The release last month of a new study on the Jewish population of New York – the
first in a decade – sent shockwaves throughout the Jewish world, though its data
merely confirmed well-known trends.
The survey showed that of the 1.54
million Jews living in the five boroughs of the Big Apple and a few adjacent
counties, excluding New Jersey, the number of persons of partial Jewish descent
between 2002 and 2011 has risen.
Meanwhile, the so-called center of
Jewish life – those identifying as either Conservative or Reform Jews – has
declined and the Orthodox and ultra- Orthodox populations in particular have
But the future of American Jewry is not necessarily Orthodox or
haredi despite the firm findings, said the sociologist who conducted the study
“At any given year the current demographic trend did not
continue,” Prof. Steven M. Cohen, who specializes in Jewish social policy
at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, told The Jerusalem Post
The interview was held at a Jerusalem cafe, which had a large
photo of New York City’s Herald Square plastered across one of its walls –
befitting, given the conversation.
“In the 1950s observers expected the
Conservative Jewish population of New York to grow and to grow and to grow. In
1950 we expected the Orthodox to disappear and that Reform would never catch on.
America would be one big Conservative shul. In 1930 nobody predicted the Shoah,
as far as I know,” said Cohen.
He added: “So, all cultural and
demographic trends are good for five years into the future. After that things
get complicated.” By 2040, Jewish New York might be largely Orthodox and/or
haredi. It’s difficult to tell, he continued.
extraordinary event would have to prevent that from happening, and asked what
that might be.
“It might be that the haredim can’t sustain a sectarian
lifestyle, it’s financially impossible,” Cohen hypothesized.
“So the men
go to work, birthrates fall and their children and grandchildren drop out of a
haredi lifestyle and become Conservative or Reform or
There is evidence to support this theory in his
findings, he said. The number of haredim – whose lifestyle values torah study
over entering the job market – that are below the poverty line rose much more
rapidly over the past decade then it did during the 1990s.
rate [in the recent survey] leapt upwards,” the sociologist said. “What we’re
seeing is a lot of ultra- Orthodox children, but not ultra-Orthodox
He discussed how the struggle of supporting a family might
pry the insular community open, or at least force many of its members to engage
with the outside world. There are also other possible trends that might tip the
demographic scales in surprising ways, according to Cohen.
became so “embattled,” it could split the Jewish American community between
those who “support and ignore it.” Yet another possibility he spoke of was if
the boundaries of the Jewish community fluctuated to an extent that drastically
affected the community’s size.
“We have no idea which one of these trends
might take hold,” said Cohen.
One of the reasons Cohen said he was so
reluctant to made a prediction was the fluid nature of the Jewish- American
community. Its members are much more likely to go back and forth in terms of
Jewish identification than in other places, especially in comparison to brethren
in Canada or the UK.
“America has a frontier mentality that affects
individual choice and the construction of one’s identity,” he said.
might come as a surprise that these polarizing trends closely resemble those of
Christian America, Cohen explained. “The trends in Jewish life have a parallel
in Christian life where both fundamentalists have grown, as have secularists,
and the mainstream Protestant denominations have declined in number and
commitment over the last 30, 40 years.”
The Post asked: But if Jews are
not much different in the larger trends than other ethnic or religious groups in
the “Land of the Free,” might they also be destined to eventually disappear the
way others already have? For decades German Americans supported a strong of
network of institutions, yet they vanished as collective within a generation in
the first half of the 20th century.
That outcome, often cited as the
nightmare scenario by some community leaders, is not applicable to Jewish
America, said Cohen. The reason is largely due to what one might refer to as the
“Seinfeld effect,” he said. “German American culture took a big hit in 1917
[when the US went to war with Germany].
Jewry went in the other
When I was a graduate student American Jews were the least
admired, most detested white ethnic group in America.”
“In 2009 Robert
Putnam found Jews were the most admired group in America. As he said,
informally, as he is Jewish: ‘We are more educated, affluent and funny than
other people – which makes us very popular,’” Cohen added.