A New Jew?
by Kara A. Kaufman
A landmark study of Jewish life released today reveals the deep and sometimes surprising changes the Jewish community has undergone over the past decade. The study, conducted by the UJA-Federation of New York and based on nearly 6,000 interviews in eight counties in New York, is the largest North American Jewish community study to date. The data help us better understand the contours of who we are as modern Jews in America, challenging popular stereotypes and pointing out the connections between trends within the Jewish world and those within broader American life.
The report illustrates several clear developments over the past decade. First, the size of the New York Jewish population has been growing over the past nine years, reaching 1.5 million in 2011. The study’s authors ascribe this rise to three primary factors: A rise in birth rates; increasing longevity (two factors that contribute to a ballooning of both young and old populations); and more fluid boundaries within the Jewish community. The number of people identifying as “Jewish” includes people of a wide spectrum of beliefs and backgrounds, including 12 percent of participants who self-identified as “partially Jewish.” Immigration, a driving force in population increases in the past, was not a prominent factor in the observed rise of the past decade.
Second, the report illustrates that New York’s Jewish community is increasingly diverse. People vary in their self-reported religious affinity, Jewish engagement, gender, race, ethnicity, language, socioeconomic status and sexual orientation. Five percent of study respondents live in an LGBT household (one in which at least one member identifies as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender). Twelve percent of Jewish households surveyed are biracial or non-white. Fourteen percent of households in the study are Russian-speaking (most of whom live in city centers rather than the suburbs). These statistics paint the picture of an increasingly diverse Jewish family, in which parents may marry interracially, adopt non-white children and/or convert to Judaism from other religions.
Within New York’s Jewish world, nuanced sub-populations are growing. For instance, the Orthodox population, which some may consider homogeneous, is far from monolithic. Respondents self-identified with sub-groups such as Modern, Hasidic, Yeshivish, Haredi, Chabad and Lubavitch. While the striking diversity of New York is not representative of the entire United States, these statistics nonetheless suggest that Jews in America are individualizing the Jewish experience.
A third major trend is that, consistent with national figures, Jewish poverty is on the rise. Using 150% of the federal poverty guideline as the definition of “poor,” the study found that a striking 1 in 5 Jewish households in the sample area is poor, stating that “by all measures, the levels of Jewish poverty grew considerably since 2002.” Each year over the past decade, an average of 12,000 Jewish people were added to the numbers of those living in poor households. This rise in poverty is not limited to urban centers; in fact, the number of poor people in Jewish suburban homes has grown by 56% since 2002. This rise in overall and suburban poverty is consistent with larger regional and national trends, as illustrated by U.S. Census reports from the past decade.
Before reading this study, if someone had asked me to draw the picture of “a Jewish person in America” in 10 seconds or less, I would likely have sketched one of several people: a middle-aged Orthodox male bent over his siddur; a Conservative woman donning a tallit and ascending to the bimah; a Reform student on a Birthright trip to Israel. If that person had given me more time, I might have drawn dozens of figures, including a secular person who does not believe in God. But all would have shared certain things in common: All of my subjects would have been white; I would have assumed that they were middle- to upper-class, with the choice of sending their children to Jewish day school; and they may have spoken with a recognizable New York accent.
This study changes the portraits we would instinctively draw. It implores us to consider that one in five Jews in New York lives close to the federal poverty line; that 12 percent are black, Hispanic, Asian, biracial or multiracial; and that the language New York Jews speak at home may not be English. It begs us to question our assumptions about Jews in the United States, and consider what programs may be most needed to remediate increasingly important issues, like poverty, that affect us all. Although this study is at its core bound to the New York community and cannot be extrapolated infinitely, it nonetheless points to the fact that the Jewish community is diversifying, that people are individualizing their Jewish experience, and that—in the cases of socioeconomic status and age—the population is shifting more rapidly to the poles than the middle. Hopefully, policymakers will use this report to meet the needs of the present, not the past.
The full report, as well as an executive summary, are available online.