'Rapid haredi growth in NY may not be sustainable'

Growing poverty may open up insular group. Trend in wider Jewish American community could split those who "support and ignore" Israel.

Manhattan, New York 370 (photo credit: Thinkstock/Imagebank)
Manhattan, New York 370
(photo credit: Thinkstock/Imagebank)
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 exploded.
But the future of American Jewry is not necessarily Orthodox or haredi despite the firm findings, said the sociologist who conducted the study on Thursday.
“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 on Thursday.
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.
The Post said an 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 non-denominational.”
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.
“The poverty 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 households.”
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.
If Israel 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.
It 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 direction.
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.