The American Jewish Future: Orthodox, Right-Wing, Poor?

A new study of the American Jewish population in the New York metro area contains this stunning statistic: sixty-one percent of all Jewish children in the area live in Orthodox households.

This is a remarkable statistic. It’s probably NEVER been the case in American history that such a high percentage of young Jews in New York identified as Orthodox. Contrary to popular myth, a significant percentage of the Jews who immigrated to the U.S. from Europe had already abandoned religious orthodoxy before they arrived. It was rebellious young people who were most likely to leave their family for what the pious called the “treife medinah” (unkosher land). Another significant group abandoned religious orthodoxy soon after they arrived in America, though many kept vestiges of religious observance such as kashrut out of cultural habit (my maternal grandparents never went to synagogue and were atheists, but they only bought kosher food), leading their descendants to remember them as more “religious” than they really were.

Meanwhile, the same study reports that among non-Orthodox Jews the intermarriage rate in the New York area, which in the past was a stronghold of endogamy, is around fifty percent.

New York is the center of American orthodoxy, but given that New York area Jews comprise approximately 25% of the total American Jewish population, and Orthodox Judaism is growing elsewhere in the U.S. as well, the short-term implications (it’s a fools errand to try to predict long-term demographic trends) seem pretty clear. “Identified” American Jews (as opposed to “Americans with Jewish ancestry”) are going to become an increasingly Orthodox group. Orthodox Jews are significantly more “right-wing” (but are probably actually less “libertarian”), especially on cultural issues, than are other Jews, are, as a rule, far more closely attached to Israel, and, especially outside modern Orthodox circles, have a very high poverty rate–a result of an educational system that focuses on Talmud and subcultures that often discourage secular higher education.

For what it’s worth, I’ve noticed that modern Orthodox Jews, who pursue secular education as vigorously as anyone and don’t share the haredi (ultra-orthodox) preference for insularity, have become increasingly visible in the Federalist Society.

Also, the relevant study show that half of New York area Jews between ages 18 and 34 have attended Jewish day school at some point. The figure is undoubtedly higher among the younger cohort, given the Orthodox commitment to day schools. American Jewish organizations have traditionally been among the strongest supporters of public schools, and the strongest opponents of any sort of public funding of religious schools. That will almost certainly change.