The new UJA-Federation 10-year study of New York’s Jewish population shows exponential growth among the Orthodox, shrinkage among the heterodox, and increasing disaffection among those who identify as “just Jewish.” Three of its findings provide a sense of the overall picture: 74 percent of all school-age Jewish kids in New York City are Orthodox; Reform and Conservative membership has been declining by about 1 percent annually; and in the last five years, the non-Orthodox intermarriage rate stands at 50 percent. The study has been generating all sorts of reactions; let’s take a look at a few of them.
The UJA-Federation’s CEO, John Ruskay, admirably expressed interest in finding “ways, while respecting differences, to strengthen the whole Jewish community and people.” At the same time, he acknowledged that “no doubt elements of this report will be uncomfortable for many, if not most, who hold it up as a mirror.”
In the Jewish Week, editor Gary Rosenblatt takes a largely moderate stance, even recommending that UJA-Federation further deepen “its role in dealing with issues of particular concern to the Orthodox, primarily the increasingly prohibitive cost of day school education. He adds that the “notion that ‘the Orthodox can take care of themselves,’ prevalent among a number of influential philanthropists, is seen as dismissive and untrue in the Orthodox community.” Bravo, Mr. Rosenblatt.
He does, however, unfortunately perpetuate the stereotype of devoutly Orthodox Jews as being “known more for separating themselves from other Jews than connecting with them.” The other evening, while attending a wedding at a Williamsburg catering hall, I wandered into a tzedakah gathering of dozens of chassidishe Yidden elsewhere in the same venue, being held in support of an organization called L’maan Achai.
Founded over 30 years ago, and still run, through the mesirus nefesh of a chassid and tzaddik named Rav Shmuel Zalman Kleinman, this group has helped thousands of Russian and Bukharian families return to Jewish observance through an array of programs: a yeshivah, a summer camp for over 200 children, Shabbatons, a lending library, Pesach Sedorim. One graduate, a friend of mine, is now a yungerman on the verge of finishing Shas. I mention this particular example of outreach and chesed out of so many because it involves the types of Orthodox Jews whom Mr. Rosenblatt would assume to be those most likely to “separate themselves from other Jews [rather] than connect with them,” who give money, time and effort for Jews they’ve never met and who will never look like them.
The folks at the Forward, by contrast, were clearly unnerved by the new study and came out swinging rhetorically. Over at Commentary’s “Contentions” blog, Jonathan Tobin notes that the paper’s editorial on the topic
speaks of the rising Orthodox birth rate as if we would all be better off if those children were never born. That is a shocking argument that would be quickly labeled as racist by the righteous liberals at the Forward were it aimed at inner-city blacks or Hispanics. A desire to comfort liberals about their impending political decline is no excuse for launching a kulturkampf against the Orthodox.
The original editorial is entitled The Undeserving Poor? This term is referring to the finding that “more than two out of every five Hasidic households — a full 43% — are poor.” I imagine even the Forward was too queasy to feature that shocking title without a softening question mark, but by the editorial’s end, felt comfortable enough to change the phrase from a question into a declarative statement (albeit in quote marks). The editors explain:
The poverty afflicting this large and growing proportion of devout Orthodox Jews in New York is … a poverty of choice, or perhaps more generously, a poverty of default.…
It is a poverty ameliorated by a communal network of support that provides food, housing, health care, and other services to an admirable degree. But it is also enabled by the welfare state — that is, the American taxpayer. At least 15% of Jewish households in this survey receive some form of public assistance; as many as 11% receive food stamps. Do they deserve it? …
This tension has to be confronted if we are to wisely and morally consider how to parcel out precious communal resources to the poor. Important though it is to support those who study Torah and Talmud, it is even more essential for the community to care for the elderly, disabled, and others who are poor not out of choice, but because of unfortunate circumstances. The moral claim goes first to those who are poor involuntary, and so should our dollars.
Never mind that the Forward’s strenuous, disingenuous protestation that it is, of course, “important to support those who study Torah” is one for the record books. Never mind as well that the very same editorial, just a few paragraphs earlier, referred to the “24% of elderly Jews who live in poverty, a percentage that has declined over the past decade but still remains disgracefully high, especially among older refugees from the Former Soviet Union.” But apparently not disgraceful enough to write editorials about, except those that focus on the undeserving Orthodox poor.
And never mind, too, that there’s not a word on the fact that the very same study shows that secular Jews continue to devote more and more of their philanthropic giving to non-Jewish causes, which, if directed internally, would be enough to help all their Jewish brethren, deserving and “undeserving.” As Seth Mandel asks in Commentary, is it “any wonder then that, next to the Orthodox, Russian immigrants are the most identifiable conservative-leaning group? Their more liberal brethren can’t be bothered to establish and support the kind of Jewish institutions that would help such immigrants form a bond with their new community.”
And, finally, never mind this surpassing irony: The Forward, founded by socialists and to this day a champion of every manner of radicalism, is suddenly the organ of “those of us raised on conventional middle-class values — demanding that we work hard, have no more children than we can reasonably afford, strive for self-sufficiency.…” This paragon of far-left politics has suddenly awakened to the ills of the welfare state and is asking so many penetrating questions: “Do the recipients of such aid deserve it? Is it worth the cost to taxpayers? Does the safety net help those who truly are in need, or does it shackle them to the kind of government assistance that stifles motivation and derails self-sufficiency?”
The paper says it’s “time for the Jewish community to engage in this delicate, complicated debate.” Yes, indeed, it’s “delicate [and] complicated.” Those phrases, so bathed in pain and sensitivity, are the best tipoff that the editorialists are about to say something that should be beyond the bounds of appropriate discourse — and indeed they do.
THE ROAD ISN’T THE VEHICLE In his Jewish Week column to which I referred previously, Gary Rosenblatt also notes that the UJA-Federation study’s findings “underscore … the pivotal role of the Modern Orthodox community” which has “moved to the right.” But, he continues, “There are those of us within that community who argue that for the sake of Klal Yisrael and Jewish unity, halachah should function as more of a gateway than a barricade on issues from communal participation to conversion. The question is how far religious parameters can be stretched for the sake of harmony.…”
But in this, it seems to me Rosenblatt has it precisely backwards. Halachah isn’t a vehicle for unity; unity is an ideal that reflects our shared covenant as servants of Hashem and keepers of His Torah. As I wrote in a recent symposium on Jewish unity in the OU’s Jewish Action magazine,
The pursuit of unity amongst Jews is, in essence, an effort to actualize a deeper spiritual linkage that already exists between us all.… Jewish unity can’t possibly be invoked in furtherance of objectives that are injurious to the very relationship with G-d and His Torah that gives that unity its substance.