Falling N.Y. Jewish identity may forecast a trend

new york | Jews who think New York is the center of the world aren’t that far off — it’s certainly the center of the American Jewish world.

That’s one of the findings that emerges from the Jewish Community Study of New York: 2002, coordinated by the UJA-Federation of New York and recently released to the public.

Just how Jewish is New York? One out of every eight people in the eight-county New York metropolitan area identifies as a Jew, in comparison with one in 50 in the United States as a whole.

Despite Jewish migration to the South and West, huge growth in the Orthodox and Russian-speaking communities has kept the number of nearly 1.5 million Jews in New York stable over the past decade.

Given the wave of Jewish immigration from the former Soviet Union over the past decade, Russian-speaking Jews now make up roughly one-quarter of New York Jewry. In addition, the proportion of Jews older than 75 has more than doubled to 11 percent since the last such survey, in 1991.

Those factors, together with the large number of Orthodox Jews in New York, help account for a key finding of the survey: growing Jewish poverty, which has climbed by 35 percent, at a time when general poverty in the area has declined.

In fact, there are more poor Jews in New York — an estimated 244,000 — than there are Jews in all but the largest Jewish communities elsewhere in America.

Though bits and pieces of the survey had previously been released, the full report was not presented until Oct. 14.

“All the major news is out,” said Jacob Ukeles, the survey’s principal investigator. “The critical question now is the extent to which the community is going to utilize the information. This is a tool.”

Among the critical findings:

• Elements of Jewish engagement:
Israel is a cornerstone for New York Jews, with 92 percent calling the survival of the state of Israel very important.
While 73 percent of New York Jews attend a Jewish cultural event or a JCC activity, only half of all households are affiliated with a congregation or Jewish organization.
Congregational membership corresponds to Jewish engagement. For example, 43 percent of Conservative households that belong to a congregation light Shabbat candles, compared with 21 percent among those that are not synagogue members. Non-members often cite cost as a obstacle to synagogue membership.

• Shifting religious affiliation:
Since the 1991 survey, the percentage of New York Jews identifying with the Conservative and Reform movements has fallen from 34 percent to 26 percent, and from 36 percent to 29 percent, respectively. But more respondents identify as Orthodox, up from 13 percent to 19 percent, or do not identify with any movement, up from 13 percent to 25 percent.

• Shifting geography:
The Jewish population has relocated in the past decade. Westchester County’s Jewish community jumped by 40 percent, while the Bronx lost 45 percent of its Jewish population.
The Jewish communities of Brooklyn and Staten Island grew by 23 percent and 27 percent, respectively.

• Increasing intermarriage:
At 22 percent, the intermarriage rate among New York Jews is about half that for American Jews as a whole. But even the New York rate has increased, with 36 percent of New York Jews marrying non-Jews in the past five years, compared with 26 percent in the previous eight years.
Of the 61,000 children of intermarried households in New York, 30 percent are being raised as Jews.

• The impact of Jewish childhood experiences:
In households where the survey respondent had no Jewish childhood experiences, only 30 percent belong to a Jewish congregation. Households in which the respondent had the highest degree of Jewish childhood experiences show a 75 percent rate of synagogue membership.
Jewish experiences in childhood are a “very powerful predictor of what kind of Jew you’re going to be when you grow up,” Ukeles said.

Beyond these findings, the survey mines information from Jewish engagement and philanthropic patterns and sheds light on the most vulnerable elements of the community, like the elderly and single-parent households.

Some of the results come as no surprise to William Rapfogel, executive director of the Metropolitan Council on Jewish Poverty. “Just seven or eight years ago we were providing about 400 or 500 families with kosher food every month. Today we’re providing 12,000 families with kosher food every single month,” he said.

His group also has exponentially expanded its affordable housing program for the elderly and mentally ill.

Impoverished Jews and the “near poor” often have less access to government services than those classified as poor, he said. For example, at the opening ceremony for an affordable apartment building in Brooklyn, a new resident — an elderly Russian man — came over “holding this pair of awful, awful looking boots,” Rapfogel said.

The man had been wearing the boots during the eight years he had lived in New York, and for a decade before that in the Soviet Union.

The man said he could not afford new shoes because he barely scraped together what he could for food and rent for his previous $800-a-month apartment.

Once he got in to the Brooklyn apartment, “he was able to actually buy a new pair of shoes,” Rapfogel said.