Jewish poverty on rise in New York
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Jewish poverty on rise in New York

New Yorkers line up outside a food pantry affiliated with the Metropolitan Council on Jewish Poverty in September 2003. (Metropolitan Council on Jewish Poverty)

New Yorkers line up outside a food pantry affiliated with the Metropolitan Council on Jewish Poverty in September 2003.

(Metropolitan Council on Jewish Poverty)

NEW YORK, Oct. 19 (JTA) — 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 released at the federation’s offices Oct. 14. 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 fifty in the United States as a whole. Despite Jewish migration to the South and West of the country, 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 over 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 that general poverty in the area has declined. In fact, there are more poor Jews in New York — some 244,000 — than there are Jews in all but the largest Jewish communities elsewhere in America. Bits and pieces of the survey already had been released, but this was the first time that the full report had been presented. “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 are: • 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 attended a Jewish cultural event or a JCC activity, only half of all households are affiliated with a congregation or Jewish organization. Furthermore, the survey found that congregational membership corresponds to Jewish engagement. For example, 43 percent of Conservative households that belong to a congregation light Shabbat candles, compared to 21 percent among those that are not synagogue members. Nonmembers 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 to 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. William Rapfogel, executive director of the Metropolitan Council on Jewish Poverty, has seen some of the shifts reflected in the survey taking place before his eyes. “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. One of Rapfogel’s clients that made it into those apartments illustrates the day-to-day crises for impoverished Jews and the “near poor,” who often have less access to government services than those classified as poor. At the opening ceremony for one of the apartment buildings 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. The survey raises awareness that “Jewish poverty is not an oxymoron,” he said. “There are a lot of pieces of data in this that are almost counterintuitive,” and the community must “get the word out about what the facts are,” Ukeles said. “The community needs to take a hard look at what services are where,” he said. For example, he asked, “do we have the services in Staten Island to meet the new Jewish community?” Furthermore, it’s crucial to integrate the large Orthodox and Russian-speaking communities into community leadership positions to prevent New York Jewry from splintering into “a lot of separated communities,” Ukeles said. According to John Ruskay, the federation’s executive vice president and CEO, the survey results are “both a stimulant to action and rich data for planning both today and moving forward.” “To give one small example, we learned that 26,000 seniors aged 75 and over do not have a relative within 100 miles,” Ruskay said. The federation launched an initiative called “Companions,” which will mobilize volunteers to reach out to these isolated seniors. Ultimately, the federation wants to “make certain that we have opportunities for Jewish engagement in places of high Jewish populations,” he said.