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.
To a great extent, these trends reflect the drastically lower birthrate among non-Orthodox families than among their traditionally committed counterparts, where couples with 10 or more children are not uncommon (and greatly admired). Moreover, non-Orthodox Jews prove far more likely to intermarry, convert to other faiths, assimilate, or otherwise disregard Jewish identity. Within the Jewish denominations, the products of less demanding Reform and Conservative homes more frequently shift to Orthodox commitment than the children of traditionally observant households switch to more liberal affiliation. For instance, the overwhelming majority of congregants (more than 80 percent) of the Seattle Orthodox synagogue my wife and I attend grew up in non-Orthodox (and sometimes non-Jewish) families.
The dramatic new figures from New York clearly matter to the rest of the country in part because the Big Apple has represented the center of American Jewish life for almost 200 years, with the New York region still representing nearly a third of the overall U.S. Jewish population. It’s also undeniable that other communities to some extent reflect Gotham’s dynamic growth in the Orthodox sector. In Baltimore, for instance, a 2011 study showed 2 percent growth of the overall Jewish community (to 93,400), while the Orthodox numbers multiplied far more quickly—from 21 percent of the population in 1999 to 32 percent 12 years later.
On the other side of the country, I recently spoke at a sold-out fundraising banquet for “Chabad of the Conejo,” marking the astonishing progress of a passionately enthusiastic Hassidic group in a once remote and thinly-populated suburban area north of Los Angeles. The single-minded, black-hatted rabbis of the Brooklyn-based Chabad-Lubavitch movement have established eight (count ’em, eight) flourishing synagogue communities in the Conejo Valley alone (and 17 more in the nearby San Fernando Valley), drawing their literally tens of thousands of members almost entirely from recent recruits to Orthodoxy and becoming a dominant Jewish influence in the region.
The political impact of such developments may produce some unexpected local results in the fiercely fought election of 2012 and in the future, since Orthodox Jews prove nearly as likely to identify as conservative as non-Orthodox Jews tend to see themselves as liberal. In exit polling in 2008, an amazing 78 percent of the overall Jewish community cast votes for Barack Obama, but nearly 70 percent among the Orthodox preferred John McCain.
In September, 2011, Orthodox voters also played the decisive role in the special election to fill the congressional seat once held by the disgraced Anthony Weiner. In a shocking upset in a heavily Jewish and religious district in Brooklyn and Queens, Republican (and Roman Catholic) Bob Turner won comfortably over an Orthodox Jewish liberal, drawing a clear majority of Jewish voters. This year, TV star (Shalom in the Home), bestselling author (Kosher Sex), Orthodox rabbi and father of nine Shmuley Boteach won the Republican nomination for the House of Representatives in the Ninth Congressional District of New Jersey.
The growth of Orthodox identity (particularly among younger Jews) also helps to explain a recent Gallup Poll (June, 2012) showing President Obama’s Jewish support slipping dramatically (to 64 percent, down 14 percentage points from his election-day backing four years ago). Many activists in the Republican Jewish Coalition (RJC) predict that the community may divide even more closely by the end of this campaign, with Jewish voters representing one of the few segments of the electorate where Mitt Romney’s Mormon faith actually makes him more palatable (as a member of another persecuted and distinctly pro-Israel religious minority) and not less popular.
Yes, the Orthodox tilt to the right stems in part from strong support for Benjamin Netanyahu’s center-right coalition in Israel. But on social issues like gay marriage and abortion, traditionally observant Jews in Brooklyn (or the Conejo Valley, for that matter) also find far more common ground with Christian conservatives than they do with secular Jewish progressives of the Upper West Side or Beverly Hills. Deeply religious Jews also feel significantly less threatened by Christians who express their own fervent faith commitments, and are therefore more comfortable with the prominent role played by “faith and family” rhetoric in today’s Republican Party.
In fact, developments in the Jewish community to some extent mirror similar patterns among American Christians, with dramatic growth for both the fiercely affiliated and the altogether unaffiliated, while the squishy center—the “Cafeteria Catholics,” “Christmas-and-Easter Christians” and “Once-a-Year/Yom Kippur Only Jews”—have seen their numbers dwindle drastically. Jacob Ukeles, prime author of the new study on New York’s Jewish population, told the New York Times: “There are more deeply engaged Jews and there are more unengaged Jews. Those two wings are growing at the expense of the middle. That’s the reality of our community.”
In the Christian world, comparable studies highlight the growth of more doctrinally conservative, personally demanding Evangelical and Pentecostal denominations, as well as the “unchurched” and proudly secular, while so-called mainstream churches (Congregationalists, Unitarians, Methodists, Episcopalians, and so forth) lose members and energy.
The similar shift in religious affiliation among New York Jews won’t push the overwhelmingly liberal Empire State into the GOP column in the foreseeable future, but it should begin to change public perceptions concerning the most significant Jewish community in the world outside of Israel. With 74 percent of all identifying Jewish children in the city now affiliated with the Orthodox strain in Judaism, Democrats in years to come no longer can take for granted the automatic, unquestioned and overwhelming support of the Jewish community, and the designation “Jewish” should no longer amount to a synonym for “liberal.”