Demographics Put Pressure On Communal Groups


Jews are more religious, Jews are poorer, Jews are less educated, Jews are less affiliated. 

So tell me something I don’t know.

The less-than-startling revelations of the UJA-Federation survey, “Jewish Community Study of New York: 2011,” suggest that our community is moving in multiple directions: more religious involvement, less communal involvement; less liberal, less affluent. Highly suggestive is that the approximately 5 percent increase in Jewish population in the greater New York City area is fueled by a surge in the fervently Orthodox community, which is largely sectarian and less likely to be communally affiliated or involved beyond the local synagogue.

The UJA-Federation numbers may be New York numbers, but they have implications nationally — especially for national Jewish organizations. It is no revelation that national agencies have had their problems in recent years: the financial woes brought about by the 2008 economic downturn and by Bernard Madoff. Moreover, the center of gravity has shifted from “national” to “local” in terms of impact on a range of issues. 

But the new numbers (the rise in Orthodox together with a large percentage of Russian speakers) present a special challenge for national agencies, whose support for decades has been dependent upon precisely that part of the Jewish population that is declining.

What will this mean for the national Jewish organizations, especially those that are perceived as “liberal” on issues such as church-state separation, civil liberties, civil rights? The question is larger than that of the shrinking base of support. Within the Orthodox world, even the Modern Orthodox is not as “modern” as it was in the 1960s or even the 1980s; today the Modern Orthodox is virtually indistinguishable from the haredi Orthodox on these “marker” issues, and on Israel as well. The implication for national Jewish groups that claim to represent the Jewish community in public affairs? “Liberal is Jewish,” the reigning view a few decades ago, may no longer be a valid place for Jewish groups to be.

Two questions, therefore, for national Jewish organizations: First, will national agencies feel pressure to do a turn-around on positions in order to fit the numbers, to satisfy the communities that are growing? How much does an agency truly want to change in light of the New York study, especially with respect to its core issues and on long-held positions? There is an obvious conflict for the agencies: “What do we believe in?” versus “How will we get the support that we need?”

My own sense is that pandering to the new pluralities is shortsighted, and will not accomplish much for the agencies in any case.  For one thing, our communal history tells us that the Orthodox community has never been significant in the support-base for agencies such as the Anti-Defamation League, the American Jewish Committee, the American Jewish Congress (may it rest in peace). More important, most organizations draw support from a tiny Jewish population base, so the effects of the demographic changes reported in the study may be non-existent.

One possibility is that national Jewish organizations, together with the funding and allocations system — the federations and their service arm — will become increasingly reliant on a few “mega-wealthy” donors. This is nothing new — it follows the pattern of recent decades — but the pattern will be more striking: fewer wealthy people will be called upon to share a heftier burden.

Moreover, some agencies may feel that they are under siege because their positions sharply diverge from those in the new pluralities. But what is often forgotten is that supporters tend to rally around agencies under siege — the AIPAC experiences in recent years are good examples — and that the pattern is not necessarily linear; demographic changes and crises on issues do not always lead to bad results for organizations. As ADL official Kenneth Jacobson put it, “It’s going to be different for national organizations — but it doesn’t have to be bad.”

The second question for national agencies is that of finding common ground with those groups with whom one disagrees. The problem is that while our community was once a diverse one politically — a good thing — it is now polarized, a bad thing. One issue, public-sector aid to parochial schools has been a hot number for years. “Parochiaid” may not only be unbridgeable but the demographics — more and more Orthodox kids (now 37 percent of children in Jewish households) — give the issue a personal dimension that is not always found in bean counting. Another issue, intermarriage, always a hot button, is more sensitive today in that it rarely carries with it the impetus to conversion to Judaism that it did in previous decades. 

What about the religious community, especially the Orthodox world? Marshall Sklare’s sharp comment famously had it that in the 1950s the Orthodox, weak and insecure at that time, knew that they held the truth, but they did not have the numbers; the Conservative movement had the numbers, but did not have the truth. Today, the Orthodox have both the numbers and the “truth.”  Orthodoxy was traditionally viewed by the non-Orthodox as oppressive, pre-modern, obscurantist. Today, precisely those characteristics are at the root of the appeal of Orthodoxy in America: Orthodoxy provides community; it is protective of its adherents; it provides certainty in an uncertain world. The sense of certitude and the lack of freedom, viewed as negatives in earlier years, are today considered positives and strengths, and fuel the Orthodox surge. They may not, however, provide a good fit in terms of larger communal support.

At bottom, it may very well be that agencies at the poles — organizations perceived to be “progressive” at one end or “right wing” at the other — will have an easier time in the new climate. “Niche” organizations such as the American Jewish World Service and the Wiesenthal Center will do just fine. But agencies in the middle, which try to address both universalist and parochial concerns, will have a tougher time, and some may shake out. 

The New York study is sending our community a message: a re-examination of the structure of Jewish life in America is due. 

Jerome A. Chanes is the author of four books on American Jewish history, sociology, and public affairs. He is a fellow at the Center for Jewish Studies at the CUNY Graduate Center.

Jerome A. Chanes is editor of the “The Future of American Judaism” (Trinity/Columbia University Press).