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The fading away of the Liberal Jew in NYC. Reflections by Professor Jack Wertheimer

Issues 2013: Interfaith marriage among NYC Jews.

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 Jack WertheimerE


“The New York Jew” is an enduring American archetype that comes in many guises: as the secular cosmopolitan with decidedly left-wing political tastes, as the slick manipulator of markets against whom anti-Semitic populists vent their rage, as the lovable embodiment of a self-deprecatory sense of humor and a world-weary sensibility. Of course, the fact that there are so many different kinds of “New York Jew” suggests the actual, living, breathing creature defies easy caricature. In the assessment of historian Jeffrey Gurock, most recently the author of the final volume in a new set on Jewish life in Gotham, City of Promises, there always has been “a multiplicity of New York Jewish stories…neighborhood by neighborhood, borough by borough.”

The New York area features the largest concentration of Jews in the United States and, for that matter, anywhere on earth outside of Israel: Slightly more than one million Jewish souls live in the five boroughs and an additional half million live in surrounding counties, accounting for perhaps a quarter or more of all American Jews. And, as an important new study of the Jews of New York sponsored by the city’s UJA-Federation reveals, they—we—are a highly diverse and fragmented lot. By far the most revelatory aspect of the study is this: The New York Jews of the future are unlikely to look like, act like, or behave like the “New York Jew” of lore.


History, demography, and social trends are recasting Gotham’s Jews in unexpected new ways—and creating fascinating and disturbing new divisions among American Jews along the way…

New York’s Jews are sharply divided by religion as well. Those divisions are usually described in terms of theology and religious ideology—the increasingly fractious ways in which Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox Jews differ in their beliefs about God and revelation and how they respond to homosexuality and other pressing social issues. By focusing on the way New York’s Jews live as Jews, the new study makes it possible to expand our understanding of the role played by these affiliations. What does it mean when a person says he is Orthodox or Conservative or Reform—or claims he is not a member of any of these camps?

The accumulated data make clear that the labels Jews use to describe themselves continue to reveal a great deal about how they live as Jews—their participation in Jewish communal and cultural life, observance of Jewish rituals, and decisions about family formation. The New York report ought to give pause to those who have confidently pronounced the irrelevance of Jewish denominationalism. On almost every measure of Jewish engagement, Orthodox Jews score higher than any other Jewish population. They are followed by members of Conservative synagogues, who are also the most likely contributors to Jewish communal causes, such as the Federation. Conservative Jews also far surpass all other types of non-Orthodox Jews in frequency of synagogue attendance and Jewish social engagement—whether they choose mainly Jewish friends, how much they discuss Jewish topics, how frequently they access Jewish websites, how devotedly they attend Jewish cultural activities, and the like. [Editor’s note: Rabbi Wertheimer is affiliated with Conservative Judaism.] Reform synagogue members lag behind their Conservative counterparts but participate far more than those who are unaffiliated, and especially more so than those who do not identify with any denomination.

But it is far from clear that the relevance of the denominations will long endure. The reduction in the numbers of Jews who claim to be Conservative and Reform, as revealed in the report, and the concomitant sharp increase in Jews who identify with no religious group at all augur poorly for the vitality of non-Orthodox Jewish life in New York in coming decades.

The increasing lack of any specific identification beyond merely calling oneself a Jew suggests a turn to what might be called Jewish minimalism by a growing population of New York Jews—37 percent at this point, and counting. Those who claim no Jewish religious denomination or who report they are Jewish only in nonreligious ways score low not only on measures of religious participation, as we might expect, but also when it comes to joining and volunteering for secular Jewish organizations, feeling an attachment to Israel, or giving to Jewish causes of any type. It is time to put to rest the fable, common in some circles, that those who do not identify with a denomination are an innovative breed of intrepid pioneers intent on carving out a new form of Jewish identity. Overwhelmingly, such people are progressively disengaging from every aspect of Jewish life.

…non-Orthodox Jews tend to marry late, bear few children, and intermarry at high rates; their way of life gives them little incentive or need to engage in Jewish life until they are close to age 40, if at all.

