A population shift of dramatic proportions is changing the face of New York’s Jewish community as Russians and the Orthodox (many of them poor) now comprise nearly four in 10 Jews in New York City, according to the 2002 New York Jewish Community Study.
While the overall Jewish population in the city, Long Island and Westchester has remained stable in the last decade at 1.4 million, the makeup of the 643,000 households in which they live is radically different than in 1991, suggesting major changes in the city’s political landscape and the Jewish community’s funding priorities.
The Russian population has nearly tripled in 10 years, to more than 200,000, and the Orthodox community jumped 6 percent, to 19 percent of the Jewish households.
At the same time, as middle-class Reform and Conservative Jews, the traditional center of the Jewish community, have moved to the suburbs in droves over the decade, the poverty rate of those left behind in the city has doubled. One in five Jewish households in New York City is now poor, according to the study, conducted once a decade by UJA-Federation of New York. And the percentage of Jews over 75, many of them needy, doubled to 11 percent.
"There are still a lot of people who think there are no poor Jews," said Jack Ukeles, the social policy planner who co-authored the study. "But this is a town with a lot of poor Jews, and we found a lot more than we expected to."
"The story of this survey," said Samuel Heilman, a leading sociologist and a member of the study’s technical advisory committee, "is not one of stability. There’s been an exchange of populations. The Jews who have stayed in New York are the poor, the elderly, the Orthodox. Add to that the influx of Russian immigrants and you have a whole different set of Jews in the city now as opposed to 10 years ago."
Meanwhile, as has been the case with national Jewish population studies, the survey’s conclusions are coming under attack just as they are released. Several members of the study’s technical advisory committee resigned, citing problems with methodology.
Despite the large-scale Russian immigration, the number of Jews living in the five boroughs, 972,000, has slipped below 1 million for the first time in nearly a century.
"The most recent decline [170,000 people in the last decade] is relatively small," said Ukeles in an interview. "It’s more of a symbolic than real issue."
New York remains the largest Jewish city in the world, and the Jewish population’s decrease of 5 percent between 1991 and 2002 is smaller than that of other non-Hispanic whites. Their numbers fell by 11 percent during the same period, the study said.
While the Bronx hemorrhaged Jews, losing 45 percent of its Jewish population since ’91, Westchester boomed, jumping 40 percent. Manhattan and Queens lost 20 percent and 21 percent, respectively, while Brooklyn (456,000 Jews, the most in the area) and Staten Island grew by 24 percent and 27 percent, respectively. On Long Island, Nassau County gained 9 percent and Suffolk lost 8 percent.
With the shrinking of this conventionally liberal power base in New York City and the growth of politically conservative elements of the Jewish community (the Orthodox and emigres from the former Soviet Union) is the end near for the longstanding link between New York Jews and Democratic politics? Especially given that Reform and Conservative Jews, who made up 70 percent of the community in ’91, slipped to 55 percent a decade later?
"The dominant traditional view of a liberal Jewish community is no longer applicable," said Mitchell Moss, director of the Taub Urban Research Center at New York University. "It’s been superseded by a much more politically fragmented Jewish population.
"What’s striking is that it’s also allowed the suburban areas to become more liberal, which is reflected in the fact that Nassau and Westchester now have Democratic county executives," he said.
Overall, the shifts mean that "Jews are going to have to be more strategic in their alliances, in the future will need more coalition building with more sorts of groups," Moss said.
Presenting his findings at the Midtown offices of UJA-Federation of New York, which financed the $860,000 study, Ukeles focused on what he called the stability of the community.
"This is a community that, contrary to popular opinion, has held its own," he said, pointing to the 1.4 million overall figure, down from a high of more than 2 million in the 1950s.
In fact, intermarriage rates in New York are remaining stable. A decade ago, the proportion of intermarried Jews in New York was about half that of the country in general (13 percent compared with 24 percent) and since then it has remained flat.
Of the 370,000 children living in households in New York that includes at least one Jewish person, about 61,000 live in intermarried households. Only 18,000 are being raised solely as Jews, while nearly half (48 percent) are being raised as "not Jewish" and 17 percent are being raised as Jewish and "something else."
The polling was conducted between March and September 2002 by the firm International Communications Research. Nearly 30,000 respondents provided enough information to determine their religion or ethnicity. Of them, just over 6,000 were Jewish, and about 4,500 representatives of Jewish households completed the interview. A Jewish household is one in which there is at least one Jewish person living, even if other members are not.
The study’s revelation about the scope and depth of Jewish poverty here may be its most dramatic, catching its authors off guard.
The percentage of New York City Jewish households that are poor doubled between 1991 and 2002, from 10.5 percent to 21 percent. A total of 226,000 New York Jews are said to live in poor households.
Jews from the former Soviet Union are in particularly challenging financial straits: a majority, 53 percent, of Russian-speaking households qualify as poor. Nearly all Russian-speaking respondents age 65 or older are poor: 91 percent compared to just 13 percent of other respondents the same age.
About 83,000 Jewish senior citizens live alone: nearly half of the Jews older than 65.
