Jews have been counting themselves since the time of Moses. The Bible provided an exact figure of the number of adult male Jews who left Egypt, and while traveling in the desert the Jews were commanded by God on more than one occasion to count the population of the various tribes. It is doubtful, however, whether these censuses, or any other censuses of Jews, were as controversial as the recent population survey of the Jews of metropolitan New York.

The 269-page, $1.7 million Jewish Community Study of New York: 2011 Comprehensive Report was released in June 2012, at the same time that the Book of Numbers was being read in the synagogue. Demographers criticized the survey on methodological grounds for exaggerating the numbers of Orthodox Jews in the area, while representatives of Reform and Conservative Judaism and secular Jews warned that, if the survey’s figures were correct, the New York Jewish community was leaving a golden age of liberal activism and intellectual modernism and entering a period of social insularity and religious obscurantism.

One of the major challenges of all Jewish population surveys is accurately defining who should be counted as a Jew. Is, for example, the Christian spouse of a Jew to be counted as a member of a Jewish household and are the children of such a couple to be considered Jews, even if they are not raised as Jews?

Jews are unique in that they comprise both an ethnic group and a religious group. Many Jews disdain religion in general, and Judaism in particular, yet consider themselves to be authentically Jewish because they are strongly attached to other Jews and to Israel, or deeply identify with Jewish culture and history. Even Roman Catholic clerics living in Israel have claimed to be Jewish based on ethnicity.

The 2011 survey took a latitudinarian attitude toward Jewish identity, defining a Jewish household as consisting of “one or more Jewish adults ages 18 and over,” the adult being a person “who self-identifies as a Jew or as partially Jewish.” According to the survey, 1,775,000 persons live in what it defined as “Jewish households,” and 1,540,000 of these are Jews (compared to 1,412,000 in 2002). In response to criticism of this broad definition, Jacob B. Ukeles, one of the survey’s three authors, explained that “people have to realize that we are living in a different world, one where a lot of people have some connections to Jewish life . . . . This is no longer a matter of black and white, not even gray.”

While Sergio DellaPergola, the eminent Jewish demographer at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, criticized the survey for its overly expansive definition of Jewishness, the controversy surrounding the survey centered not on its methodology or accuracy but on its conclusion that the increase in the New York area’s Jewish population stemmed largely from the “explosive” growth of its Orthodox residents, particularly the Haredim, the most insular of the Orthodox. The survey also claimed that there had been a decrease in those affiliated with the Reform and Conservative movements, an increase in the number of non-denominational Jews, and a dilution of Jewish identity among the non-Orthodox.

“There are more deeply engaged Jews and there are more unengaged Jews,” said Ukeles. “These two wings are growing at the expense of the middle. That’s the reality of our community.”

The survey reported that 32 percent (493,000) of the area’s Jews are Orthodox; of Jewish youths receiving a Jewish education, 74 percent are enrolled in Orthodox schools; of the 339,000 Jewish children under the age of eighteen living in the region, over 60 percent reside in Orthodox homes even though these homes comprise less than 20 percent of the Jewish households; Orthodox families are over twice as large as their non-Orthodox counterparts; and the Orthodox birthrate is far above the 2.1 births per woman necessary to sustain the population, while the non-Orthodox rate is 1.3.

Particularly troubling to the UJA-Federation of New York, which funded the survey, are the figures on Orthodox charitable giving. The Orthodox direct the vast majority of their charitable dollars to specifically Orthodox causes and institutions and give relatively little to broad non-religious causes such as the United Jewish Appeal.

These statistics alarmed Jewish liberals and secularists who fear that an American Jewish identity revolving around secular philanthropy, liberal politics, and cultural modernization is about to be engulfed by an insular, antiquated, homophobic, and misogynistic religion. Especially objectionable to them is the fact that the Orthodox reject the conventional liberal wisdom on abortion, same-sex marriage, and affirmative action, and are hawkish on issues involving Israel and her Arab antagonists.

The most striking example of this liberal angst is a lengthy editorial that appeared in a June issue of Forward , a publication which, for over a century, has been the most important voice of secular and politically left-of-center New York Jews. Titled “The Undeserving Poor?,” it asserted that the growth of Orthodoxy challenged “the open, egalitarian, inclusive Judaism that has been ascendant in this country for the past half-century.”

