Jewish Diversity and Its Implications for Jewish Peoplehood: Obstacle or Opportunity

[This essay is from The Peoplehood Papers, volume 9 – The Collective Jewish Conversation: Its Role, Purpose and Place in the 21st Century – published by the Center for Jewish Peoplehood Education.]

by Steven M. Cohen, Jack Ukeles and Ron Miller

The recently conducted Jewish Community Study of New York (2011) offers a window on the diversity of the Jewish population, a feat that is both a daunting challenge to Jewish Peoplehood as well as the compelling core of its contemporary rationale. As the three authors of the Comprehensive Report for the study sponsored by UJA-Federation of New York we were most struck by the growing multi-faceted diversity of New York’s 1.54 million Jews. The initial media coverage focused upon the most immediately noteworthy developments. Among them: The explosive growth of the Haredim, the sharp surge in poverty, the increasing number of non-denominational Jews who grew in part at the expense of non-affiliated Conservative and Reform Jews.

But these developments, as significant as they are, are but a piece of a larger picture, one which in fact encapsulates the larger story of today’s Jewish People worldwide, and not just those living in the five boroughs of New York City and the suburban counties of Westchester, Nassau and Suffolk. It is the story of what may be seen negatively as fragmentation, neutrally as differentiation, or positively as diversity.

To get to the facts: As we learned in the New York study, diversity in the Jewish population is not only large, it is growing; and is expressed not along one or two dimensions, but on several. The diversity in New York Jewry is indicative of diversity elsewhere. Moreover, given the many Jews who live in New York – almost one in four of American Jews and almost one in eight of Jews worldwide – the diversity in New York Jewry automatically signifies diversity for the Jewish population of the United States and beyond.

First, New York area Jews in 2011 are spread over a larger age span than just a decade or two earlier. As the study documented, the number of Jewish children has exploded among the Orthodox, especially among the Haredi Orthodox. From 2002 to 2011, Orthodox Jews in the New York area gave birth to 115,000 babies, propelling the growth in the Orthodox population from 378,000 to 494,000 in the 2002-2011 period (2002 is the date of the previous New York Jewish Community Study).

We also found – further contributing to Jewish population diversity – that the Orthodox themselves are diverse with very significant differences between Modern Orthodox and Haredim, and even observable differences between Hasidim and Yeshivish Orthodox. To take a few illustrative distinctions: Haredi birthrates are about double those of the Modern Orthodox who in turn give birth to about twice as many Jewish children as the non-Orthodox. The Modern Orthodox donate to UJA-Federation far more often than their Haredi counterparts. Hasidic families are somewhat larger and much more poverty-stricken than Yeshivish households.

While children’s numbers grew, the number of elderly grew even more. Since 2002, New York area Jewry added 45,000 seniors past age 75, an increase of 30% in nine years. In 1991, Jews age75+ constituted just 5% of the local Jewish population; by 2011, that proportion jumped to 13% – with similar surges in Jewish population studies across North America. The growth of the 75+ age cohort – of mostly well elderly – means that for the first time, Jewish communities consist of four full generations existing side by side: 20s and 30s, 40s and 50s, 60s and 70s, and 80s and 90s.

Not only did we see a rise in the Orthodox, arguably the group with the highest levels of Jewish engagement, so too did we see an expansion in the number of Jews manifesting low levels of Jewish engagement. Among them are several segments which also grew over the years: Jews with no religion, the intermarried, and the adult children of the intermarried. Along with them we have the emergence of Jews who say they are “partially Jewish” (13% of Jewish respondents) and Jews who identify with a religion other than Judaism (5% of Jewish respondents).

In fact, the very meaning of “being Jewish” is increasingly complex (read: diverse), as some particularly telling voices from our survey respondents illustrate: “When I’m with my father, I’m Jewish; when I’m with my mother, I’m Catholic.” “The rest of my family is Jewish; I just choose another religion.” “I was born Jewish and years ago converted to Christianity, and then practiced Judaism again for my children.”