Almost one in three Jewish households reported an income below $35,000, and more than one in three said they are "just managing" or "cannot make ends meet." Four percent said they are "wealthy."
The study’s findings "put in sharp relief the challenges of Jewish poverty in New York City," said Alisa Kurshan, vice president for strategic planning at UJA-Federation. "We have an awareness issue to tackle as well as decisions to make about resources."
It’s not a problem the federation has been unaware of. Between 1999 and 2002 the charity conducted a special "poverty initiative," raising $7 million. Officials said they have not yet decided whether to re-launch such a campaign in light of the new figures. The federation will hold a conference on Jewish poverty in October.
Even with the surprising magnitude of Jewish poverty at its front door, the federation is likely not to completely realign its priorities and stop funneling funds to Jews in distress overseas, said Kurshan.
"We’re certainly not going to ignore this, but we have no policy of helping Jews closer to home first," she said.
But there is another, and more hopeful, side to the study. Despite the fact that 10 percent of Jews called themselves "secular with no religion" (a rise of 7 percent over ’91) conventional indicators of Jewish engagement are up.
Just over half, 53 percent, of New York Jews light Sabbath candles now compared to 43 percent in 1991. Twenty-eight percent keep kosher, up from the 25 percent a decade ago. Attending a seder remains popular, with 92 percent doing so now compared to 91 percent in ’91. And 88 percent light Chanukah candles compared with 81 percent a decade earlier.
Half of New York’s Jews say they belong to a synagogue and/or another Jewish organization. A growing minority are synagogue members: 43 percent in 2002 compared to 38 percent a decade earlier. That’s about average for an American Jewish community, said Ukeles.
Affiliation is highest in Suffolk (56 percent) and lowest in Manhattan (30 percent). And most who attend, 40 percent, say they do so infrequently. Seventeen percent claim to attend services daily or weekly.
Even among those who feel it is very important to be part of a Jewish community, more than one in four are not connected with any Jewish organization.
"This is not a big town for belonging," Ukeles said. "It’s a much bigger town for feeling and doing."
One of the most intriguing figures in the survey, and one that held out much promise, according to the authors, was the jump in the number of Jews who called themselves "nondenominational."
A decade ago these people would have been written off as not connected to the community. But as parts of the Jewish community regularly cross denominational boundaries, the authors believe that the 15 percent who labeled themselves "nondenominational" are likely fully engaged in Jewish life. (See sidebar on semiotics.)
The Russians Are Here
Along with the rise in Jewish poverty, the other key finding of the study is the dramatic growth of the Russian community, which now comprises 20 percent of the community.
The 1991 UJA study put the figure at 49,000 Russian adults; the 1990 U.S. Census found about 80,000 Russian Jews here. A decade later, 202,000 Russians call the New York area home. (Unofficial estimates in the Russian community put the figure at between 300,000 and 400,000.)
A Jewish Week series on the growing Russian influence here, in the weeks leading up to the population study, documented a community flexing its political muscle, pressing its pro-Israel credentials and demanding from the larger Jewish community a place at the table.
In Brooklyn and Staten Island, Russian speakers account for more than one-fourth of the Jewish population, though in Manhattan they account for just 4 percent.
Part of the increase may be due to more careful polling, said the new study’s principals. Russian-language interviewing was subcontracted out to a firm that specializes in conducting foreign-language surveys sensitive to cultural differences.
Nevertheless, it is by far the largest concentration of emigres from the former Soviet Union in the country, said Ukeles. In other Jewish communities, they make up 4 or 5 percent of the population.
Even as the 2002 study was being released, it was marred by controversy among demographers who charged that different polling techniques may have miscounted the overall Jewish population size.
Bethamie Horowitz conducted the population study in 1991, and until two weeks ago she was a member of the new project’s 10-member technical advisory committee.
Horowitz insisted her name be removed from the report because she was concerned that the methods used in the 2002 study were so different from those used a decade before that it was impossible to accurately compare their findings.
The rule in research is to keep methodology as similar as possible when comparing new results to old, "so you can see the changes over time," Horowitz said. "Now it’s not apples to apples but apples to pears."
Two other advisory committee members (Charles Kadushin and Andrew Beveridge) resigned earlier.
In 1991, phone numbers were randomly dialed within each of the eight counties surveyed. In 2002, each county was divided into four groups, one of them focusing on the households most likely to respond because of prior involvement in the Jewish community, since their phone numbers were provided by Jewish organizations.
Each of the other groups focused on expectations of low, medium or high Jewish density in the area and phone numbers were random digit dialed within the group. But those expectations, according to Beveridge, are based on possibly outdated assumptions, which undermines the integrity of the new population count.
But the new method was an improvement over that used in 1991, Ukeles said.
"By interviewing in low incidence areas, we’re forced to try harder to reach people who are less likely to respond," he said. "It slightly improves the data, but doesn’t make it radically different." It also saved about $100,000, he said.
"Every time we do a study we look at previous studies and we judge whether the studies are comparable enough to make comparisons," said Ukeles. "There are always differences. Here, while there are differences, they are comparable enough."