A new survey brings both good and bad news for America’s largest Jewish community: New York City, Long Island, N.Y., and Westchester County, N.Y.
During the past 10 years, the region’s Jewish population, which had been in decline, increased to 10 percent to 1.54 million people, according to United Jewish Appeal-Federation of New York. The study also revealed that nearly a quarter million Russian-speaking Jews currently live in the New York area. That is a tangible sign of the successful “Let My People Go!” campaign that was aimed at rulers who for decades blocked an exodus from the former Soviet Union.
One reason for the population growth is that people are living longer. The number of New York City-area Jews age 75 and older grew from 153,000 to 198,000 — a nearly 30 percent upsurge among the elderly. But the main source of the demographic increase is the rise in the number of Orthodox Jews. They now constitute nearly 40 percent of all Jews surveyed.
Six of every 10 Jewish children in the region today are being raised in Orthodox homes, and the birthrate of the community is accelerating. The overwhelming majority of Orthodox youngsters attend Jewish day schools or yeshivot, religiously sponsored academies. In fact, almost half of New York’s Jews between 18-34 have attended such schools, while only 16 percent of folks between 55-69 had similar educations.
Former Soviet Union Jews and the Orthodox community combined now represent 56 percent of the area’s total Jewish population. The two groups’ voting patterns run counter to the traditional belief that all Jews are politically liberal. This “new” voting model is especially evident in Brooklyn, whose population is now nearly one-quarter Jewish. Orthodox Jews, generally conservative in their politics, oppose same-sex marriage and seek public financial aid for their parochial schools.
The survey also brought less welcome news. One of five Jewish households in New York City, Long Island and Westchester live below the government’s poverty level, and more than 11 percent of Jewish families require food stamps. Since 2008, users of a community kosher pantry have nearly doubled to 15,000. These shocking statistics shatter the myth that all American Jews are members of the middle and upper-middle classes.
New York’s non-Orthodox Jewish community is shrinking in both size and influence. Since 2002, the percentage of people who identify with Conservative Judaism has dropped from 23 to 18 percent, and the news is no better for the Reform movement. During the same period its adherents fell from 24 to 20 percent of the total Jewish population. Not surprisingly, many survey respondents labeled themselves simply “Jewish.” This is similar to many other Americans, including Christians,who do not identify with any specific religious movement or denomination.
The survey makes clear what many have long sensed or experienced. Paraphrasing Dickens, New York’s 1.54 million Jews constitute a “Tale of Two Communities.” Many Orthodox Jews shun or are unaware of the long-established institutions that have provided religious, cultural, social, educational and counseling facilities for more than a century. There is also limited contact between the two communities: They worship in different synagogues, dress differently, work in in different professions, go to different schools and vote for different candidates.
Jews have long prided themselves on communal unity, inclusiveness or “peoplehood,” and a traditional set of shared values. But the survey’s findings “significantly complicate efforts to build an overall sense of Jewish community … particularly (since) the largest groups — Orthodox and Russian-speaking Jewish households — function both as part of and separate from the larger Jewish community.”
However, John S. Ruskay, the UJA-Federation executive vice president, remains optimistic the various components of the Jewish community can “share both history and destiny — and we will chart Jewish life and contribute to it — enriched by the diversity.”
(Rabbi Rudin, the American Jewish Committee’s senior interreligious adviser, is the author of the recently published “Cushing, Spellman, O’Connor: The Surprising Story of How Three American Cardinals Transformed Catholic-Jewish Relations.”)
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