Opinion | Opinion

Op-Ed: N.Y.’s Jewish community report can apply elsewhere in U.S.

(JTA) — The 2011 Jewish Community Study of New York was released with some fanfare earlier this month.

Some of the UJA-Federation of New York’s survey results came as somewhat of a surprise. After a decrease from about 2 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 are growing at the expense of the middle (Conservative and Reform Jews).

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 the reader should not concentrate just on the findings initially highlighted by the media. The report contains more than 250 pages of interesting and instructive information on this most important American Jewish community.

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. So can a Houston, a Tucson, Ariz., or a Springfield, Mass., learn anything from a reading of the New York results that will assist them in their own community planning?

Yes — and no.

New York is New York. It is different Jewishly (and otherwise) from the rest of the country. Bethamie Horowitz, the researcher for the 1991 New York Jewish Population Survey, in a 1994 article in Contemporary Jewry posited a “New York effect” (that New York is different from other American Jewish communities) even though, demographically, N.Y. Jews did not differ significantly in 1990 from the rest of America. Is this still the case today?

To answer the question, I used the Comparison of Jewish Communities: A Compendium of Tables and Bar Charts recently posted by this author at the Mandell Berman North American Jewish Data Bank, which 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), age 65 and older (20 percent) and age 75 and older (12 percent) as well as average household size (2.55 persons per household) are all about average. Synagogue membership (44 percent) and Jewish community center participation (32 percent) are both 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. For example, among the comparison communities, the percentage of those in the local community who are Jewish (13 percent) is the third highest after Florida’s. The percentage locally born (56 percent) is the highest and the percentage foreign born (29 percent) is topped only by Miami.

Among the 55 comparison Jewish communities, the percentage of Orthodox households (20 percent) is the second highest (just below Baltimore), Conservative (19 percent) is the fourth lowest and Reform (23 percent) is the second lowest. The percentage Just Jewish (37 percent) is the fifth highest.

The percentage of households who keep a kosher home (32 percent) is the highest. The 22 percent of married couples in the Jewish community 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.

Thus, New York also differs greatly. No other Jewish community is as large, as diverse or as poor. 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 (although we do see increases elsewhere in participation in Orthodox, mostly Chabad, institutions).

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, with some becoming more Jewishly engaged (although not Orthodox) while others become 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 such informal Jewish educational efforts throughout the nation is warranted.

While 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. That is because, as shown by our Compendium, Jewish communities differ significantly from one another. New York differs even more than most.

Perhaps the most important lesson to be garnered from our initial exposure to the findings of the New York study is that it will lead to some major changes in the manner in which the UJA-Jewish Federation of New York and the New York Jewish community in general views itself and operates. I have completed more than 40 similar studies throughout the country and 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.

(Ira M. Sheskin is a professor in the department of geography and regional studies and the director of the Jewish Demography Project of the Sue and Leonard Miller Center for Contemporary Judaic Studies at the University of Miami.)