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The Beginning of the End for Liberal Jewry

A new survey of the Jewish population in the Greater New York area contradicts the conventional wisdom about the subject. It has long been assumed that any portrait of American Jews must tell us a story about an aging, liberal population that is rapidly assimilating. But, as the New York Times reports, the latest results show that the population of the largest center of Jewish life outside of Israel is actually growing. The survey’s estimate of New York City’s Jewish community pegs it at about 1.1 million, with 1.54 million being counted when you include the surrounding suburban counties on Long Island and Westchester (Jews in Northern New Jersey who would also be considered part of Greater New York were not counted). Of even greater import is that the rapid expansion of ultra-Orthodox and Hasidic Jewry are the sole reason for this population growth. By contrast, the numbers of Jews who identity with the heretofore much larger non-Orthodox movements have declined precipitately. The only other sector that is growing is made up of those Jews who reject all the denominations or eschew religion entirely.

If, as the survey tells us, 40 percent of Jews in New York City and 74 percent of all Jewish children are Orthodox, then this must inform our conclusions not only about what American Jews believe but also about its future. When combined with the nearly one-third of Jews who are abandoning Jewish identity altogether, this paints a picture of an American Jewish population that is comprised of two ships passing each other in the night — one becoming increasingly Orthodox and the other on the brink of not being Jewish at all. Because the Orthodox have radically different views on political issues from those of the non-Orthodox as well as generally identifying more thoroughly with Israel, this will inevitably alter the political balance of the community. Though the numbers may be different elsewhere in the country, with about one-third of American Jewry located in Greater New York, there’s little doubt this means the Jewish community of the future will be far less liberal.

More than 20 years ago, the organized Jewish world was shaken by the results of the 1990 National Jewish Population Survey. It painted a sobering picture of an aging and shrinking community, but the number that galvanized discussion about the results was 52 percent. That was the survey’s estimate of the number of Jews marrying outside their faith and constituted a stunning rise above previous studies on the subject. Some experts, including Steven M. Cohen (the leader of the group who conducted the current survey about Greater New York), who later wrote that a more accurate estimate would have put the figure at 41 percent, disputed that figure. But whether it was 41 or 52 percent, there was no longer any doubt about the fact that the American Jews were undergoing a radical change. More to the point, the impact of such a high intermarriage rate as well as other indications that much of Jewry was rapidly assimilating and thereby shedding their Jewish identity, would ultimately lead to a very different looking community in the future.

These numbers scared Jewish organizations badly. But much of the concern was wrongly focused on a symptom — intermarriage — rather than the cause of the problem that was rooted in a communal culture that pinned identity on external factors such as memory of the Holocaust and support for Israel rather than on building identity via education. Nevertheless, the furor about intermarriage was enough to cause Jewish philanthropic groups to begin to focus their efforts more on causes that promoted “continuity,” fearing a future in which a dominant liberal American Jewish identity would find itself on the verge of extinction.

But 20 years later, it is more than obvious that the demographic chickens have already come home to roost for liberal Jewry. As the new study points out, even as the numbers of Orthodox Jews grow by leaps and bounds, Jewish observance is declining among the non-Orthodox. While nearly half of young Jewish adults in the region have a attended a Jewish day school of some kind, most of those who do not identity with a denomination aren’t giving their kids any sort of Jewish education. And it should also be noted that half of the non-Orthodox who marry have a spouse who is not Jewish. Because studies have shown us that the children of intermarriage are far less likely to get a Jewish education or to marry a Jew, the ominous conclusions to be drawn from these numbers are obvious.

The fact that a large proportion of the growing ultra-Orthodox sector is also poor and not connected to the rest of Jewry also complicates efforts to provide Jewish services or to unite these disparate groups into a coherent community.

But above all, this means the Jewish community of the future will be even less politically and religiously liberal. The assumption that Jewish life could be built on a largely secular lifestyle in which liberal politics would provide a substitute for faith was as foolish as the notion that it could persist on identification with the Yiddish language or certain ethnic foods. The assumption that most American Jews will always be secular liberals is a myth that has just been exploded.


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