NY’s Jewish lessons

Orthodoxy’s breathtaking success in promoting Jewish continuity was reflected in a new study of Jews.

Photos of New York (photo credit: Wolfgang Staehle)
Photos of New York
(photo credit: Wolfgang Staehle)
Orthodoxy’s breathtaking success in promoting Jewish continuity was reflected in a new study of Jews living in the New York area funded by the UJA Federation of New York. And since the Jews living in the five boroughs (Manhattan, Brooklyn, the Bronx, Queens and Staten Island) as well as Westchester County and Long Island make up the largest concentration of Jews outside Israel, trends revealed in the study, the first of its scope in nearly a decade, reflect what is happening to all of American Jewry.
Slowly, the stereotype of the American Jew as rich, liberal and assimilated is being challenged. As in Israel, the growth of the Jewish population in America is increasingly being propelled by the Orthodox, particularly those of the haredi variety.
On one hand, this is a tremendous blessing for the Jewish people. In the 1950s, after waves of Jewish immigrants arrived in New York from Europe in the aftermath of the Holocaust, the city’s Jewish population peaked at two million. By 2002, the Jewish population dipped below one million for the first time in a century. Assimilation seemed to be finishing off the work of the Nazis. Now the trend is being reversed.
But the blessing of all these Jewish babies (74 percent of all children in the city are Orthodox) brings with it challenges. As in Israel, the haredi population in America is disproportionately represented among the poor. For hassidim, who tend to be more insular with regard to secular studies, the poverty rate is 43%, compared to 27% for US Jews as a whole.
Thankfully, haredi Jews, with their tight-knit communities and strong ethos of charity, are better equipped to deal with poverty.
As the Orthodox make up an increasing proportion of the Jewish population, we might begin to see a change in American Jewry’s historical support for the Democratic Party. To paraphrase essayist Milton Himmelfarb, soon American Jews as a group might not only stop earning like Episcopalians, they might also stop voting like Puerto Ricans. However, while they might identify with Republicans on issues such as same-sex marriages, abortions and state support for parochial schools, haredi Jews, like other poor groups, also depend on public-assistance programs such as food stamps, Medicaid and public housing, which are more strongly supported by Democrats.
Orthodoxy’s success in fostering Jewish continuity in America contrasts sharply with the failure of other streams of Judaism. The Reform and Conservative movements each lost about 40,000 members between 2002 and 2011. And between 2006 and 2011 one out of two marriages in which one partner was a non- Orthodox Jew was to a person who was not Jewish and did not convert to Judaism. Numerous studies have found that the children of intermarriage are far less likely to get a Jewish education or to marry a Jew.
Non-traditional means of strengthening Jewish identity have failed to protect Jews from assimilation.
Holocaust education; support for Israel; leading a liberal lifestyle in which liberal politics provides a substitute for faith; the construction of a Jewish ethnicity via the Yiddish language or Jewish foods – none of these provides grownup Jews or their children with a convincing reason to remain Jewish.
At the same time, American haredi Jewry – as well as their Israeli counterparts – have paid a hefty price for strong Jewish continuity. They have consciously closed themselves off both socially and intellectually, not only from the secular world but also from their non-Orthodox brethren. Polarization between Orthodox and non-Orthodox has reached the point where it has become increasingly difficult to conceptualize a Jewish “peoplehood” that can includes both groups.
This contradicts the principle that all Jews are responsible (areivim) for one another.
Non-Orthodox Jews have much to learn about Jewish continuity from haredim. But haredi Jews could learn a thing or two from their non-Orthodox brothers as well. Sincere steps need to be made to bridge the broadening divide that separates disparate segments of the Jewish people before it is too late.