New York Jews: Growing in Numbers, Growing Apart
Ever since the first 23 Jewish settlers arrived in New Amsterdam in 1654, New York City has been the economic, cultural, religious and, not least, demographic center of Jewish life in North America. In 1920 New York’s Jewish population reached 1.6 million—nearly 30 percent of the city’s residents—and kept growing. By 1950 the five boroughs, plus the three suburban counties of Nassau, Suffolk, and Westchester, were home to over 2.5 million Jews, half of the U.S. Jewish population and more Jews than in any other metropolitan area in the world.
From 1950 to 1970, however, America’s Jewish population grew slowly, then stabilized; the number of Jews in New York and its suburbs steadily declined. By 1970 New York City had lost 43 percent of its Jewish residents. Although many had simply moved into surrounding counties, the Jewish population of the entire metropolitan area had also fallen, to 1.775 million. Over the next three decades it dropped to 1.4 million—a sizable reduction, though still a significant share (one-third) of all American Jews.
This downward trend, along with changes like increasing intermarriage rates, raised questions about the future of Jewish life in not just New York but America as a whole: If the Jewish community could not flourish in New York, what chance did it have elsewhere?
A new report on New York’s Jewish population by the UJA-Federation of New York, Jewish Community Study of New York: 2011 Comprehensive Report, gives grounds for both some optimism and new concerns. Since 2002, it shows, New York City’s Jewish population has been rising. Moreover, much of this growth has come among groups that are strongly religious. Yet, at the same time, a large and increasing segment of the Jewish population has much less involvement with Jewish life, including—a matter of paramount importance to the UJA-Federation—less interest in giving money to Jewish organizations. In short, if measured by numbers, the Jewish community of New York City and its environs looks healthier than in decades; but if measured by commitment to Jewish ideas and practices, the community looks increasingly fragmented.
This report, the third by the UJA-Federation since 1991, relied on a telephone survey of nearly 6000 households identified through a complex process designed to ensure a representative sample of Jewish homes within the eight counties that the organization serves. (A weakness of the study is that it does not include areas of New York, Connecticut, and New Jersey that could be considered part of New York’s metropolitan area but have their own Jewish federations.) To be as inclusive as possible, the researchers generously defined a Jewish household as one in which “at least one adult 18 or over considered himself or herself Jewish.”
By that standard, 694,000 Jewish households, containing 1.54 million Jewish people, lived in New York City, Long Island, and Westchester County in 2011—a nine percent increase in Jewish population since the previous survey in 2002, with an even higher growth rate in Brooklyn and the Bronx. Sixteen percent of the households in the region, with 13 percent of the population, turned out to be Jewish, as did nearly 25 percent of the residents of Brooklyn.
During the first half of the 20th century, increases in New York’s Jewish population resulted mostly from immigration. That was not the case in the first decade of the 21st century, where the study identified three other sources of growth.
The first factor was a rise in the number and size of Orthodox families. In 2002, the UJA-Federation counted 378,000 Jews in Orthodox households, both Modern Orthodox and the varieties grouped as Haredim. By 2011 the number of Orthodox had risen to 493,000—and promised to continue growing, since Orthodox women of child-bearing age were having far more children than their non-Orthodox counterparts. “Explosive,” the report terms Haredi population growth; the Modern Orthodox were not far behind. By contrast, non-Orthodox families had entered the territory of “negative population growth”: The number of offspring was less than the number of parents who produced them.
A second growth factor was the New York Jewish population’s increased longevity. In 2002, 288,000 Jews were recorded as being more than 65 years old. In the new report the number was nearly 50,000 higher. Many elderly were Russian-speaking Jews who came to New York as adults in the 1990s. Others were long-time residents who were simply living longer than seniors used to live. Moreover, a large group of “baby boomers,” 15 percent of New York’s 2011 Jewish population, is now aged 55 to 64. With life expectancy rising, the elderly are likely to make up an even greater share of New York’s Jewish community in the future.
The final factor in the study was the substantial growth in people calling themselves non-denominational or “unconventional” Jews. In 2002 they numbered 269,000, 19 percent of the Jewish population; nine years later they made up 396,000, more than one-quarter of all Jews in New York City and the three counties. Furthermore, this increase far outstripped the drop—some 75,000—in those who considered themselves Conservative, Reform, or Reconstructionist. The reasons they gave for non-affiliation varied; but many, the study suggests, were children of—or participants in—intermarriages or other close relationships with non-Jews.
Not surprisingly, these non-denominational Jews, despite identifying as Jewish, had limited involvement in Jewish life. They were less likely to belong to congregations or participate in religious observances except on major holidays. While more than half regarded being Jewish as an important part of their lives, many fewer participated in Jewish educational programs, belonged to Jewish organizations, or felt a strong connection to the Jewish community. For non-denominational Jews, religious expression chiefly meant activities conducted alone or with close friends, such as going to museums and cultural events or regularly discussing topics of Jewish interest, including Israel.
