Fear or Opportunity? NYC and PDX

Rabbi Donniel Hartman, President of the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem, wrote earlier this week, “The Jewish people have perfected a new weapon in our crisis arsenal, a weapon guaranteed to marshal the prerequisite quota of fear and concern needed to fuel Jewish communal life – demography.”

Two years ago, the Jewish Federation of Greater Portland completed its demographic study of the metropolitan area. It shed light on a growing Jewish community (an estimated 47,000 Jews in 27,000 households), a community where people are less connected to Jewish life than a generation ago, and a changing dynamic of what “being Jewish” means. 

With this in mind, I read with great interest the newly released demographic study of the New York City/eight county area sponsored by the UJA-Federation of New York – its first since 2002. Some highlights:

·       The eight county New York area has grown to 1.54 million (in 694,000 households) Jewish adults and children, the first growth since the 1950s when the population was 2.5 million.

·       Orthodox Jews, because of their high birth rate, now make up nearly 1/3 of the Jewish community and an incredible 64% of all children.

·       361,000 Jewish people live under the poverty line with 11% of all Jewish households on food stamps. This is an increase of 33% in just twenty years.

·       New York is very diverse. 12% of the New York Jewish households are biracial. The category includes households in which survey respondents were both Jewish and black, Hispanic, Asian, or bi-racial. In addition, there are substantial numbers of Jewish families who have adopted children from foreign countries. Also, 50,000 Jews live in LGBT households.

·        37% of Jews define themselves as nondenominational or “Just Jewish.” This is an increase from 15% just twenty years earlier.

·        54% of nondenominational respondents’ ages 55-69 received no Jewish education whatsoever, compared with 70% of those ages 18-34 today. 

·       64% of all Jewish children in New York currently attend Jewish day school – 93% of those children are in Orthodox day schools.

·       The intermarriage rate for all married couples remains at 22%, but among non-Orthodox couples married in the last five yearsintermarriage has reached a new high of 50%.

·       Those Jews who characterized themselves as “less engaged” are primarily involved in Jewish activities that one can perform independently of Jewish institutions – having Jewish friends, marking Passover and Chanukah, attending Jewish cultural events and discussing Jewish matters with friends are examples.

·       In 1981, 35% of New York-area Jewish households identified as Conservative, 29% identified as Reform, and 13% as Orthodox. Thirty years later, 32% of Jewish households identified as Orthodox, 20% as Reform and 19% as Conservative.

·       More Jewish households donated to a non-Jewish cause (68%) than to a Jewish cause (59%). Fewer young people are donors at all, and more of them give exclusively to non-Jewish causes. 26% of the wealthiest Jewish households in New York area make no gift whatsoever to any Jewish cause.

·       40% of “baby boomers” have caregiving responsibilities for their parents and children at home.

·       Of the 37,000 households that sought services for older adults, the most common services are home care and transportation. Far less frequent are households seeking nursing homes and help with dementia and Alzheimer’s.

·       Fewer Jews feel being Jewish is important (down from 65% in 2002 to 57% in 2011) and fewer Jews feel that being connected to a Jewish community is very important (from 52% in 2002 to 44% in 2011).

Although Portland’s Orthodox population is not growing in any way like New York’s, you can draw your own comparisons with the Portland study where many of the trends are quite similar. Both studies suggest the need to rethink the definitions of “Jewish community” and the goals and strategies of those committed to serve it.

One challenge of these types of studies is – what next? It is seductive to think that once you have the data you have all the answers – but the data is a point of departure. It is the obligation of Federation, and the Jewish community, to find ways to strengthen the entire Jewish community and people while respecting differences.

When discussing the New York study with a colleague, she replied, “It seems that institutionally it is difficult for us as a whole to make the shift from the 1950s ideals of community and Judaism to the needs and interests of our 21st century Jewish lives. That is why I think so many startups are taking flight and why many older ‘brick and mortar’ institutions are struggling. It is why ‘affiliation’ has become such a loaded and ambiguous term. The challenge is how we balance the fond memories of older generations who are often extremely attached to the way it used to be with the many varied modern manifestations of living a Jewish life.”

Rabbi Hartman’s shared, “As a people we have replaced vision with crisis as the central force and motivation for identity, philanthropy, and unity. We have found amongst the plethora of demographic studies an inexhaustible gold mine. We now have an unending source to feed our fear – accelerated assimilation, lack of affiliation, intermarriage, alienation, decreased commitment, and distancing from Israel.”

I do not fear the data – instead, I see it as an incredible opportunity and challenge for our Jewish community. We have the responsibility to be aware of shifts in the status quo…adapt…and respond effectively and strategically. With your support and guidance, we will create a vision for a joyful, exciting, and positive Jewish future.

Shabbat shalom.



Add Comment