Commentary Magazine

First New York's Jews, Then America's?

“The New York Jew” is an enduring American archetype that comes in many guises: as the secular cosmopolitan with decidedly left-wing political tastes, as the slick manipulator of markets against whom anti-Semitic populists vent their rage, as the lovable embodiment of a self-deprecatory sense of humor and a world-weary sensibility. Of course, the fact that there are so many different kinds of “New York Jew” suggests the actual, living, breathing creature defies easy caricature. In the assessment of historian Jeffrey Gurock, most recently the author of the final volume in a new set on Jewish life in Gotham, City of Promises, there always has been “a multiplicity of New York Jewish stories…neighborhood by neighborhood, borough by borough.”

The New York area features the largest concentration of Jews in the United States and, for that matter, anywhere on earth outside of Israel: Slightly more than one million Jewish souls live in the five boroughs and an additional half million live in surrounding counties, accounting for perhaps a quarter or more of all American Jews. And, as an important new study of the Jews of New York sponsored by the city’s UJA-Federation reveals, they—we—are a highly diverse and fragmented lot.1 By far the most revelatory aspect of the study is this: The New York Jews of the future are unlikely to look like, act like, or behave like the “New York Jew” of lore.

History, demography, and social trends are recasting Gotham’s Jews in unexpected new ways—and creating fascinating and disturbing new divisions among American Jews along the way.

Many New York Jews live in self-segregating enclaves that set them apart from others of their own faith. Religion plays a role in creating this kind of insularity; for example, Orthodox Jews who must reside within walking distance of their synagogues tend to live in geographic proximity to one another. Economic wherewithal also plays a role, as high-income families gravitate to golden ghettos such as Manhattan’s Upper East Side and wealthy suburban enclaves in Great Neck and Scarsdale. The Upper West Side of Manhattan and Park Slope in Brooklyn are magnets for the upper-middle class.

Immigration continues to play a surprisingly powerful role not only in separating the community but in perpetuating and strengthening it overall. It will surely come as a shock for many readers that nearly 30 percent of New York’s Jews are foreign-born—even now, 12 years shy of a century when the great waves that brought millions here between the 1880s and the 1920s came to an end with the passage of the restrictive Immigration Act of 1924.

Brooklyn is home to the largest concentration of Jews from the former Soviet Union; indeed, more than half the Jews in that borough live in Russian-speaking homes. Queens has the second largest concentration in the area, with a sizeable community of Bukharian Jews (originally from Central Asian territories of the former Soviet Union) in Forest Hills. All in all, there are a quarter million Russian-speaking immigrants and their children.

For their part, Syrian Jews cluster in the Flatbush and Bensonhurst/Kings Bay neighborhoods of Brooklyn, while Iranian immigrants cleave to Great Neck. Both populations strongly prefer to marry among their own and maintain separate institutions, particularly synagogues, perhaps holding themselves aloof in order to maintain their own distinctive customs and ways of praying in the face of the overwhelmingly Ashkenazic composition of the American Jewish community. And then there are families including Israeli Jews, numbering 125,000, who also tend to favor each other’s company, presumably because of their common language and pre-immigration experiences.

When we consider that the children of these newcomers might also lack a strong connection to the native Jewish population, we get a sense of just how significantly immigrant status fragments a sizeable minority of New York’s Jews into separate camps.

New York’s Jews are sharply divided by religion as well. Those divisions are usually described in terms of theology and religious ideology—the increasingly fractious ways in which Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox Jews differ in their beliefs about God and revelation and how they respond to homosexuality and other pressing social issues. By focusing on the way New York’s Jews live as Jews, the new study makes it possible to expand our understanding of the role played by these affiliations. What does it mean when a person says he is Orthodox or Conservative or Reform—or claims he is not a member of any of these camps?

The accumulated data make clear that the labels Jews use to describe themselves continue to reveal a great deal about how they live as Jews—their participation in Jewish communal and cultural life, observance of Jewish rituals, and decisions about family formation. The New York report ought to give pause to those who have confidently pronounced the irrelevance of Jewish denominationalism. On almost every measure of Jewish engagement, Orthodox Jews score higher than any other Jewish population. They are followed by members of Conservative synagogues, who are also the most likely contributors to Jewish communal causes, such as the Federation. Conservative Jews also far surpass all other types of non-Orthodox Jews in frequency of synagogue attendance and Jewish social engagement—whether they choose mainly Jewish friends, how much they discuss Jewish topics, how frequently they access Jewish websites, how devotedly they attend Jewish cultural activities, and the like. Reform synagogue members lag behind their Conservative counterparts but participate far more than those who are unaffiliated, and especially more so than those who do not identify with any denomination.

