involved in a Jewish community.

The study reports that respondents in nonwhite households “tend to eschew any denominational affiliation,” and are far more likely to be intermarried (54 percent versus 18 percent for all-white Jewish households — not surprising, since many interracial couples are also interfaith). Significantly fewer join synagogues (27 percent versus 47 percent), very few have mostly Jewish friends (18 percent versus 57 percent — again, not surprising considering that many have non-Jewish family members) and their use of Jewish day schools is less than half that other Jewish households.

Non-Orthodox Jewish groups decrease as Orthodox and Other/Unaffiliated numbers go up. (Chart from UJA-Federation of New York, via The Jewish Daily Forward)

Then there’s politics. The Jewish Daily Forward article by Josh Nathan-Kazis asked how the new numbers might affect the political leanings of a group that has tended to side with the Democratic Party.

With the Orthodox and Russian-speaking Jewish communities making up over half of the area’s Jewish population, their more socially conservative views could break down the assumption that the Jewish vote will go Democratic, especially in Brooklyn, where the Jewish population shot up. Republican political consultant Lee Cowen summed it up in an email to the Forward: “I would think that wise politicians would look at this data and realize that they can no longer view the Jewish community as monolithic politically.”

Another Jewish Week article questions the assumption that ultra-Orthodox social conservatism will deliver the community for Republicans — and pointed out that the widespread poverty could mean that “support for continued grants to social service providers, such as local Jewish community councils, and opposition to the slashing of government programs is likely to be high on the agenda.”

“It’s premature to assume that Orthodox Jews and Russian voters will support conservative Republicans,” said Ester Fuchs, a former adviser to Mayor Michael Bloomberg and professor of public affairs and political science at Columbia University.

Meanwhile, Michael Orbach at The Jewish Press offered a round-up of the debate over the likely political impact of the survey’s results from Jewish journalists and bloggers.

Jonathan Tobin, in Commentary magazine, gleefully writes that this trend spells the end of liberal Jewish values, to whit, “The assumption that most American Jews will always be secular liberals is a myth that has just been exploded,” he wrote. Another Commentary writer, Seth Mandel, took this a step further and praised the extensive social network in the Haredi and yeshivish communities. Speaking about Gemachs (private loan societies), he writes, “this network goes a long way toward making up for the material sacrifices made by low-income yeshiva households. Some Jewish communities have so many gemachs, they have their own version of the Yellow Pages. ”

Over at the Open Zion blog, Raphael Magarik uses Mandel’s support of the Chasidic community as a cudgel with which to bash in the head of Commentary. After all, the Chasidic community does rely heavily on social safety nets and social networks, which have been the bane of Commentary’s existence (granted, as Irin Carmon writes over at Tablet, it is a simplification).

Magarik, who studied at Yeshivat Maale Gilboa in Israel and the egalitarian Yeshivat Hadar in New York City, notes that Kiryat Joel, NY home of the Satmar Chasidic sect (which was not part of the UJA-Federation study, since it is outside New York City) was the poorest town in the entire USA, with the lowest median and per-capita income. Half the residents receive food stamps, one third is on medicaid and many are relying on federal vouchers to help pay there cost.

“Welfare is, and has been for some time, a crucial ingredient in these communities,” Magarik writes. “While Chasidim take care of their own, they also get taxpayers to take care of them.”

The upcoming Congressional primary should provide more information on which way Brooklyn’s Jewish community is leaning, The Jewish Week pointed out.

This week’s primary for the House of Representatives will present an opportunity to scrutinize the power of Orthodox and Russian voters. There are two races for open seats, including one in which a harsh critic of Israel, Councilman Charles Barron, is running against Assemblyman Hakeem Jeffries, who has pledged to support Israel.

Finally, Jewish Daily Forward senior columnist J.J. Goldberg argues that the study’s numbers might have been skewed toward the area’s urban population.

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.


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