In many ways, New York is a quintessentially Jewish city. The enduring image of New York Jews was famously captured by Woody Allen in Annie Hall, and New York’s liberal, secular, hyper-educated Jewish population has for decades set the tone for American Jewry as a whole. According to a new survey, however, the stereotypical New York Jew is becoming an endangered species. New York City’s Jewish population is growing after years of decline, and the growth is being fueled by Orthodox Jews, and particularly Hasidic and black hat Jews who are conservative, do not have college degrees, and are relatively poor. Over at Commentary, Jonathan Tobin writes that this signals the end of American liberal Jewry since the New York Jewish community (the largest concentration of Jews anywhere in the world outside of Israel) and the American Jewish community itself are slowly dividing into two large blocs of Orthodox Jews and entirely assimilated and unaffiliated Jews, which means that the Jewish community will be more politically and religiously conservative.
On the religious aspect, I think Tobin is right, but I think he is overlooking two important points when it comes to where the American Jewish community is headed politically which makes his prediction of liberal Jewry’s demise premature. First, while the Hasidic and yeshivish communities – and to a lesser extent the modern Orthodox community – are unquestionably more politically and socially conservative than their non-Orthodox counterparts, they have a different set of concerns. As the New York Times notes, they take different positions than secular American Jews on abortion, gay rights, the peace process, and a host of other issues, but the question is whether they are going to be as active as the rest of the Jewish community in pushing these issues to the fore and putting their money where their mouth is.
My bet is that they will not. The ultra-Orthodox (for lack of a better term) care more about social services and government subsidies than they do about traditionally political issues because they are generally an impoverished group. The poorest place in the entire United States is Kiryas Joel, a village 50 miles outside of New York City populated almost exclusively by Satmar Jews. Kiryas Joel votes as one bloc, and so it is awash in federal and state grants and poverty assistance, and its residents care far more about making sure that this continues than they do about whether gay marriage is legal in New York or not. Kiryas Joel is a political microcosm for the ultra-Orthodox in general, and while they are undoubtedly as socially and politically conservative as you can get, they simply don’t have enough skin in the game to move the debate. The things they care about transcend and supersede their political conservatism, which is why local Democratic Brooklyn politicians such as Joe Hynes and Dov Hikind receive overwhelming support from the Orthodox community. They are a lot like the Israeli Haredi parties such as Shas or UTJ in this sense, since their number one issue is patronage and winning state benefits and everything else is secondary and thus perpetually fluid and malleable.
Second, Hasidic and black hat Orthodox Jews are uniformly insular. The divide between these two groups and modern Orthodox Jews primarily revolves around the issue of engagement with the outside world. Hasidim and black hatters purposely construct figurative walls around themselves so that they barely have to interact with the outside world or engage with people outside of their immediate religious community. They go to their own schools, marry within their cloistered world, and shelter themselves from the impurities of secularism by shunning tv, radio, the internet, and even basic news. They spend their lives inside a bubble of their own creation, and are not terribly interested about what is taking place outside the cocoon. If 95% of American Jews were Hassidic or black hat, the 5% who were not would still be the ones driving the perception of Jewry among the rest of the population because they would be the only ones engaging in politics, culture, and the general debate. In this vein, it doesn’t much matter how conservative the Orthodox are because they keep to themselves and aren’t really interested in impacting American politics in any way. When Tobin writes that the assumption of American Jews being secular liberals to the end of time has just been proven false, he is technically correct but missing the forest for the trees. The segment of American Jewry that engages with the world and is ubiquitous in the media and pop culture and donates money to political campaigns is still overwhelmingly secular and liberal, and that is what matters. American Jewry as a whole may become more religiously and politically conservative, but the silent majority is so silent as to render them essentially invisible.