A Thought on American Jewish Demography

I attended my 25th year high school reunion last night. I graduated from the Yeshiva of Flatbush in Brooklyn. When I attended, my class was approximately 55% Jews of Syrian origin. These Jews haven’t assimiliated into broader American Jewish society, but their religious lifestyles generally fall within the “Conservadox” to “Modern Orthodox” categories. About 25% of my classmates were Ashkenazic “Modern Orthodox,” and the rest were (like me) Ashkenazic from a variety of non-Orthodox but relatively traditional homes who chose to send their kids to an Orthodox high school for various reasons.

Anyway, the Syrians averaged over four kids per couple. In fact, I don’t think I talked to anyone who had fewer than four, two had seven(!), and heard that one guy I went to school with who used to be quite secular became “very religious” and has ten kids. Those who grew up Modern Orthodox, or have become such, almost all had between 3 and 5 kids. Those of us who are not Orthodox (you could tell–the alumni director was going around asking them and their husbands to put on kippot) typically had 0-3 kids.

Then there is the equally anecdotal evidence from the family tree I’ve been working on. The families who give their kids Yiddish names, a sign of being at least “Centrist Orthodox,” and perhaps Haredim-Ultra Orthodox, have six or more kids. (Then there was the Hasidic woman of the Satmar sect who just died in her late nineties with one thousand (!!!!!) [WHOOPS! TWO THOUSAND!] descendants.) The ones that give their kids Hebrew names, a sign of Modern Orthodoxy, tend to have around four kids.

So this made me think a little about Jewish demography. I’m sure one can find more precise estimate from professional demographers, but let’s say that right now approximately 5% of the American Jewish population is Modern Orthodox, 5% is Centrist Orthodox or Haredi, 50% is non-Orthodox but “affiliated” with the community, and 40% is non-Orthodox but non-affiliated. In 50 years, let’s say that four Modern Orthodox people will produce 8 Jewish descendants, Centrist Haredi will produce 20, “affiliated” will produce 3 (relatively low birthrates and some intermarriage), and (thanks to low birthrate and intermarriage) the unaffiliated will produce 1. The Orthodox numbers are probably on the low side, even assuming that not all children of the Orthodox, especially modern Orthodox, will stay Orthodox and have as many children.

Of course, not all of the Jewish descendants will stay in the same group as their ancestors, but if current demographic trends hold, in fifty years the descendants of the Haredim and Centrist Orthodox will be over 30% of the American Jewish population, the descendants of he current “affiliated” will be around 40%, and the descendants of the Modern Orthodox and unaffiliated will be a bit more than 10%.

I recognize that current demographics trends may not hold. In particular, as the Haredi and centrist Orthodox populations go from the low hundred thousands to over a million, the community will struggle to maintain its insularity, hostility to secular education, network of private schools, and ability to extract welfare benefits and charity from the Jewish and larger communities.

Nevertheless, barring a sea change, the relatively near term Jewish future seems clear: smaller but growing, less secular, much more religious, poorer relative to the general population, and even more concentrated in a few large urban areas, and especially New York.

UPDATE: A reader properly admonishes me for lumping “Centrist” and “Haredim/Ultra-Orthodox” together. But I was pushing the limits of my demographic knowledge, and also figured that most readers would have limited patience with additional distinctions. In fairness, though, the reader writes:

The Centrist and Modern communities view that Hareidim as a community hostile to secular education (though that has been loosening a tiny bit lately with the opening of trade schools) which extracts welfare benefits. Almost every centrist and modern orthodox Jew I know is strongly against the idea of using the welfare system to support one’s religious lifestyle. In addition, MO and CO Jews are generally not insular, though admittedly that may be a question of degree. Last, and this may be self-selecting, almost every MO and CO Jew in my extended social circle (I live in Washington Heights, a centrist and modern community at the northern tip of Manhattan, primarily made up of CO and MO jews in their mid-late 20s and early 30s) has a graduate degree.

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