New York as America’s Jewish Capital City

by Steven Windmueller, Ph.D.

  • New York is rapidly losing its economic position within the changing global economy, which has significant implications for American Jews, as well.
  • The Jews of New York longer reflect religiously or demographically the “state” of American Jewry.
  • Other major communities in this nation today rival New York in terms of institutional Jewish growth and as centers of creative energy and institutional innovation.
  • The “Manhattan Syndrome” nurtured the idea that all significant Jewish life and events were New York-centered; this notion is now being challenged, as a result of the communication’s revolution, the emergence of competing national and regional markets, the growing cultural and religious diversities that exist among American Jews, and the loss of a shared national Jewish agenda.
  • The conservative political mindset of New York Jewish voters runs counter to the more liberal political perspectives and patterns found among the rest of America’s Jews.
  • In comparing American Jewry to Israeli society, New York would embody the social characteristics of “Jerusalem”, religiously-oriented and politically conservative, while the rest of American Jewry would tend to reflect “Tel Aviv” with its more centrist and liberal orientations.

Today, there are multiple centers of Jewish life within this country, in part augmenting and supplanting New York’s claim as America’s Jewish “capital”. Demographic changes, institutional and communications options, and emerging cutting edge markets, all are contributing to the redistribution of Jewish intellectual, political and social power across the United States.

The decline of great Jewish cities is not unique to New York, as Jewish history is replete with stories of such urban transitions. Historically, the change of trade routes and the emergence of political regimes hostile to Jewish economic and religious interests leading to forced conversions, discrimination, and explosion have contributed to population shifts and the transfer of wealth. In more contemporary times, as economic opportunities emerged and as the technology revolution developed, individuals were in a position to engage in business and professional ventures globally, thereby removing the reliance on any one place to geographically represent the base of power for a particular community or group. Similarly, as Jews have acculturated and assimilated into the American experience, they have been increasingly welcomed in all sectors of society, allowing them to pursue personal and professional opportunities wherever such options would become available. In turn, American society has embraced Judaism as part of the multicultural and pluralistic environment that over time has defined this nation. Over the course of the past half century American Jews have had occasion to benefit from this openness, leading in part to further geographical redistribution of populations.

Correspondingly, during this period of time, other regions have emerged to challenge the hegemony of New York as America’s Jewish center. California, South Florida and Washington D.C., among other geographical areas, now compete with New York for prominence and influence. For that matter, the suburban corridors that adjoin New York, northern New Jersey, Westchester and Long Island, and southern Connecticut have all benefited from the exodus of Jews from the city itself.

When examining the emergence of new institutions since the mid-1980’s many of these organizations have been created outside of the Metropolitan New York area. Such dramatic and significant changes may represent a serious issue for American Jewry, as minority cultures benefit from having vital “capital cities” that provide the intellectual and political leadership to serve and lead them.

Parallel Factors Contributing to New York’s Decline:

Such changes are not unique to the changing role of the Jewish community within New York. “We may be witnessing something like the decline of New York’s manufacturing base in the seventies. The geographic imperative of doing business in New York is less obvious.” For example, the shift of New York’s centrality in the world of manufacturing has also occurred. “Over the past sixty years, New York City has lost nearly a million manufacturing jobs. While other sectors of the city’s economy grow, manufacturing declines, even though it provides on average higher wages for employees without high school diplomas than any other job sector.”

A recent edition of New York by the Numbers shows that over the last 50 years, Manhattan has been gradually loosening its grip on the private sector jobs in New York City. In 1958, the borough accounted for 67.6 percent of all non-government jobs in the city. But by 2008 its share had fallen six percentage points to 61.6 percent.

Within the world of finance one finds similar losses. Following the most recent decline of the Stock Market, “Wall Street stands to shed 40,000 jobs. (Eleven thousand jobs had been lost before the events this past week, and Lehman, Merrill, and AIG together have 29,000 employees in the city.) If, instead, last week was the beginning not of a cyclical crisis but of the permanent shrinkage of Wall Street, the job loss could easily be far more.”

These dramatic changes are not limited to the redistribution of populations within the United States as evidenced by the impact of the rise of the global economic scene: “There is a trend of wealth and head count moving from these shores to other parts of the world, such as London, Dubai, and Hong Kong,” says John Studzinski, head of mergers and acquisitions at Blackstone. “It’s now easy, if unsettling, to imagine that when the market calms, the remaining financial firms will have moved their head offices to other cities.”

