UJA-Federation of N.Y. census finds a stable, slightly less poor, Jewish community of 1.3 million members

Poverty in among New York Jews is concentrated in the Haredi and Russian-speaking communities; nearly half of Jewish households not affiliated with a denomination

Even in bustling Manhattan, amid towering skyscrapers and tony neighborhoods, lies an often overlooked reality: poverty in the Jewish community. 

“[Just in Manhattan] we have 24 distribution centers serving those in need,” David Greenfield, CEO of the Metropolitan Council on Jewish Poverty (better known as the Met Council), told eJewishPhilanthropy. “The sheer number surprises many.”

According to a recent census conducted by UJA-Federation of New York, 15% of Jewish households in Manhattan are “poor” or “near-poor.” In Brooklyn, the figure is more than twice as high, with 36% of Jewish households — mostly those in the Haredi community — being designated poor or near-poor, signifying households with incomes that are below 150% of the federal poverty level or below 250% of the FPL, respectively. The survey’s writers note that those in the latter category can face unique challenges by living close to the poverty line but not being eligible for the government benefits that come with being below it. Overall, 20% of Jewish households in the New York City area — designated by the federation as the five boroughs and Nassau, Suffolk and Westchester counties — are considered either poor or near-poor in the federation’s new study.

But poverty rates — for both Jews and non-Jews — have improved over the past two years, the study found. (In 2021, 23% of Jewish households reported being at poverty or near-poverty levels.)

“There has been a certain decline in the poverty numbers”, said Jacob Brzowsky, the federation’s manager of community research, data and insights . “Poverty actually went down from our 2021 COVID impact study. It’s part of a broader phenomenon in N.Y. after the peak in 2011”, he explained.

In addition to providing details about poverty rates overall, the study also sheds light on the challenges facing specific portions of the Jewish community, including recent immigrants from Russia, Ukraine and Israel, Holocaust survivors and members of the Haredi community.

Eric S. Goldstein, CEO of UJA-Federation of New York, emphasized the importance of the census, “Jewish Community Study of New York 2023,” as it provides clear data on both the area’s demographics and on many of the struggles facing the Jewish community there.

“Particularly in this challenging moment, these insights will help guide funding decisions, ensuring the strength of our Jewish community and the institutions serving them,” Goldstein said in a statement.

A Portrait of Growth and Change

New York City and the adjacent Nassau, Suffolk and Westchester counties boast the highest concentration of Jewish people in the United States, with 1.372 million Jewish adults and children — 960,000 in New York City and 412,000 in the suburban counties — residing in 736,000 households, according to the census. (For the purpose of the study, a Jewish person is defined as someone “who identifies with Judaism, either by religion or in any other way.”) 

Roughly half of all Jewish households (a household where at least one Jewish adult lives) in the New York area are located in Brooklyn and Manhattan.

While the population has largely remained stable, the number of Jewish households has increased by 6% since 2011 and 14% since 2002.  Ira Sheskin, director of the Jewish Demography Project at the University of Miami, attributes this growth in part to interfaith marriages and the way the surveyors count Jewish households. “If two Jews marry one another, you get one Jewish household. If two Jews marry non-Jews, you get two Jewish households, he said.”

In addition to household growth, the study tracks the denominational demographics within the Jewish community. 

Twenty percent of Jewish households identify as Reform and 15% as Conservative. The plurality of Jewish households — 47% — report no denominational affiliation or membership to a different, smaller stream of Judaism.

Orthodox households represent 19% of Jewish households in New York. Considering the relatively large size of most Orthodox households, this means “they are about 30% of the Jewish population” of New York, Sheskin said, far above the levels in the United States overall, where they are estimated to make up approximately 10% of the Jewish population. Emily Sigalow, vice president of data and  insights at UJA, underscored the difference in demographics in New York compared to the rest of the country, “because there are more Orthodox Jews”, she said. The upshot, Sigalow said, was that “Jewish New Yorkers are more connected to Jewish life.” 

Sheskin agreed: “If you’re living out in a place like Columbus, Ohio, and you want to see another Jew, you have to go to the JCC or synagogue. In New York, even if it doesn’t matter to you that your future spouse is Jewish, the chances are pretty good that they are going to be anyway, because there’s a lot of other Jews, and that’s what makes New York different.”

