Commentary Magazine


Topic: Russian immigrants

On Jewish Community and Continuity, Orthodox Lead the Way

As Jonathan pointed out, the new survey of New York Jewish life–which is a considerable portion of American Jewish life–shows the liberal wings of organized Jewry to be both less organized and less Jewish, in terms of their practice, affiliation, and education. It also raises serious questions about how less observant Jews have responded to this demographic challenge. They are not putting their children into Jewish day schools, it seems. And their attitude toward philanthropic giving sharply contrasts with that of their forebears, and does not at all rise to meet the needs of the moment.

As the authors write: “Jews are devoting more of their giving to nonsectarian rather than specifically Jewish causes, as seen in the behavior of younger Jews versus older Jews and in the behavior of Jews more recently as compared with earlier points in history.” Additionally, the “number of Jewish philanthropic causes and organizations has proliferated,” while the “donor base for Jewish federations in North America has diminished.” There is less to go around, yet the Jewish community is spreading itself thinner and even giving more to non-Jewish causes. One problem with this approach becomes clear in the section of the report on poverty.

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As Jonathan pointed out, the new survey of New York Jewish life–which is a considerable portion of American Jewish life–shows the liberal wings of organized Jewry to be both less organized and less Jewish, in terms of their practice, affiliation, and education. It also raises serious questions about how less observant Jews have responded to this demographic challenge. They are not putting their children into Jewish day schools, it seems. And their attitude toward philanthropic giving sharply contrasts with that of their forebears, and does not at all rise to meet the needs of the moment.

As the authors write: “Jews are devoting more of their giving to nonsectarian rather than specifically Jewish causes, as seen in the behavior of younger Jews versus older Jews and in the behavior of Jews more recently as compared with earlier points in history.” Additionally, the “number of Jewish philanthropic causes and organizations has proliferated,” while the “donor base for Jewish federations in North America has diminished.” There is less to go around, yet the Jewish community is spreading itself thinner and even giving more to non-Jewish causes. One problem with this approach becomes clear in the section of the report on poverty.

It is often assumed that the growth of Haredi and “yeshivish” Jewish communities will produce a corresponding increase in poverty and the need for public assistance. But as the authors note, “most poor Jewish households are not Orthodox.” This does not mean the number of poor in the Orthodox community is low–it is not, and in fact, the Orthodox represent the largest identifiable such group. But it does mean that 58 percent of the poverty within the Jewish community cannot be attributed to this lifestyle. Additionally, Orthodox communities centered on yeshiva life–usually referred to as yeshiva communities but in this report referred to as “yeshivish”–boast a significant communal support network, in addition to classic charitable giving.

Made up of gemachs, a Hebrew acronym of the term meaning acts of kindness, this network goes a long way toward making up for the material sacrifices made by low-income yeshiva households. Some Jewish communities have so many gemachs they have their own version of the Yellow Pages. The gemachs are families or companies that lend out items to those in need, including everything from books to wedding dresses to childcare products. To put it bluntly: the Orthodox Jewish community may have poor households, but its members possess an admirable and energetic sense of duty to one another.

The need for outside assistance, often from the local government, is therefore even more crucial for the non-observant. But their charitable organizations are raising money for those outside their own community as the number of Jewish poor continues to rise. In the Jewish community, it unfortunately seems that communal solidarity is fading along with observance. The community seems to be failing its Russian immigrants as well. Seven of every 10 elderly Russian speakers are poor, according to the study.

Is it any wonder then that, next to the Orthodox, Russian immigrants are the most identifiable conservative-leaning subgroup? Their more liberal brethren can’t be bothered to establish and support the kind of Jewish institutions that would help such immigrants form a bond with their new community. And the liberal/secular inclination to watch Jewish immigrants live in poverty while they pursue vague forms of tikkun olam and global citizenship is surely a failure to prioritize, even if their new pet causes are worthwhile (as many of them are).

The Orthodox certainly face challenges as their community grows. The Haredi community’s insularity means they must work hard to ensure that guidance counselors, special-needs educators, and other forms of crucial youth development services are available to their community. And poverty is often correlated with health risks that should not be ignored. But the Orthodox are also the source of the positive trends in the study. If the goal is Jewish continuity–as of course it should be–the Orthodox are leading the way.

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