New York Jews: The Five and a Half Tribes

by Scott A. Shay

According to Jewish tradition, the Jewish people originally consisted of twelve tribes, each descended from one of Jacob’s sons. The Assyrian empire exiled 10 of these tribes about 2800 years ago. The newly released Jewish Community Study of New York (JCSNY), sponsored by UJA-Federation of New York, indicates a new twist in Jewish history. While the study identified many demographic patterns, my reading of its findings is that New York Jewry (with important connotations for overall American Jewish trends) now consists of five and a half distinct tribes. This new tribal alignment has far reaching implications for the face of American Jewry, Jewish engagement, and Jewish communal responsibility.

Looking at this new alignment, the first tribe is the Engaged non-Orthodox Jews. With a substantial percentage of adult Jews at 30 percent, but only 25 percent of the children, this group consists largely of Jews with affiliations to the Reform and Conservative movements, ties to Jewish organizations ranging from AIPAC to J Street, and often correlates with high levels of secular education and income. This group used to be thought of by most as “American Jewry” and set its agenda. However, today, despite its many achievements, it is aging and its institutions, both religious and secular, are struggling. Each of the Reform and Conservative Movements lost about 40,000 members in the New York area in the last decade. The American Jewish Congress, once a voice of American Jewry, closed down, unable to appeal to a broader constituency. The question for this tribe is whether current institutions can inspire a renewal and tribal growth, or whether they should down-size their organizational infrastructure.

The second tribe is the Less Engaged Jews. At 25 percent of the Jewish population, of which a disproportionate number are young, this tribe is made up of two groups: intermarried families that are not raising their children as Jewish and of a broad gamut of Jews who just are not into being Jewish. This tribe has similarly high rates of secular education and income as other non-Orthodox Jews and participates in a large range of community initiatives in American society at large. It does not, however, have strong ties to Jewish institutions, Jewish communities or Jewish causes. Rather, Less Engaged Jews maintain their tether line to the Jewish people through the internet and cultural activities that are Jewish but involve non-Jews as well (think Matisyahu concerts or Adam Sandler’s “Eight Crazy Days”, etc.). The question for this tribe is will they stay Jewish and, if so, how?

The third tribe is the Haredi Jews, which include Hassidic groups and Jews affiliated with yeshivot (centers for advanced, traditional Talmudic learning). At 22 percent of the individuals and almost half of all Jewish children, this group is the fastest growing American Jewish tribe. The Haredi tribe is by definition Jewishly engaged, and has achieved its goal of rebuilding Jewish institutions, especially yeshivot, and replenishing their numbers after the Holocaust. While some Haredi communities like Chabad have been very active in community-wide initiatives, others inside the Haredi tribe lack the desire, skills, and financial resources to engage outside of their own group. In the New York Hassidic communities, just 13 percent of adults have earned a college degree, two thirds of households earn less than $50,000, and 63 percent are poor or near poor. The question for this tribe is will they disengage totally from the other Jewish tribes or will they strike a balance between tribal identity and broader community involvement?

The fourth tribe is the Russian-speaking Jews which accounts for 14 percent of the New York Jews. While the Russian-speaking is tribe is decidedly secular – only a small minority affiliates with any religious movement of Judaism – it identifies very strongly with the Jewish people. Intermarriage is rare, affinity for Israel is high, and social engagement within the Jewish world is almost double that of other non-Orthodox Jews. Other Jewish groups, such as the early secular Zionists, in the past have divorced being ethnically Jewish from the practice of Judaism as a religion. The question for this tribe is whether their cultural Jewish identification will be keep them connected to other Jews.

The fifth tribe is the Modern Orthodox Jews. This tribe comprises about 10 percent of New York Jews and 12 percent of its children. Previous studies often considered the Modern Orthodox and the Haredi as part of the same tribe, based on orthodox religious affiliation and commitment to Jewish education. However, their differences are substantial. Modern Orthodox Jews have achieved their goal of combining tradition and modernity: their Jewish engagement is both more intense than non-Orthodox Jews and more diverse than all the other tribes, while they demonstrate levels of secular education, income, and participation in the labor market that are barely distinguishable from the non-Orthodox population. The question for this tribe is whether it will use its extensive engagement and ties to different Jews to forge a link between the different tribes

Finally, the “half tribe” in American Jewry is quite a surprise. 5 percent of people who identified as Jewish in the study for whom neither parent was Jewish and never underwent a formal conversion (an additional 2 percent did complete a conversion). The study carefully excluded Messianic Jews. Among the answers we found for people in this group were “My ex-wife and children are Jewish so I consider myself Jewish,” or “my friends are mostly Jewish, I keep kosher and I give to Jewish charities.” What is most astounding about this statistic is its implication. Whereas after World War II, Jews faced discrimination by colleges and employers, today Jews are such a well-regarded group, that 77,000 New Yorkers have chosen to identify themselves as such.

While there are those who might respond to the results of this study with anxiety that is not the conclusion I would draw. For the Engaged non-Orthodox this is a wake-up call and wake up calls can be useful. For the Less Engaged American Jews there is good news too. We now have a treasure trove of information about which initiatives are meaningful for this group and which are not. For example, we do a pretty good job as a community of the first step of “outreach,” that is welcoming all Jews, but a worse job at engaging those who tentatively “try out” Jewish activities. So it is time to move away from “welcoming” as an outreach focus toward true engagement. We know affiliation creates connections with the Jewish community as a whole and leads to more investment in Jewish education, support for Israel, and giving to Jewish as well as American causes. We understand that we need to re-double our efforts to make supplemental schools effective, to make Jewishly-oriented camping commonplace for young Jews, and to work so that that two teen or young adult peer trips to Israel become the gold standard for American Jewry. For the Russian Jews, we can say with pride that the second-generation continues to be involved in Jewish community initiatives. For the Haredi, there is a model of strong tribal identity and broader community involvement that they can follow, namely the Chabad movement. Finally, for the Modern Orthodox, we have learned that they have taken strong community-wide leadership and have the skills to provide the glue for keeping different tribes together.

We have always been a community of tribes. When the twelve tribes of Israel camped in the wilderness, each camp separately aligned by the identity of their traditional matriarch, Leah, Rachel, Billah and Zilpa. These tribes all had very different tribal personalities, yet when the non-Jewish prophet Balaam looked out at them, he famously said, “How goodly are your tents, O Jacob, your dwellings O Israel” (Numbers 24:6). Jews have long practiced unity through diversity. Each group has had an important contribution to make.

Despite the current divisions of American Jewry, there is no doubt that Jews maintain the ability to act in unity when there is a compelling need. Although it may seem like ancient history, this year marks just the 25th anniversary of the massive Soviet Jewry rally in Washington D.C., attended by all sectors of American Jewry that hastened the fall of the Iron Curtain. The rally demonstrated that American Jews can set aside their differences to make change happen. It is my fervent hope that American Jewry once again harnesses that capacity in the current challenging geo-political and social environment to again be “a light unto the nations.” If we do so, it will beautiful to gaze upon.

Scott A. Shay is  Chairman of the Board of Signature Bank and Chairman of the Jewish Community Study of New York.