In contrast, the Orthodox and the elderly were more deeply engaged in the Jewish community. Ninety percent of the Orthodox belonged to congregations; even majorities of those who did not belong said that they frequently had Shabbat meals and that their “closest friends” were Jewish. More surprisingly, older Jews, regardless of denomination, were active participants in Jewish life. Even excluding the Orthodox, seniors felt more attached to being Jewish than their younger counterparts and were more likely to be involved in Jewish activities or contribute to Jewish causes. This was no less true of elders in Russian-speaking households, many of whom had never affiliated with particular denominations after coming to the United States but retained a strong cultural and ethnic identity as Jews.
The Orthodox and the elderly shared another characteristic: Both groups were needy. Despite the widespread perception of Jews as economically successful, perhaps the most startling figure in the UJA-Federation study is that one-fifth of the New York-area Jewish community, or 361,000 people, is poor—defined, in light of New York’s high cost of living, as having an income below 150 percent of the federal poverty line. Fifteen percent of Jewish households received some type of public assistance, such as food stamps (now called the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program) or Medicaid.
Largely because the number of Orthodox and older Jews is growing faster than the Jewish population as a whole, poverty in New York’s Jewish community rose significantly during the past decade. The study reported that while the Modern Orthodox were doing well, the poverty rate among Hasidic households in 2011 stood at 43 percent, partly reflecting religiously-inspired choices about work, education, and family size. Also, although the poverty rate for the elderly has dropped since 2002 from 35 percent to 24 percent, the number of poor seniors remains high, especially among Russian-speakers—who were, the study found, “essentially destitute.”
In other words, the good news is that New York’s Jewish population is rising again, especially among people who take their Judaism seriously. The bad news is that this population is becoming increasingly needy—and contains a growing number of people who, despite being financially well-off, have a diminishing involvement in Jewish life and are more inclined to contribute money and time to non-Jewish causes than to Jewish causes, including those that are vital to helping the least prosperous members of the community.
So, instead of being cause for celebration of a reversal of Jewish decline, the UJA-Federation study raises new concerns. While it suggests ways to generate more aid to the needy—by revitalizing synagogue outreach and Jewish education programs, for instance, or making a more effective case for supporting Jewish organizations—its main conclusion is gloomy: The “sheer scale of needs” may exceed the “resources of even the largest Jewish community in the United States.” And if other Jews do not help, it is not clear who else will, since little additional aid is likely to be forthcoming from government.
Yet a more optimistic view is also possible. The aging of the baby boomers, since they are generally in better medical and financial shape than current seniors, may gradually reduce need among the Jewish elderly. As for the Haredim, it is questionable whether a national economic measure like the federal poverty line actually reflects need among a group with a uniquely ascetic life-style. In any case, Haredim are hardly the first collection of impoverished Jews with distinctive beliefs and customs—let alone language—to arrive in New York City. In the past, a combination of self-help efforts (Jewish-oriented philanthropy remains substantial among the Orthodox) and outreach from the rest of the Jewish community, aimed at encouraging upward mobility, enabled similarly needy groups to prosper. While economic times may have changed, and living on government support has become more tempting, nothing suggests that the Haredim could not follow the same upward path.
The key factor may be the extent to which long-established Jewish organizations can adapt their efforts to address the needs of the most rapidly growing portions of New York City’s needy Jewish population. If the latest UJA-Federation survey reveals that five decades of decline have ended, it also shows how much work remains to be done before the city’s Jewish life again thrives.
Leslie Lenkowsky is a professor of public affairs and philanthropic studies at Indiana University.
I can't think of a SINGLE Hungarian who is a "Jewish welfare recipient [who] laze away their days in kolel". Not in the USA, not anywhere else. As for the American welfare system, our family has avoided this religiously. I don't know any other Hungarian Jews who rely on welfare, at all. Socialism is the worst of systems. Even Hungarian George Soros seems to prefer capitalism. Zsa Zsa and her sisters prefered capitalism over Socialism/Communism, as well.
There are real problems in the American Jewish community, as elsewhere. However, your commentary doesn't describe any factual part of it.
Something else that you fail to truly understand, no matter how well off you are, unless you are a millionaire, Jewish communal life is expensive. When you no longer have to deal with that cost it is a burden lifted. I personally prefer to use the money to send my children to college without loans especially in these economically precarious times.
Something I read somewhere else too...in NY you don't have to belong to a synagogue or community center to be part of Jewish life. Life in New York is very Jewish by its very nature. We do not feel disconnected in anyway to our fellow Jews and feel very much a part of the Jewish community.