But it is far from clear that the relevance of the denominations will long endure. The reduction in the numbers of Jews who claim to be Conservative and Reform, as revealed in the report, and the concomitant sharp increase in Jews who identify with no religious group at all augur poorly for the vitality of non-Orthodox Jewish life in New York in coming decades.

The increasing lack of any specific identification beyond merely calling oneself a Jew suggests a turn to what might be called Jewish minimalism by a growing population of New York Jews—37 percent at this point, and counting. Those who claim no Jewish religious denomination or who report they are Jewish only in nonreligious ways score low not only on measures of religious participation, as we might expect, but also when it comes to joining and volunteering for secular Jewish organizations, feeling an attachment to Israel, or giving to Jewish causes of any type. It is time to put to rest the fable, common in some circles, that those who do not identify with a denomination are an innovative breed of intrepid pioneers intent on carving out a new form of Jewish identity. Overwhelmingly, such people are progressively disengaging from every aspect of Jewish life.

Even as they do so, the increasing population of the city’s Orthodox Jews is going in the opposite direction. Far more than was true in earlier generations, having an Orthodox identification is a marker for highly distinctive patterns of living. Orthodox Jews of all types choose to marry relatively early and have far more children than most other Americans, let alone Jews. At considerably younger ages than their non-Orthodox counterparts, they become enmeshed in Jewish communal life as they seek out educational opportunities for their children and a social support system for themselves.

By contrast, non-Orthodox Jews tend to marry late, bear few children, and intermarry at high rates; their way of life gives them little incentive or need to engage in Jewish life until they are close to age 40, if at all.

None of this should come as a surprise to those who have been paying close attention,2 but the magnitude and pace of change are unquestionably stunning. Nowhere is this more apparent than in New York Jewry’s lopsided fertility figures: Orthodox parents, who make up less than one-fifth of the area’s Jewish households, are raising more than 60 percent of Jewish children under the age of 18. Hasidic families alone, who make up merely 7 percent of New York’s Jewish households, are home to nearly as many Jewish children as the 81 percent of households that are non-Orthodox; their families include on average 12 times the number of children found in non-Orthodox homes.

The demographic facts on the ground are sobering. Barring a mass defection from Orthodoxy, an exodus of Orthodox Jews from greater New York, or a Jewish Great Awakening among the non-Orthodox, the medium-range future of the city’s Jewish community is already setting in cement. Once dismissed as little more than a relic of an ancient tribe’s history, the Orthodox community will become the dominant sector of New York’s Jewry in a generation. Can anyone doubt this will remake Jewish communal life, sweep away some, if not most, secular institutions, and create vastly different forms of Jewish renewal than those forecast by today’s boosters of a mostly secular Jewish renaissance?

Still another major demarcation separating New York Jews stems from their marital choices. On every item on a list of two dozen measures of engagement and identification, intermarried Jews reported dramatically lower rates of participation in Jewish religious life, organizational involvement, giving to Jewish causes, and attachment to Israel and to the Jewish community than do Jews married to other Jews. The majority of intermarried families also do not see to the Jewish education of their children. More than half fail to enroll their children in any kind of formal Jewish educational setting; a tiny fraction send their children on trips to Israel; and only 14 percent of children from intermarried families attend a Jewish summer camp. Jews married to Jews avail themselves of these opportunities at much higher rates.

This is particularly sobering news given the high incidence of intermarriages. Over the past five years, half of the marriages involving a non-Orthodox Jew have been to a non-Jew, nearly tripling the percentage since the late 1970s. Even in the New York area, with its fairly dense concentration of Jews and many Jewish marriage prospects, increasing numbers of Jews are choosing non-Jewish partners.

There was a time when rising intermarriage rates were ascribed to the problems of propinquity: As a small minority, the argument went, Jews primarily met Gentiles and by the law of averages fell in love with non-Jews. Intermarriage, we were told, was a game of numbers. But how does this explain what is happening in New York, where tens of thousands of single Jews reside? Undoubtedly, in some cases, intermarriage results from serendipitous encounters, but for a great many more, it evidently occurs because large numbers of Jews do not place priority on dating and marrying other Jews.

