Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Of Jewish Population Growth and Poverty

Yesterday’s Forward featured an article with some surprising information. The Jewish population of New York has increased from 1.4 million a decade ago to 1.5 million now, according to a study realsed on June 12th. And this growth is being fueled by Orthodox Jews.

I say surprising because not long ago there was a study released that gave a somewhat opposite impression. That Orthodox numbers were actaully decreasing. At the time I found that just as surprising since I am very aware of the successful outreach being done. The Baal Teshuva Movement is experiencing record numbers of Jews who have discovered their roots and traditions and have embraced them. I know many such people myself. Chabad and organizations like NCSY have unbelievable track records in this regard.

But it was pointed out to me that despite the record number of Baalei Teshuva, there were still more people leaving Orthodoxy than coming into it because of the so called “Off the Derech” (OTD) factor.

I had always suspected that these  numbers were not an accurate reprersentation of the “facts on the ground”. The tendancy for Orthodox Jews to have lage families combined with an explosion of Orthodox Jewish day schools and Yeshivos should have shown the opposite – a growth in the over-all population numbers of Orthodox Jews. Not a decline.

The current study seems to corroborate my views. Here is how the Forward put it: 
More than six out of ten Jewish children in New York are Orthodox, according to the report, which marks the first comprehensive accounting of the community in a decade.
 The study, sponsored by the UJA Federation of New York, covered the five boroughs of New York City plus Nassau and Suffolk counties on Long Island and Westchester County to the north. It found most of the growth centered in the city’s Orthodox populations. 
The question arises, how could a report relased not long ago say that Orthodoxy is shrinking in the US when the number of Jews in New York have increased mostly due to Orthodox growth?

I think the answer is because it depends how one defines Orthdoxy. The numbers indicating a reduction in numbers probably are a result of Jews who are only nominally Orthodox. This means that their parents were probably observant or had joined Orthodox synagogues. While not necessarily being observant these Jews identified as such because of their synagogue affilation. This is probably ttrue of many synagogues outside of New York.

I recall my early years in Toledo where the president of my father’s Shul used to drive many of the regular attendees to Shul on Shabbos. My father’s Shul was small and barely had a Minyan. It was one of only 3 Orthodox Shuls in Toledo. And yet there were only 3 observant Jews in the entire city! The numbers increased a bit before my move to Chicago but still did not rise enough to find a Minyan even if all the Shuls combined.

Shul  members were not observant, and their children had absolutely nothing to do with Orthdoxy since they had no Jewish education.  These families nonetheless self identified as Orthodox. My guess is that this was fairly common across the United States. The offspring of these individuals may have self identified that way when they were young and ther parents belonged to those Shuls, but today they would hardly identify as Orthdodx at all. Hence the seeming loss of numbers.

It is also true that New York is not America. The over-all numbers in the country which includes New York may have declined, but looking only at New York they may have increased. Although this is possible, I believe my analysis is closer to the truth. If one factors out the nominally Orthodox families that dropped out both in New York and elsewhere - the actual numbers of Orthodox Jews in America has probably increased - even outside of New York.

So as bad as the OTD problem is, and it is bad – very bad… I don’t think those numbers are greater than those coming in.

This doesn’t mean that everything is rosy. When one looks at what segment is increasing the most and the economic situation of that group, one can only predict a very dire economic future. Again, from the Forward: 
Among the Orthodox, ultra-Orthodox Hasidic Jews are the largest group, at 16% of the Jewish population of the eight counties counted in the survey. They outnumber both Modern Orthodox Jews, at 10% of the total Jewish population, and non-Hasidic ultra-Orthodox Jews, at 6% of the population.
Ultra-Orthodox households are far bigger than non-Orthodox households. The mean number of Jewish members of a Hasidic household is 4.8, compared to 1.8 in a non-Orthodox home.
 The study found rising poverty rates among Jews. In New York City, 27% of all people living in Jewish households are poor, compared with 20% a decade ago. More than one in ten Jewish households is on food stamps.
 Poverty rates are high among older Jews, and among the Orthodox. Hasidic Jews are the poorest Orthodox group – a full 43% of Hasidic households qualify as poor.
 The question arises as to why this particular segment is so poor. After all Chasidim are not “married” to the Kollel life. They believe in working for a living. Not only that but some of the wealthiest Jews in Orthodoxy can be found among Chasidim. One of the most successful and lucrative business enterprises in the world - the diamond industry - will find Chasidim dominating it. 

Another example of a successfully owned business is the electronics giant B& H. Its owners are Satmar or Satmar-like Chasidim. There are also many smaller but successful businesses run by Chasidim that have made fortunes for their families, retsuarants;, bakeries; and stores with all manner of goods line the streets of 13th Avenue in Boro Park – a Chasidic enclave in Brooklyn.

Why the poverty then? Not everyone can be a successful business men. The numbers of non businessmen is staggeringly large. If one simply needs to find a job, they need skills. But the structure of the Chasidic educational system is not geared to teaching them any. The lack of this kind of educationmeans that unless one is connected or just has a naturally savvy business sense, one will not be able to find the kind of jobs that would take them out of the poverty level.

Without the kind of training one gets in a system that will lead to an ability to attend an institution of higher education that will enable one to be trained in a profession that will provide a decent income - one is doomed to finding menial jobs. And that means supplementing their income via the welfare system.  43% of all Chasidic households living in poverty more than attests to this phenomenon. Chasidim are discouraged – if not outright forbidden from attending college. Their level of secular education in many elementary and high schools like those of Satmar - is in any case not sufficient to be accepted to a college or to be able to succeed in ot even if they were accepted.

If the trend in Chasidic growth continues – outpacing the growth of any other segment of Orthdodxy … and if Chasidic leaders continue to discourage or forbid the kind of education that would enable them to find decent paying jobs - we facing  the greatest level of poverty in the history of American Jewry.  A poverty that will accelerate as the population continues to grow at its current exponential rate.

What does that kind of poverty breed? It breeds reliance on the “Welfare State”. Chasidim are often directed to use the welfare system to supplement their low incomes.

Although it is legal -living on food stamps and welfare is not the way of the Torah. We are not a people of beggars. Poverty is not a mandate by God. I think that Chasidic leaders ought to take stock of their own growth and increasing level poverty and change the anti- secular education paradigm… and allow their Chasidim get out of the poverty that they have been led into.