New York Jews: Growing in Numbers, Growing Apart

By Leslie Lenkowsky
Thursday, July 5, 2012

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.

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