The study itself goes out of its way to refute the conventional wisdom attributing low levels of participation in Jewish life by intermarried families to an inhospitable environment allegedly found in synagogues and other Jewish institutions. It concludes instead that “the vast majority of intermarried respondents say that they do not feel uncomfortable attending most Jewish events and activities.” This challenges one of the cherished myths propounded by advocates of outreach to the intermarried—to wit, that the Jewish community itself is to blame for the disengagement of intermarried families because it is hostile or unwelcoming or suspicious.3 A small datum tucked away in the report speaks volumes about how the most engaged Jews really feel about intermarriage: When asked how they would respond if a child of their own married a non-Jew who did not convert to Judaism, over three-fifths of UJA-Federation donors reported they would be upset, as would be majorities of Jews who identified with each of the denominations and three-quarters of those who affirmed that being Jewish is very important to them. Unsurprisingly, merely 6 percent of intermarried Jews would be upset, perhaps because so many of their own children are intermarrying. Not only is there a large discrepancy, then, between how in-married and intermarried Jews behave and think, but the two groups also seem to be deeply divided over the implications of intermarriage and how long a shot it is to engage Jews in Jewish life once they have intermarried.

Of all the factors dividing New York’s Jews, perhaps the most disturbing is the apparent widening of an income gap. The report counts more than a half million Jews it calls “poor” or “near poor”—i.e. whose earnings are under 250 percent of the federal poverty guidelines, or $41,000 for a family of three. The most vulnerable of these are families headed by single parents hard-pressed to maintain themselves, especially in cases of hostile divorces, the elderly who live on insufficient fixed incomes, and the disabled who cannot fend for themselves. And then there are the two largest populations of poor Jews consisting of some recent immigrants from the former Soviet Union and Orthodox Jews of the more insular type.

By drawing attention to Jewish poverty, the report usefully uncovers an often overlooked dimension of Jewish life obscured in the dominant narrative Jews tell about their sojourn in America, with its emphasis on rapid upward economic and status mobility. Though the strides most Jews have made in this country are remarkable and attest to America’s delivering on its promise to be a land of opportunity, a significant minority of Jews has not yet enjoyed the full measure of that promise, especially during the awful economic downturn of the past five years.

In the process of delivering this important news, however, the report inadvertently adds new layers of confusion about Jewish poverty. It relies on self-reported income for its statistics, and self-reported income is not the most reliable measure of financial ability. Economists have written extensively about the contributions of underground economies to the fiscal well-being of this country. Newcomers to America and more insular sectors of the population are especially dependent on off-the-books earnings, cash gifts from family members, and other forms of unrecorded—and underreported—aid. Such aid is no more common among Russian-speakers and the more insular Orthodox than among many other groups, but it ought to affect how we think about poverty among Jews. If we are to get a fuller understanding of the Jewish poor, a good deal more information needs to be collected so that agencies aiding the neediest can differentiate them from low-income families with access to unreported finances.

Caution is even more necessary when we consider poverty among sectors of the Orthodox world known as the Yeshivish and the Hasidic, which together constitute the Haredim (literally, those who tremble in fear of God). Both are in the midst of a massive transformation driven by structural changes. An explosion in fertility in the past few decades has dramatically increased the size of Haredi families—and the numbers of mouths to be fed. As recently as a generation ago, family size was considerably smaller among the Yeshivish sector and probably also among Hasidim. As it has become normative in those communities to have large families, social and family support systems that made it possible to maintain a Haredi way of life have come under severe stress.

Moreover, as some of the traditional economic niches occupied by the more insular Orthodox—small businesses, shops, the diamond and jewelry trades— are no longer as financially viable as they once were, or as they cannot support burgeoning families, an economic reorientation has been under way. The growth of Touro College, which boasts multiple campuses in the very areas where Haredi communities are located, and which now enrolls over 5,000 Yeshivish and Hasidic students in undergraduate and graduate programs, is indicative of the massive shift into new occupations. Those who were once the most insular of Jews are becoming accountants, pharmacists, social workers, computer technicians, and health-care workers. Some are enrolling in law and medical schools of the highest caliber. And contrary to stereotypes, some of these Haredi Jews intentionally seek opportunities to work with all kinds of people in the city, very much including minorities who study alongside them at places such as Touro and Brooklyn College.