Such dramatic changes in the financial, business and manufacturing status of New York inevitably has and will continue to impact the future of Jewish life in the city as well.

New York Jewry: Revelations of Change

When examining the demographic data, New York Jewry no longer reflects the rest of this nation’s Jews in a number of significant categories. Its citizenry tend to be more religious, exhibit a lower intermarriage rate, demonstrate a significantly higher percentage of Jewish poor, and no longer reflect the more liberal political values associated with the rest of American Jewry.

“That new Jewish demographic study released in New York this week examined only the Jews of metropolitan New York. Folks in other communities might be tempted, therefore, to think that the survey’s astonishing findings – including skyrocketing poverty and a surging Orthodox population – are none of their business. But that would be a big mistake. The fact is, anyone who is the least bit concerned with the future of Jewish life in America should be taking a long, hard look at the New York UJA-Federation population survey.”

The 2002 New York population study noted that there were 972,000 Jews residing in the city. That represented “a moderate drop from the 1990’s and 1980’s but less than half the peak of two million living in the five boroughs in the late 1950’s. The study also showed that the decline would have been steeper if not for an influx of Jews from the former Soviet Union during the 1990’s.”

Despite this suburban growth, the overall Jewish population data for the five county greater New York area has been dramatically reduced. The AJYB reported in 1961 a metropolitan Jewish population base of 2,401,600. That number would continue to decline over the next four decades. By 2001, the AJYB reported a total Jewish population for that region to be no more than 1,450,000, a drop of one million inhabitants covering these forty years.

An aging population, the growth of an immigrant population and a sluggish economy helped to double the rate of poverty among the city’s Jews. This figure would more than double between 1991 and the time of the 2002 study. One in five households was classified as having incomes that fell into the poverty category.

Religious Reconfiguration:

The Population Study affirms another significant development that the “Jewish” community of New York no longer reflects the primary religious affiliation patterns associated with the rest of American Jewry:

“The survey shows huge increases during the last decade in the numbers of Jewish New Yorkers who identify themselves as Orthodox and as secular, while in the middle, Conservative and Reform Jews are declining. In effect, New York Jews are sorting themselves into two distinct groups, bunching up at the edges while the center disappears.”

While rightly claiming to be the “mother of American Judaism” New York today is being challenged by other communities that reflect the greater diversity and vitality of religious expression. The birthplace of Conservative movement, a major center for Reform Judaism, and the home of American Orthodoxy provide relevant credence to the city’s historical role, but in the current environment New York no longer holds a monopoly on Jewish religious engagement and creativity. Both the Conservative and Reform movements report significant losses within the Metropolitan New York area, while the Orthodox community continues to grow, moving from 13% of the Jewish population to over 19% in little over a decade (1991-2003). These patterns radically differ with demographic trends elsewhere in the United States.

“Recent studies and anecdotal evidence suggest that Jews in most communities continue to identify mainly as Reform and Conservative, with only slight increases at the fringes. True, there’s evidence of a polarization nationwide between a few who are increasingly observant and a larger group that’s decreasingly so.” The Jewish population of New York City has fallen by 5 percent since 1991, dipping below one million for the first time in a century. Today, Manhattan, the historic center of Jewish life within this nation, has only 243,000 Jews.

Some of the core attributes that made New York unique and special in the middle of the 20th century, no longer hold true. Diversity and access to Jewish cultural experiences and religious institutions were once seen as the special character of the Big Apple, yet by the turn of this century other communities could clearly demonstrate the presence of an array of alternative cultural and religious offerings. San Francisco, Chicago, Boston, Miami, and Los Angeles among others have emerged as centers of Jewish learning, the cultural arts, philanthropic participation, and religious expression.

Organizational life was once seen as New York centric, when location and connection to other major Jewish and non-Jewish institutions were seen as an imperative and where access to a large target audience of co-religionists was understood to be important for recruiting and sustaining members. As New York was also seen as the media center of this country, many organizations felt compelled to be present in this market to compete for publicity and visibility.

In the 21st century as the technology and communications revolution unfolds, and as population shifts continue to occur, institutions are no longer limited to one specific media market. Today, the business of Jewish institutional affair can be carried on from any number of locations.

