Surveying U.S. Jews: Orthodox Poverty, Increasing Intermarriage, Insistently Liberal

Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie
Eric H. Yoffie
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Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie
Eric H. Yoffie

The recently published Jewish Community Study of New York area, sponsored by UJA-Federation of New York, doesn’t tell us a lot that we don’t already know. Since the publication of the 1990 National Jewish Population Survey, the American Jewish leadership has been aware of certain broad demographic trends in our community, and these trends have been confirmed by virtually every study conducted since then, including this one.

We know that intermarriage rates are high. We know that our community is aging. We know that approximately 30% of American Jews are on the fringes of the community and resist all efforts to draw them into Jewish life. We know that overall Jewish numbers are decreasing, although not dramatically; that the number of Reform and Conservative Jews is decreasing, although again, not dramatically; and that Orthodox numbers are increasing modestly.

The UJA survey demonstrates that all of these trends are to be found in New York, except that the overall Jewish population is up, and Orthodox – and especially ultra-Orthodox – numbers are significantly higher. This is for reasons that relate to the specific character of the New York community – that it is the destination of choice for committed Orthodox Jews of all types, but especially for ultra-Orthodox Jews. New York offers communities, schools and ritual infrastructure and is also home to the significant rabbinical leaders of this generation. 

The city also has a sympathetic political structure and a general culture that, in some measure, is accepting of an ultra-Orthodox presence in a way that might not be true in, say, Indiana. The specific features of New York that function as a magnet for the Orthodox do not generally apply elsewhere in the U.S.
The real question about this study and about all such studies in the last two decades is: What do these numbers mean for American Jews? I offer a few thoughts.

First of all, we need some honest talk about intermarriage. The study demonstrates yet again that there is no magic bullet that will end intermarriage in America. The social dynamics of intermarriage are stubbornly rooted in the American reality. Warmly embraced by America and fully integrated into American life, American Jews in large numbers continue to choose to marry non-Jews. According to the New York study, the overall rate of intermarriage in New York is 22 percent, but 50 percent for the non-Orthodox. 

Is intermarriage a “Reform” problem? Hardly. It is a problem of modern life; in the words of Rabbi Alexander Schindler, it is the “sting that comes with the honey of our freedom.” And it is to be found everywhere in the western democracies. In Great Britain, where more than 70 percent of the Jewish population identifies as Orthodox, intermarriage rates are comparable to what they are here. 

Reform leaders believe that in an America where virtually every Jewish family has experienced intermarriage, a progressive, non-Orthodox approach to Judaism becomes more important. For most American Jews, some form of non-Orthodox Judaism will remain the only option. And Reform plays an especially critical role in reaching out to those who have already intermarried and in welcoming them into the Jewish community.

Second, we need to remember the importance of synagogue affiliation. It is one thing to self-identify as a Reform or Conservative Jew, and quite another thing to join a Reform or Conservative synagogue. Those who are synagogue members have much higher rates of Jewish involvement, in New York and everywhere else. Schools and camps are very important, but synagogues are essential. The committed core of American Jewry is made up of synagogue-affiliated Jews, and strengthening the synagogue remains our highest priority.

Third, we should avoid sweeping pronouncements about the changing political orientation of American Jewry. Some are claiming that the New York study is conclusive proof that American Jewry is soon to be far less liberal than it now is. Such predictions have been made regularly since the 1980s, and they always turn out to be wrong. 

American Jews have remained insistently liberal, again and again tilting toward liberal political candidates and supporting liberal social and economic policies. And as I suggest above, it is a mistake to generalize from the experience of greater New York; Orthodoxy in America is growing modestly, not dramatically, and the big jump in New York’s ultra-Orthodox population will not be replicated elsewhere.

Finally, we should also acknowledge the problems that will arise from a growing ultra-Orthodox presence in New York. (More than two-thirds of the Jews in greater New York are ultra-Orthodox.) I respect those who choose an ultra-Orthodox way of life, but as the report makes clear, there are some troubling aspects to this development. The ultra-Orthodox community is, in the report’s delicate wording, “self-segregated.” It does not identify with the broader Jewish community and rarely, if ever, participates in Jewish communal life; its efforts on behalf of communal fundraising and Israel advocacy are negligible. 

Furthermore, fully 43 percent of Chasidic households – the largest group among the ultra-Orthodox – are poor. In the past century, communal leaders have worked to alleviate poverty in Jewish ranks, for instance by rethinking vocational training and economic structures, but they require the cooperation of the rabbis on a deep level, sharing a vision of change, in order to do so. It is not clear how the community will cope if this cooperation is not forthcoming. While ultra-Orthodox Jews are free to live as they wish, poverty is not a blessing in the Jewish tradition, and subjecting one’s children to poverty is not a virtue.

In short, the demographic picture is sobering but not disastrous. The New York study does not tell us much that is new, but it leaves us with a demanding and challenging agenda.

Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie served as President of the Union for Reform Judaism from 1996 to 2012. He is now a writer, lecturer, and teacher, and lives with his family in Westfield, New Jersey.