My college age children are very connected to their heritage and who they are. The oldest majored in the Holocaust and the youngest has taken innumerable courses dealing with his Jewish heritage as well. If they are not connected on campus it is because the rabbi/jewish orgs on campus are of no use to them.
The study you quote is inaccurate and never went far enough in discovering the whys among the less observant.
If I'm being completely honest, I've struggled with my Jewish identity since moving to NYC 11 years ago. I grew up in the south where, surrounded by evangelicals, our Jewish community was essentially forced to stick together to have that sense of community. All of my friends were non-Jews, and religion just wasn't spoken about at all- no one wanted to offend anyone else. I went to Sunday School and had a bat mitzvah, but it was always about the cultural traditions and Jewish history for my family rather than God. When I moved up here, I looked forward to being part of a huge Jewish community. I got a job designing wedding invitations and birth announcements at a high-end paper store on the Upper East Side, and my Jewish bubble was burst. With very little exception, my Jewish clients were, frankly, horrible. The sense of entitlement made me sick to my stomach, and it was a vibe that was coming solely from my Jewish clients. Certainly I'd get a lovely Jewish client every now and then, or an obnoxious non-Jewish client, but those were the exceptions. I found it appalling, and it really made me struggle with my Jewish identity. For the years that I worked there, and a few years after, I was embarrassed to admit to anyone that I was Jewish because I didn't want to be at all associated with that uppity attitude. I rarely said my dead-giveaway last name if I could help it, and frankly became quite angry at Judaism.
I'm happy to say that I have since moved neighborhoods to escape that attitude, and as a result I've become much more comfortable with my Judaism. But it took a long time, and still makes me cringe every now and then when I'm at an uptown grocery store and see someone yelling unnecessarily at a helpless clerk.
In summary, I'm not sure what could be done to make me more invested in Judaism at this point. I'm an atheist, and I feel personally closer to that identity than I do to Judaism. I've gone to temple a few times in NYC, but the theistic language rubs me the wrong way. It just feels incredibly archaic and short-sighted. I think I might re-find Judaism in my life if, as I said above, I ended up meeting and marrying someone Jewish. Despite my non-involvement now, I would like to raise culturally Jewish children if possible. I'm not sure I can put my finger on the reasoning for that, except to say that the familiarity would probably bring me comfort (and make my parents very happy).
Thanks for the interesting article!
It's tough to connect to it when you're outside the fishbowl looking in. Try Shabbat.com and spend a wonderful Shabbat with a family!
I noticed you blame in part the "religiously-inspired" choices of the community for its poverty. While I would agree that people's choices effects their well being, would you be on record blaming African Americans’ poverty and gang-crime levels on them too?
I am not sarcastic. I am just blunt. I feel that us Hasidim are more freely attacked or accused by others than are African Americans or Hispanics.
I was summarizing the report, which attributes the poverty of the Hasidim (which it groups under "Haredim") to the fact that men devote their working hours to studying religious texts, families are very large (the poverty-line increases as family size increases), and women especially have low levels of formal education. Again, that is in the UJA-Federation report. My own opinion, which I state in my article, is that these are not necessarily barriers to upward mobility, though some friends who read the article in draft are not so sure.
This is not an unusual kind of explanation. A wide spectrum of people, including some African-American leaders, now accept the once-controversial proposition that poverty, delinquency and other problems among African-Americans are due, at least in part, to the prevalence of single-parent families among that group.
So, I don't think the Hasidim are being treated in the UJA-Federation report differently than other groups are when poverty-rates etc. are being examined.
I hope this is responsive to your query. Thanks for reading the article.
Thanks for responding.
Yes, I noticed your article attributes religious choices as only part of the issue; which I think is fair. However, now you are saying that it's not your opinion per-se; you only wrote what they did. Ok, perhaps that sentence should reads that the "UJA Federation says that" whatever.
Happens to be average women in the Hasidic Community are better educated than average men in the Community; in terms of secular studies. I am saying this on the record and as a proud Hasid.
Thank you for clarifying the issue of reports on Hasidim vs African Americans. I think largely only Conservatives inside and outside the African American community are bold enough to point fingers at the Community itself.
The sentence you are interested in begins with "The study reported ..."
Actually, among the non-Conservatives who have talked about family problems among African-Americans is no less than Barack Obama (who launched a "fatherhood initiative," though how much real follow-through there was is a question. But he certainly did talk.)
My first PTA meeting was a surprise. The mothers--no fathers ever showed up to meet those who were educating their children--were educated, vivacious and worldly women. I still can't understand how they could allow their own beloved children to be hobbled for life by a Khasidic education.
As for African Americans, the less Jews concern themselves about such lowly folk the better. Mega-buck Jewish philantropic organizations like the UJA have probably spent as much in Jewish charitable donations on African Americans as they have on Jews. In thanks, African Americans poll significantly more anti-Semitic and and anti-Zionist than most Americans.