The Untold Story of New York Jewry:

Today, New York’s Jewish community faces serious economic and social challenges:

“During the last decade the proportion of poor Jews in New York City has doubled to 21%. The rise is due mostly to explosive growth in two populations that haven’t kept up economically, Orthodox Jews and Russian immigrants; between them, the two groups now account for about 44% of the city’s Jewish population. New York Jews are becoming dramatically poorer, more Orthodox and more immigrant-based, while the rest of American Jewry, most evidence shows, is heading in the opposite direction.”

The issue of poverty represents a major challenge to the New York Jewish community, its agencies and synagogues. In some measure this challenging economic reality further weakens the position of New York.

Overcoming New York Centric:

A type of “Manhattan Syndrome” has emerged in Jewish life, suggesting that if something does not take place in New York, it simply does not have standing. The old New Yorker map offers the caricature of Manhattan as the center of the universe, with anything west of the Hudson River as having little consequence, relevance, or acknowledgment.

Similarly, organizations that have regional or chapter structures have in a number of prominent cases faced challenges and organizational conflicts with their West Coast affiliates as in the case of the University of Judaism (now the American Jewish University) and JTS, Hadassah and its operations within Southern California, ADL over the firing of its Western Regional Director David Lehrer, or with regard to the United Synagogue’s conflict with its regional leadership in Los Angeles, some years earlier.

Another core measure is Congressional political representation; today more Jewish politicians come from regions and states other than the New York Metropolitan area.

The issue of “distance” has increasingly represented a challenge as more Jews leave the New York area and move further away from the “capital” city. As there is a loss of a national Jewish agenda, increasing attention has been given to regionalization.

Jewish Liberalism and New York Politics:

The more conservative political voting patterns of New York Jews no longer reflect the more liberal-oriented viewpoints held by the majority of American Jewry.

“As the numbers make clear, this evolving political force will bear little resemblance to the New York Jewish liberalism of legend. With nearly half its population either Orthodox or Russian-speaking, the community ….can hardly be described as liberal at all. The world’s largest Jewish community is, for the first time in a century, essentially conservative. That’s a big part of the reason why New York City has chosen Republican mayors in three consecutive elections.”

While the Forward seeks to downplay the significance of the divide between New York’s emerging conservative political bent and the commitment to liberalism on the part of Jews elsewhere, there appears to be a different reality in the American heartland:

“It’s true that a majority of American Jews remains firmly liberal on a host of domestic social issues. But majorities only count when they can be harnessed. Much of the American Jewish political community has been operating without focus for more than a decade; frustrated with New York’s growing conservatism, activists have tried to ignore it, but in so doing they cut themselves off from the community’s center of gravity, which is still New York.”

Reasserting the Case for New York:

The shift of power away from New York as the single centerpiece of American Jewish life has evoked a strong response by that city’s defenders. Key New York-centered intellectuals and traditional defenders of that city’s historic and financial role are simply not prepared to accept the new structural, demographical and organizational realities that are confronting Jewish life in America.

They would embrace the following mantra:

“Nevertheless, New York City is still the mother of American Judaism. There are several reasons for this. First, there are religious aspects to the Jewish experience in New York. Unlike any other American city, New York has numerous synagogues readily within walking distance of anyone living there. This also meant that there was always a Jewish school available to Jewish children of the numerous immigrants who had come over the years. Those who wanted to eat only kosher food had easy access to kosher butchers and to kosher restaurants.”

The “defenders” of New York, and there are many, tend to focus their case on Jewish philanthropic giving, on traditional affiliation patterns and core population numbers, arguing that “The City” remains the center of Jewish vitality.

The Forward offers a two-prong defense of the City as this nation’s most influential Jewish community:

“The first is that New York is still home to the nation’s largest and most influential Jewish community, bar none…. The second reason is that the New York community is not like the Jewish communities in other American cities. Indeed, it’s becoming increasingly unlike the rest of American Jewry, and it’s doing so at a faster pace than anyone imagined.”

A Closing Word:

A type of nostalgia has seeped into the discourse over New York, as its past remains a powerful and engaging American Jewish story. Still a great center of Jewish life, its claim today as “the centerpiece” of American Jewry holds less standing in light of the emergence of competing markets where Jewish vitality, wealth and creativity today rival New York.

Steven Windmueller, Ph.D. currently serves as the Dean of the Los Angeles campus of Hebrew Union College. Dr. Windmueller holds the Rabbi Alfred Gottschalk Chair in Jewish Communal Service at HUC.