The editorial then went on to question the wisdom of using scarce Jewish charitable funds to subsidize the lifestyle of those Orthodox families who prioritize the study of traditional Jewish texts and large families over full-time employment and economic and social mobility. The editors noted the simultaneous upsurge in Jewish poverty and an increase in the Orthodox population, particularly in Haredi families, where six or more children are the norm.

“For 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 and . . . create a semblance of egalitarianism at home,” the editorial declared, “the Haredi lifestyle is oppositional.” From the perspective of Forward , financial support of Haredi families not only diverts scarce dollars from the more deserving Jewish poor who recognize the imperative of “egalitarianism,” but also encourages what economists term “moral hazard,” the subsidizing of economically and socially dysfunctional behavior.

This editorial would probably strike Christian readers unfamiliar with the dynamics of American Jewish history as bizarre, since they do not see large families as a problem, poverty as a moral failing, or the religious poor as “undeserving.” It infuriated more traditionally minded Jews who believe that, in a time of endemic religious indifference among Jews, the fervent commitment of the Orthodox to Judaism and to Jewish continuity should be an occasion for celebration rather than embarrassment and dread.

“Helping the needy has always been a hallmark of Jewish observance,” one of the Forward’ s readers wrote back. “Would you deny assistance to unwed mothers? To African-Americans? It is just as racist and bigoted to refuse to help needy Hasidic families.” Another reader pointed to the Jewish tradition of supporting Torah scholars because they bring God’s mercy into the world.

Other readers wondered why Orthodox children should be punished because of the supposedly unwise economic decisions made by their parents. Still others claimed that Torah study was a form of “pro bono” employment similar to that provided by lawyers and physicians, and some believed the editorial expressed a jealousy and intolerance toward the Orthodox because of their growing numbers, conservative social values, and strong and distinctive Jewish commitments.

If liberal Jews truly wanted to help the Orthodox poor, one reader wrote, they would “work on getting school vouchers for any Jew that chooses to give [his] children a solid Jewish education.” One could hardly think of a suggestion more incompatible with the mindset of liberals in general, and liberal New York Jews in particular, than providing educational vouchers that could be used to subsidize enrollment at parochial schools.

Jonathan S. Tobin, the senior editor of the blog of the conservative Jewish magazine Commentary , published a piece on the survey shortly after its appearance, titled “The Beginning of the End for Liberal Jewry.” “The assumption that Jewish life could be built on a largely secular lifestyle in which liberal politics would provide a substitute for faith,” he wrote, “was as foolish as the notion that it could persist on identification with the Yiddish language or certain ethnic foods. The assumption that most American Jews will always be secular liberals is a myth that has just been exploded.”

A week later he responded to the Forward editorial with another blog post titled “Liberal Prejudice Against the Orthodox Crosses the Line.” Here he claimed that the source of Forward s animus toward the Orthodox stemmed from the recognition by New York’s secular and liberal Jews that their dominance was coming to an end. Tobin found Forward ’s attitude toward the high Orthodox birthrate to be particularly offensive, especially coming after the Holocaust, when one-third of the world’s Jews had been murdered and Jews needed to replenish their numbers.

The editorial, he said, would have been quickly labeled as racist by liberals had its target been 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.”

What does the controversy over the survey signify? Does it presage the fundamental transformation in the social and political outlook of Jews that Tobin and Commentary have been eagerly anticipating for decades? If this transformation is to occur, when will it take place? And how will it reshape American Jewry? Historians and sociologists have good reason for being skeptical that such a major change is imminent, and they are correct in questioning whether Jewish population surveys have much predictive value.

Prophesy, as the Talmud noted two thousand years ago, can be the province of fools. But the survey did correctly highlight the growing importance of American Orthodoxy. For decades scholars had assumed that Orthodoxy was a historical relic, comprising at most 5 percent of the American Jewish population. But with the recent growth of Orthodoxy, the figure now being bandied about is 10 percent. Secular and liberal Jews have good reason to be uneasy.

Edward S. Shapiro is professor of history emeritus at Seton Hall University .

Articles by Edward S. Shapiro

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