A version of this column appeared originally in THE DAILY BEAST.
Ethnic stereotypes generally bear some connection to reality, but the well-established image of the “New York Jewish Liberal” looks less relevant than ever before, based on rapidly changing demographics of the nation’s largest Jewish community.
A new study conducted by the secular, charitable organization dedicated to serving all Jews in the region (United Jewish Appeal-Federation of New York) found a sudden, startling surge in the Jewish population that was fueled almost entirely by “explosive growth” in Orthodox communities. The report shows that among young people in particular, Jewish New Yorkers are less likely to resemble Woody Allen in philosophical outlook and religious practice than they are to resemble his deeply religious grandparents.
The numbers provide an array of stunning surprises. The overall Jewish population of New York City increased dramatically after five decades of decline, rising more than 12 percent to 1.1 million since the last major survey in 2002. Nearly all the growth occurred within the Orthodox community, which now represents an unprecedented 40 percent of all New York City Jews (up from 33 percent just 10 years ago). Most significantly, nearly three-quarters of all Jewish children in New York—some 74 percent—now grow up in Orthodox homes.
With its rigorous commitment to Jewish tradition, the Orthodox denomination in Judaism boasts more affiliated New Yorkers than the liberal Reform movement and the moderate Conservative movement combined. Both of the less traditional denominations suffered sharp losses in membership, declining more than 40,000 each.
Contrary to common identification of Orthodox Judaism with black-suited old men with long, gray beards, the figures show that traditional religious commitment has become especially prevalent among the young. In the eight-county metropolitan area (including suburban communities in Long Island, Westchester, New Jersey and Connecticut, with a total Jewish population of 1.54 million) half the population between 18 and 34 had attended parochial Jewish schools, the great majority of them studying in Orthodox Yeshivas (seminaries) or day schools. Among an older, Baby Boomer cohort (ages 55 to 69) only 16 percent ever attended such full-time Jewish educational institutions.