The missing ingredient in the 2023 UJA-Federation of New York population survey

Last week, eJewishPhilanthropy covered the release of the long-awaited UJA-Federation of New York’s Jewish population survey. The results are full of important data that will be helpful in understanding the challenges facing the Jewish community and point us in the direction of solutions.

What leaped out at us, however, is that the survey did not include queries that assess the scope of the involvement of Metro NYC Jews with Chabad.

Today there are 166 Chabad centers within the eight-county area covered in the survey. This figure does not include the dynamic, growing Chabad community of approximately 20,000 people in Crown Heights, chock full of synagogues, schools, social services providers and yeshivas.

To its credit, the survey attempted to analyze demographic trends in the Haredi community, even composing a questionnaire in Yiddish, but there was no effort to explore the involvement of non-Haredi Jews in the network of Chabad centers. Other studies have explored this topic: For instance, a recent Pew survey revealed that 16% of U.S. Jews are active regularly with Chabad, and 38% visit periodically. 

Part of the problem is the survey used the outdated methodology of denominational self-identification — trying to divide Jews into neat boxes. Are you Orthodox, Conservative, Reform or Reconstructionist? This line of questioning does not reflect the real trends in modern Jewish life. It ignores the vast numbers who, while not fully practicing Orthodoxy, attend Chabad while self-identifying as Reform, Conservative or Other. 

Other demographers, including Pew and other federations, have created a new line of questioning designed to analyze Chabad involvement. Instead of asking what you think you are, survey participants are encouraged to express their Jewish identity in more depth. Questions like “Do you attend Chabad?” or “Do you support Chabad?” have revealed interesting trends. According to the recent Pew survey results, for instance, the vast majority of Jews in the U.S. attending Chabad (over 75%) do not identify as Orthodox. According to the 2014 Greater Miami Jewish Federation Population Study, 46% of Jews under 35 said they are involved with Chabad.   

The question of why there were no questions about Chabad involvement in the UJA-Federation survey is even more perplexing when you consider Chabad’s growth. Today there are over 1,000 Chabad centers in the U.S., representing a growth rate of 200% in the past 20 years. By contrast, the Reform movement has closed almost 25% of their congregations and Conservative movement 38%, according to a 2020 Pew study. Some non-Orthodox congregations have even teamed up with Chabad to revitalize their communities.

On Long Island alone, Chabad has grown by almost 300% to 40 centers in the last two decades. How many people do they serve versus congregations of other denominations? We don’t know, because the survey didn’t collect that information. 

In the survey’s data about denominational affiliation in Suffolk County, for example, less than 5% of respondents indicated they are Orthodox, 20% indicated Conservative, and 30% Reform. The largest percentage of Jews, over 40%, said they are “Other.” What does that mean? Are they Jews who are really not engaged, or Jews attending Chabad? And how many of those who self-identified as Reform and Conservative actually attend or support Chabad? 

In Nassau County, which hosts 25 Chabad Centers, nine building projects have been completed in the past 10 years with a capital investment of over $26 million. Chassidim in Brooklyn are not moving to Long Island — the growth is indicative that many Jews in Nassau today are involved with Chabad. 

The purpose of the survey was in part to discover what is successful and what is not in today’s Jewish community. If Chabad is growing rapidly, and more and more Jews are becoming involved with Chabad in some capacity, then Chabad is doing something right. A survey that included Chabad could have encouraged UJA-Federation to dedicate more resources to what is clearly working. A Chabad rabbi who asked in 2019 to be part of the committee to develop the survey alleges that he was kindly ignored. It is much easier to exclude Chabad proposals for funding when you don’t have real data on the scope of their success.

Chabad has 3,000 centers in 50 states and over 100 countries. In Europe, over 50% of synagogues are Chabad-affiliated. In Israel there are 1,000 Chabad institutions. In Australia, South Africa, Russia, and all FSU countries, as well as India, Dubai, Thailand, Vietnam, China and Central Africa, over 80% of synagogues are officially Chabad or led by Chabad rabbis. 

When a survey of one of the largest Jewish populations in the world ignores the most dynamic and successful Jewish movement, it cannot be taken seriously. 

Rabbi Leibel Baumgarten is rabbi of Chabad of the Hamptons. Arthur Katz is board chair of Chabad of Long Island.