Age diversity and Jewish engagement diversity are just part of the diversity story. We also learned that the number of people in poor Jewish households leapt from 244,000 in 2002 to 361,000 in 2011. The number of poor or near-poor people totals 565,000! (What’s “near-poor”? A family of three earning $41,000 is near poor.) And all this poverty and near-poverty co-exists with extraordinary affluence and influence, with 167,000 people living in Jewish households earning $250,000 or more annually. As income disparity increased in the United States, Israel, and around the world, so too did it come to increasingly characterize the Jews of the New York area.

Then, beyond variations in age, Jewish engagement and affluence, we have in New York large agglomerations of diverse identities. As many as 234,000 people live in Russian-speaking households (up slightly from 2002); over 5% of the households include an LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bi-sexual or Transgender) member – and 75,000 people live in those households; 12% of Jewish households in the New York area include someone who is non-white, bi-racial, or Hispanic – a quarter of a million people live in those households. In New York, more people live in each of several kinds of Sephardic and Middle-Eastern communities – be they, Syrian, Iranian or Bukharin – than the entire populations of several sizable Jewish communities elsewhere in the United States.

These national origin differences are consequential, as, for example, Russian-speaking Jews maintain very strong in-group ties, but, as a group, largely absent themselves from conventional religious life. Contrary to popular impression, Israeli-origin Jews surpass native-born Jews on almost all measures of Jewish engagement.

Along with all this diversity in age, ideology, national origin, culture and social class comes diversity in approaches to life, Jewish life and Jewish engagement, most notably that embodied in denominational identities. While the differences between Orthodox and other Jews are widely recognized, those between Conservative and Reform Jews are not so readily appreciated and anticipated. Yet we found that in New York, as elsewhere, Conservative and Reform continue to signify different Jewish populations and engagement in Jewish life on many levels. To add one more element of variety: Congregationally affiliated Conservative and Reform Jews are far more active both ritually and communally than their unaffiliated peers.

These diversifying trends certainly present new challenges to the social bases for coherence and communality, community and collectivity. After all, how much does the poverty stricken Hasid teenager in Brooklyn share with the affluent Baby Boomer Reform investment banker on the Upper East Side, or the intermarried young adult with a non-Jewish mother in Suffolk County, or the octogenarian formerly affiliated Conservative great grandmother in Riverdale? With seemingly so little in common – or at least much less in common than 80, 50 or even 20 years ago, how can these and so many more Jews in all their variety hew to a compelling concept of Jewish Peoplehood?

At the same time, these striking elements of socio-demographic, cultural and ideological diversity also present new opportunities. The multiplicity of cultures should be seen not as an inevitable obstacle to unity, but as a valuable resource for community.

To some, the sheer diversity translates into polarization and disunity. To us, the diversity poses a remarkable opportunity: to enhance personal and communal creativity, to build patterns of mutual enrichment, to celebrate difference while building bridges across difference. Ultimately we can develop a new model of Jewish collectivity that celebrates diversity while seeking integration. To do so, we will need not only a principled commitment to Jewish Peoplehood, but an instinctual appreciation of Jewish diversity. And we will need the relational and interpersonal skills, bred by the practice of Jewish Peoplehood, to learn how to learn from one another. In so doing, we can overcome the local, national and worldwide challenges to Jewish Peoplehood in the early 21st century, turning the diversity so boldly drawn in New York elsewhere into a rich resource.

Steven M. Cohen is Professor of Jewish Social Research, HUC-JIR and Director, Berman Jewish Policy Archive at NYU Wagner; Dr. Jacob B. Ukeles is President of Ukeles Associates, Inc.; and Prof. Ron Miller is Associate Director of the North American Jewish Data Bank.

*The other researchers who collaborated with the authors on the NY Jewish Community Study are Pearl Beck, David Dutwin, and Svetlana Shmuiyian.

This essay is from The Peoplehood Papers, volume 9 – The Collective Jewish Conversation: Its Role, Purpose and Place in the 21st Century – published by the Center for Jewish Peoplehood Education.