Lessons from New York’s new population study

Lessons from New York’s new population study

The 2011 Jewish Community Study of New York was released with some fanfare last week.

Some of the results of the survey by UJA-Federation of New York came as somewhat of a surprise. After a decrease from about two million Jews in 1970 to 1.4 million in both 1991 and 2002, the region’s Jewish population increased to 1.54 million in 2011, reflecting higher numbers of both children and elderly.

Even more surprising was that nearly 500,000 Jews now live in Orthodox households, making the eight-county area (New York City’s five boroughs, plus Nassau, Suffolk, and Westchester counties) almost one-third Orthodox. At the same time, the number of people who are “Just Jewish” and have much weaker ties to the Jewish community also is increasing. Thus, the two “extremes” — Conservative and Reform Jews — are growing at the expense of the middle.

The study also found significant diversity (Russians, Israelis, Syrians, and others), a significantly increased percentage of Jews living in poverty (about 20 percent), and modest decreases in philanthropic giving as needs are increasing.

But what about the rest of the country? Can the new study assist Jews in Houston, Tucson, and Springfield, Mass., in their own community planning?

Yes — and no.

With the New York area’s 1.54 million Jews representing as much as 25 percent of America’s Jews, changes in its demography and Jewish engagement affect the overall profile of America’s Jewish population.

However, New York is New York. Bethamie Horowitz, the researcher for the 1991 New York Jewish Population Survey, once posited a “New York effect,” suggesting the area is different from other American-Jewish communities. Is this still the case today?

To answer the question, consider the Comparison of Jewish Communities: A Compendium of Tables and Bar Charts, which I recently posted at the Mandell Berman North American Jewish Data Bank. It provides comparisons of 55 American-Jewish communities on hundreds of measures.

New York is like other Jewish communities in some ways. For example, among the comparison Jewish communities, the percentage of persons in Jewish households in New York age 17 and younger (23 percent), 65 and older (20 percent), and 75 and older (12 percent) are all about average. So is average household size (2.55 persons per household). Synagogue membership (44 percent) and Jewish community center participation (32 percent) are about average, too. The percentage of households who donated to any Jewish charity in the past year (59 percent) is a bit below average.

On the other hand, New York really differs from the rest of the country on many measures, including the percentage of those in the local community who are Jewish (13 percent). The percentage born locally (56) is the highest and the percentage foreign born (29 percent) is topped only by Miami.

Only Baltimore has a higher percentage of Orthodox households.

The percentage of households who keep a kosher home (32 percent) is the highest. The 22 percent of married couples who are intermarried is well below average. The percentage of households who donated to the local Jewish federation in the past year (24 percent) is the sixth lowest.

No other Jewish community is as large, as diverse, or as poor as New York. Its Orthodox Jewish community alone is larger than any other American-Jewish community, except perhaps for Los Angeles. In no other community do we see the growth in Orthodox identification that we see in New York.

Still, some trends and relationships found in the New York report almost certainly apply in many other Jewish communities. For example, the trend toward greater bifurcation, between the more Jewishly engaged (although not Orthodox) and the less Jewishly engaged, is seen in most Jewish communities today. And the relationships shown in New York between Jewish engagement and such experiences as Israel trips and Jewish overnight camps almost certainly suggest that further emphasis on informal Jewish educational efforts throughout the nation is warranted.

It is unfortunate that a 2010 national Jewish population survey was not undertaken. One of the valid arguments against a new NJPS is that most planning in the Jewish community is done at the community level.

The New York study will lead to some major changes in the way UJA-Jewish Federation of New York and the New York Jewish community views itself and operates. Having completed more than 40 such surveys, I believe that the real lesson is that conducting similar studies in the Houstons, Tucsons, and Springfields will result in similar benefits for those communities. Jewish communities do differ.

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