None of this should come as a surprise to those who have been paying close attention, but the magnitude and pace of change are unquestionably stunning…

…On every item on a list of two dozen measures of engagement and identification, intermarried Jews reported dramatically lower rates of participation in Jewish religious life, organizational involvement, giving to Jewish causes, and attachment to Israel and to the Jewish community than do Jews married to other Jews. The majority of intermarried families also do not see to the Jewish education of their children. More than half fail to enroll their children in any kind of formal Jewish educational setting; a tiny fraction send their children on trips to Israel; and only 14 percent of children from intermarried families attend a Jewish summer camp. Jews married to Jews avail themselves of these opportunities at much higher rates.

This is particularly sobering news given the high incidence of intermarriages. Over the past five years, half of the marriages involving a non-Orthodox Jew have been to a non-Jew, nearly tripling the percentage since the late 1970s. Even in the New York area, with its fairly dense concentration of Jews and many Jewish marriage prospects, increasing numbers of Jews are choosing non-Jewish partners.

There was a time when rising intermarriage rates were ascribed to the problems of propinquity: As a small minority, the argument went, Jews primarily met Gentiles and by the law of averages fell in love with non-Jews. Intermarriage, we were told, was a game of numbers. But how does this explain what is happening in New York, where tens of thousands of single Jews reside? Undoubtedly, in some cases, intermarriage results from serendipitous encounters, but for a great many more, it evidently occurs because large numbers of Jews do not place priority on dating and marrying other Jews.

The study itself goes out of its way to refute the conventional wisdom attributing low levels of participation in Jewish life by intermarried families to an inhospitable environment allegedly found in synagogues and other Jewish institutions. It concludes instead that “the vast majority of intermarried respondents say that they do not feel uncomfortable attending most Jewish events and activities.” This challenges one of the cherished myths propounded by advocates of outreach to the intermarried—to wit, that the Jewish community itself is to blame for the disengagement of intermarried families because it is hostile or unwelcoming or suspicious.

A small datum tucked away in the report speaks volumes about how the most engaged Jews really feel about intermarriage: When asked how they would respond if a child of their own married a non-Jew who did not convert to Judaism, over three-fifths of UJA-Federation donors reported they would be upset, as would be majorities of Jews who identified with each of the denominations and three-quarters of those who affirmed that being Jewish is very important to them. Unsurprisingly, merely 6 percent of intermarried Jews would be upset, perhaps because so many of their own children are intermarrying…

Fragmentation is undermining not only empathy among Jews, but also social solidarity. This is especially evident in patterns of Jewish giving. Though 70 percent of Jewish households in New York claim to contribute to non-sectarian causes, only 58 percent gave to any Jewish cause, and a paltry 24 percent reported that they made a gift to the UJA-Federation, the umbrella agency collecting for many local and international Jewish causes. Among the wealthiest (those with incomes of more than $250,000 a year), a quarter report making no gifts to Jewish causes whatsoever. Among those earning between $150,000 and $250,000, the figure rises to 29 percent.

These numbers are even more skewed when we consider patterns among Jews under the age of 50: 40 percent of non-Orthodox Jews in this demographic report they had not given a dime to any Jewish cause during the previous year. The much lauded “miracle of Jewish giving” pronounced by Fortune magazine in the 1960s to describe robust contributions by Jews to care for their own has now been rechanneled into ever larger sums of Jewish money flowing to nonsectarian causes and away from Jewish needs…

Barring a mass defection from Orthodoxy, an exodus of Orthodox Jews from greater New York, or a Jewish Great Awakening among the non-Orthodox, the medium-range future of the city’s Jewish community is already setting in cement. Once dismissed as little more than a relic of an ancient tribe’s history, the Orthodox community will become the dominant sector of New York’s Jewry in a generation. Can anyone doubt this will remake Jewish communal life, sweep away some, if not most, secular institutions, and create vastly different forms of Jewish renewal than those forecast by today’s boosters of a mostly secular Jewish renaissance?

Rabbi Jack Wertheimer is professor of American Jewish history at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York City.

Excerpted from Jack Wertheimer's "First New York's Jews, Then America's?" in Commentary, September 2012.

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