More than 50% of those who marched with MLK were Jewish--do African Americans know, much less appreciate it? The NAACP was created and funded by Jews. "I have a Dream" was lifted by MLK's Jewish speechwriters from Theodore Herzl's address to the Second Zionist Congress. Yet African Americans in their majority hate Jews.
If the UJA had placed the money it has wasted on African Americans during the past sixty years in a charitable trust, there would be no shortage of funds for Jews in need today.
Can you name a worthy book produced by all this study of religious texts, Dr. Lenkowski? The Ba'al ha'Tanya was the last Khasid to add anything worthwhile to Jewish learning. My great uncle, R. Barukh Ber Liebowitz, wanted the Baal haTanya and his Khabad followers placed in Kherem (excommunicated).
My father, a rabbinical product of Volozhin, Slabodka, Kaminetz, and ha'Rav Kook's yeshiva in (then) Palestine, was an Hebraist, a Yiddishist and a fine writer and editor. He edited religious books by rabbis of the last generation. His clients included rabbis whose names are to conjure with among orthodox Jews. The only Khasid I ever saw visit my father about a sefer was the old Bovover Rebbe.
Khasidic men need to stop wasting their time in Kolel and go out and earn a proper living to support their families.
I don't consider it wrong for a family to receive government assistance if the adults are working or willing to work, and they are not cheating or submitting false information to the governement.
And why would the secular Jewish leaders and organizations want to undercount the Orthodox? We can easily see why when looking at the response of these leaders to this survey. The funding priorities and very conception of Jewish leadership is going to have to drastically change in the next 10 years if the UJA wants to remain a credible voice representing the living Jewish community. Most of the secular organizations that used to be considered representative of the Jewish population are dying or dead, because their membership has literally not reproduced itself, or has produced disaffiliated Jews who are well on their way to becoming gentiles. The UJA is to a large extent in this same bucket. Where are the descendants of their past large donors? How many of them are still Jewish, even in the most nominal sense?
A Jewish community that is defined by its religious faith rather than its secular liberal lifestyle will require a whole new generation of leaders who speak the idiom that Jewish people traditionally have spoken. And that idiom is not the politically correct psychobabble that has infected our secular Jewish leadership now since the 1960's. The disappearance of this leadership is about the best thing that could possibly happen to New York's Jews, and if the reason for that is the Hasidic birthrate, good for them.
1. Recent increase in NY Jewish population: Isn't this increase attributable mostly to the Orthodox/ultra-Orthodox? If so, how does this affect the analysis?
2. Regarding intermarriage: While purely anecdotal, my observations are that non-Jewish women regularly marry Jewish men, yet it seems somewhat rare to see non-Jewish men marrying Jewish women. Is this true? Are there reliable statistics? And if it is true what does it tell us?
My mother was a Hunky. Bright woman. Wonderful cook. Knew the whole of the Jewish canon--Genesis through Latter Prophets--by heart. She earned her living as a seamstress with no help from the government until she was ready for Social Security. She was poor but her children are not. And her children don't look to the government for money to care for themselves and their families.
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1. When the Jewish refugees from the Catholic Inquisition arrived in New Amsterdam, it was feared the Jews would become a burden to the colony. The Jews vowed that they would be independently self supporting and never become a financial drain on their neighbors.
That commitment to financial independence remained in force for three hundred proud years until 1956 when the failed Hungarian uprising against the Soviets brought large numbers of Hungarian Jewish refugees to New York. To the shame of American Jews, a group of myopic, self promoting Jewish politicians took it upon themselves to help the the Hungarian Jewish refugees by introducing them to the American welfare system. The degenerative, socially sickening results of that abysmal tampering with Jewish tradition are everywhere evident among the children and grandchildren of those Hungarian American Jews today.
The saddest part of this shortsighted betrayal of the Jewish work ethic and Jewish independence is that the Hungarian Jewish refugees were most of them observant. Other ethnic groups on welfare hang out on stoops and street corners in the hood. Jewish welfare recipients laze away their days in kolel. The Chasidic academy is glutted with post-docs on the dole--not at the expense of the Jewish community but that of American taxpayers at large.
2. The last of the the Jews employed by the New York City welfare system are retiring, leaving the profession to a force of overwhelmingly African-American social workers. I don't want to sound racist by suggesting that the condition of elderly Jews--often living alone, some addled, many already prey to petty theft and other abuses by home-health aides and other caregivers --is about to deteriorate, but that exactly is what I fear.
UJA-Federation to its credit has always provided services to the needy without regard to religion or race. Time now to attend to emerging special challenges to the welfare of Jews, especially elderly Jews.