None of this is picked up in the report, which is a pity because it might have saved some uninformed observers from jumping to hasty conclusions. A case in point is an editorial published by the Forward, an English-language national Jewish newspaper, which stigmatized Haredi families as “undeserving poor” because their poverty is based on their own bad choices to bear children they cannot support, even as they allegedly fail to acquire an education that would help them enter the labor market. Before tarring an entire community, it might have been prudent for the editors to learn about the actual lives of these people, the sacrifices they are prepared to make for their large families, and the luxuries they are happy to forgo in order to transmit a strong Jewish identity to their children.

If, however, one insists on indulging in the dubious exercise of identifying types of Jews who are “undeserving,” it behooves us to ask who, in fact, is most worthy of communal support: those who are failing to raise and nurture a successor generation of Jews or those who are producing and educating enough Jewish children to make up for the indifference of the rest? If nothing else, the New York study should drive home the realization that Jewish life in this country, and in most places around the world, is now being played according to new ground rules, since the once dominant non-Orthodox sectors are failing to reproduce enough of their own and are thereby relying on the Orthodox to ensure a viable Jewish future.

Polarizing rhetoric about “the undeserving poor” highlights the larger import of growing gaps between Jews in New York: Fragmentation is undermining not only empathy among Jews, but also social solidarity. This is especially evident in patterns of Jewish giving. Though 70 percent of Jewish households in New York claim to contribute to non-sectarian causes, only 58 percent gave to any Jewish cause, and a paltry 24 percent reported that they made a gift to the UJA-Federation, the umbrella agency collecting for many local and international Jewish causes. Among the wealthiest (those with incomes of more than $250,000 a year), a quarter report making no gifts to Jewish causes whatsoever. Among those earning between $150,000 and $250,000, the figure rises to 29 percent.

These numbers are even more skewed when we consider patterns among Jews under the age of 50: 40 percent of non-Orthodox Jews in this demographic report they had not given a dime to any Jewish cause during the previous year. The much lauded “miracle of Jewish giving” pronounced by Fortune magazine in the 1960s to describe robust contributions by Jews to care for their own has now been rechanneled into ever larger sums of Jewish money flowing to nonsectarian causes and away from Jewish needs.

Taking responsibility for fellow Jews, a given in earlier eras, has become optional for nearly half of New York’s Jews—a sure sign of declining solidarity. But philanthropy for Jewish causes is not the only sign of the corrosion of the ties that bind Jews together. Israel’s triumphs and travails move fewer Jews than in the past, as is apparent from how respondents answer questions about how connected they feel toward the Jewish state. Even Democratic politics, the reflexive allegiance of most New York Jews, can no longer be counted on to unify them because sizeable sectors of the population—immigrants and the Haredim—look upon left-of-center politics with skepticism, if not disdain.

In light of the many fissures that have opened on the Jewish scene, the mantra of Jewish life over the past decades has shifted from proud assertions of Jewish unity to less convincing rhetoric about the joys of intra-Jewish diversity. In an act akin to making lemonade out of lemons, communal leaders have taken to celebrating diversity now that it is clear that differences cannot be bridged. But even if valuing diversity is a worthy goal, it is of limited help when trying to build a community. As Eli Lederhendler, another leading historian of New York’s Jews, has observed: “Internal diversity in a social system is a historical fact of life. But the sine qua non in the process of community formation is the predominance of collective commitment over sectoral and private self-definitions.”

Given the multiple ways in which New York Jews arrange themselves, are there any commonalities sufficiently powerful to bring them together? Identifying such overarching causes and inspiring solidarity between the disparate kinds of Jews is the foremost challenge to Jewish communal life today—in New York and elsewhere.

Some might find it easy to dismiss patterns in a single region as sui generis and therefore of little significance for the majority of American Jews living across the country. Few communities, after all, consist of so high a percentage of Orthodox Jews or recent immigrants. Poverty levels are different, as are residential patterns. But though their demographic weight may differ from one community to the next, many of the subpopulations found in New York are present in most parts of the country, and their ways of identifying as Jews do not differ significantly. What this means is that across the range of Jewish communities in the United States, the gap between the most and least engaged is widening and the center is not holding. In this regard, as go the Jews of New York today, so will go American Jewry tomorrow.


1 Steven M. Cohen, Jacob B. Ukeles, Ron Miller, “The Jewish Community Study of New York: 2011.” To read the study online, visit

2 I addressed this subject in “Jews and the Jewish Birthrate,” in the October 2005 issue of Commentary.

3 Even with this awareness, the report’s authors urge greater “communal efforts to engage more intermarried households . . . to raise Jewish children,” even as the latter absent themselves in droves.

About the Author

Jack Wertheimer is professor of American Jewish history at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York City.

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