New Babies, Old Names


Brooklyn’s fast-growing Orthodox Jewish population has been demonstrating its demographic clout for a while now. It has shaped the broader Jewish community in such crucial areas as politics (more conservative) and money (less wealthy). But not until recently has it begun to influence a phenomenon so important that it’s the subject of countless websites and books and incessant Internet chatter. That’s right: baby names.

Every year, the New York City Department of Health, like the national Social Security Administration, tracks and reports the most popular names. Among white baby girls, Biblical names occupied six of the top 10 spots in 2014, with Esther coming in second place, behind Olivia.

“If you call out ‘Chaya’ in a group of young women who are involved in Torah living, you’re going to get a lot of head turning,” said Bronya Shaffer, mother of 10 and grandmother of 21 who works for the “Ask the Rabbi” team at and lectures on such topics as healthy relationships and childhood sexual abuse.

In 2013, the most recent year for which demographic data is available, 120,487 babies were born in New York City. About 33 percent were white, 30 percent Hispanic, 20 percent black and 17 percent Asian, according to city data.

Parents report their race on the birth certificate form, but not their religious affiliation, so the bureau can’t draw conclusions about whether religion is driving the popularity of individual names, said Gretchen Van Wye, assistant commissioner for the Bureau of Vital Statistics.

But Brooklyn, where nearly a quarter of the population is Jewish, according to the UJA’s 2011 Jewish Community Study, does have a big impact on the citywide name statistics because it’s the most populous borough and has the highest birthrate, she said.

Of the 122,084 infants born in the city in 2014, 34 percent — 41,190 babies — were born in Brooklyn. Queens had the next highest birthrate, with 26,937 babies.

For the city as a whole, the No. 1 girl’s name was Sophia; for boys, it was Ethan.

Moshe was the fourth most-popular name among white boys in 2014; Biblical names like Joseph (No. 1), David (No. 2) and Jacob (No. 5) also dominated that list.

Rachel, Leah and Sarah occupied spots three, four and seven on the list of white girls names. Chaya came in sixth place, and that name’s consistent popularity — it also placed in 2010 and 2005 — speaks to the love many Brooklynites still hold for Rebbetzin Chaya Mushka Schneerson, the wife of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, who died in 1998, Shaffer said. Jewish naming trends also have some inherent stability because of the tendency to name children after relatives, she added.

“We’ve got Chayale and Chaike and Mushkie,” to help distinguish one Chaya from another and another, Shaffer said.

Having too many Chayas or Moshes are good problems to have, she added. When she was growing up, in Montreal in the 1950s, the parents in her community all gave their children legal names that could “pass” in mainstream society.

She said she was too embarrassed to reveal her own name of record, for the record, but recalled that she studied with a girl she called Nehama, whose actual name was Mary, and another she called Sarah, whose birth certificate read “Agnes.”

By the time Shaffer had her own children, the names on their birth certificates matched those they answered to at home, but her mother kvetched quietly about it. Now all that’s in the past.

“For my children, it’s not even a question,” she said.