Despite this, however, the federation survey found that while the rate of interfaith marriage in New York is not necessarily higher than other areas — 37% of married couples had one non-Jewish partner — a lower percentage of interfaith couples said they raised their children Jewish than expected, according to Sigalow.

“In other big Jewish communities like Los Angeles and Chicago, there are higher percentages [of people saying their children are Jewish],” Sigalow said. She attributed the difference to how pollsters phrase the questions: “We asked about how children are raised, whereas others asked about their Jewish identity,” she said.

Navigating Economic Realities

Economic disparities pervade the New York Jewish community. While more than a third of Jewish households report incomes exceeding $150,000, approximately 20% are classified as poor or near-poor.

“Whether you live on the Upper East Side or Upper West Side, you have friends who fight [poverty] and you don’t know it,” Greenfield of the Met Council said. “I had someone who was a successful real estate agent who called me on Passover to ask for food. He lost everything,” he recalled. 

“The fact that the Jewish community is more successful than average is actually making it harder for the poor to get the help they need,” he said. “Kosher food, bar mitzvah [celebrations], Hebrew school — the costs for observing Judaism are overwhelming and adding stress, especially when you have many kids.”

Members of the Jewish community are, on average, less likely to struggle with poverty than the general population. While 22% of the households in the Jewish community reported earning less than $50,000 a year, among the general population, that figure is 32%.

This economic challenge touches the lives of approximately 147,000 households, impacting about 428,000 individuals. More than a third of children residing in Jewish households — 36% — find themselves in or near poverty. And a third of Jewish households receive government assistance.

Poverty or near-poverty is concentrated in Brooklyn (36%), the Bronx (26%), and Staten Island (22%). It is far less prevalent in the suburban counties, with 10% in Nassau and Suffolk, and 6% in Westchester. 

Nearly 1 in 3 (29%) of the poor and near-poor Jewish households are Haredi households, and more than half — 53% — of Haredi households are poor or near-poor, according to the federation study. 

Alexander Rapaport, founder of the nonprofit Masbia Soup Kitchen, challenged the notion of looking at poverty in the Orthodox community solely through a lens of income levels. He described a concept of “stable poverty,” highlighting the resilience of communities like the Haredi one, where communal support networks provide a safety net for those in need.

“In the Hasidic community there is the absence of class divide,” Rapaport told eJP. “On one side of the corner at 47th and 12th Avenue, there’s a big mansion, and on the other side, there [is low-income housing]. You can’t find this in America except in the 10 Hasidic zip codes, where the rich and the poor live with each other. There’s informal help, brotherly assistance and a sense of stability. Every grocery store in Borough Park will give you credit.”

Rapaport said that the people who are among the 2,000 who come for hot dinners in his nonprofit’s five locations or the 5,000 families who receive a monthly package of food are not the people who would be considered “near-poor” in the census. “We serve as an emergency room for the hardest cases, operating on trust, we give kosher meals,” he said. “But we never ask if someone is Jewish, and many recipients come from other communities and far-away zip codes.”

The second largest group of poor households in the New York area are Russian-speaking Jewish (RSJ) households with seniors (over 65). Russian-speaking senior households (both immigrant and non-immigrant) make up 10% of poor and near-poor households, more than double their rate among the New York Jewish population. The incidence of poverty among RSJ senior households is also significantly higher than among the general population, with 47% of these households living in or near poverty. Financial precarity is particularly acute among Russian-speaking seniors who live alone, of which 69% are poor or near-poor.

More demographic findings in the study show the region houses an estimated 13,000 Holocaust survivors, with the majority, 92%, residing in New York City, particularly concentrated in Brooklyn, where 65% of survivors found their homes. Fourteen percent of Jewish households include LGBTQ+ individuals. A significant portion of the community, 28%, consisted of adults aged above 65. 

Racial and ethnic diversity also characterized the community, with 12% of Jewish adults identifying as non-white or Hispanic. Though it’s not entirely clear from the data what that means; when asked, “Do you describe yourself as a person of color?” 3% of respondents answered yes.