November 15, 2019

New York Jews: The surge of the Orthodox

The long-awaited study of the NY Jewish community is finally out. It ‎is comprehensive, thought-provoking, and much too long for us to ‎write about all in one post. Thus, what you’ll get here is a handful of ‎headlines and comments, to be followed in the coming days by more ‎‎(until you say enough). For those of you wanting to read the original, ‎go here, where you can choose just the Executive Summary, the whole ‎study, or specific chapters. ‎

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‎“Since 2002, population growth has been driven by high birthrates ‎among the Orthodox (especially the Haredim), increased longevity, ‎and an increase in the number of people who consider themselves ‎partially Jewish”. ‎

That’s probably the most loaded sentence in the whole report, and ‎you can find it right at the beginning. Orthodox growth is a ‎phenomenon that will become a huge issue, and the growth related to ‎‎“partial” Jews will be the flip side of the same discussion. ‎

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‎“Nearly half a million Jewish people (493,000) live in Orthodox ‎households — with significantly higher levels of Jewish engagement ‎than others, much larger households, and somewhat lower ‎incomes.”‎

Some Orthodox leaders would want more resources, they’d want to ‎go back to the discussion of funds allocations, and re-debate the ‎question that the Jewish community keeps struggling with: Is it wise ‎to spend all that money on the periphery, in the hope that some ‎distant Jews might decide to remain within the tent, instead of ‎spending more on the committed and the engaged? Reading this ‎study, I think it gives more ammunition to those preaching an ‎investment in the “core” and relative abandonment of the periphery, ‎but I expect others to have a different reading of the findings. They’ll ‎rightly point to the fact that, “More than half of all Jews with no ‎religion and more than a quarter of those with another religion still ‎engage Jewishly on at least a few measures.”‎


‎“Over the last nine years, Jewish engagement in New York has ‎dropped on a number of measures. In 2011 compared with 2002: ‎Fewer Jews feel that being Jewish is important (from 65% in 2002 ‎to 57% in 2011). Fewer Jews feel that being connected to a Jewish ‎community is very important (from 52% in 2002 to 44% in 2011).”‎

Remember: The overall engagement is down even though a growing ‎number of Jews are highly engaged Orthodox. This can mean only one ‎thing: a much steeper decline in the engagement of most other Jewish ‎sectors, and a reflection of the growing “partially Jewish” sector ‎‎(here’s how the study frames it: “the proportions with the most extreme forms ‎of disengagement have grown substantially since 2002”).‎


‎“Over the past decade, the organized Jewish community has ‎invested heavily in building Jewish connections through synagogue ‎revitalization, Jewish education and Jewish identity-building ‎grants, and Taglit-Birthright Israel. While it is highly likely that the ‎decline in Jewish connections over the decade would have been ‎much greater without these efforts, at the same time the trend of ‎disengagement continues.”‎

Probably the most devastating statement of the study, policy wise.‎


‎“Of all people in Orthodox households in the New York area, 35% ‎are poor. This figure masks significant differences between ‎Orthodox groups… the poverty rate in Modern Orthodox ‎households (15%) is a third of that in Hasidic households (43%).”‎

Namely, it is not just Israel having a problem with under-employment ‎and troubling economic models in the Haredi community.‎


Unlike major religious groups in the United States, major segments ‎of Jews do not necessarily identify being Jewish with Judaism as a ‎religion. Significant numbers of Jews claim their religion as ‎‎“none.”‎

Isn’t such an approach the most “Jewish” one can imagine?