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Ny jew population below million { June 16 2003 }

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June 16, 2003
City Milestone: Number of Jews Is Below Million

The Jewish population of New York City has fallen by 5 percent since 1991, dipping below one million for the first time in a century, according to a roughly once-a-decade study that is being released today by the UJA-Federation of New York.

But Jews who left the city seemed to stay in the area, because the Jewish population has risen by a corresponding amount in three suburban counties in New York state.

The study, regarded as the most authoritative count of the Jewish population, said there were 972,000 Jews in New York City in 2002. That was a moderate drop from the 1990's and 1980's but less than half the peak of two million living in the five boroughs in the late 1950's. The study also showed that the decline would have been steeper if not for an influx of Jews from the former Soviet Union during the 1990's.

But the addition of those immigrants now totaling 186,000 a sluggish economy and an aging population helped to more than double the rate of poverty among the city's Jews since 1991, according to the survey. One in five Jewish households in New York City one in six if three suburban counties are included reports an income that meets a commonly accepted definition of poverty.

Overall, the Jewish population in the eight-county region covered by UJA-Federation the five counties of the city as well as Westchester, Nassau and Suffolk Counties has remained stable at about 1.4 million, as many successful Jews left the city to settle in the nearby suburbs. The growth in Westchester's Jewish population is particularly striking, climbing 40 percent since 1991.

The study's figures suggest pivotal changes in an ethnic and religious group that has helped shape the culture, music, language and very accent of the city itself. Some experts say the decline within the city will have repercussions for Jewish political representation and influence. Edward I. Koch, the former mayor, said he expected the decline to moderate the generally liberal tinge of city politics, a trend that he said would be enhanced because Russian Jews are often more conservative because of their experience with Communism.

"The Jews have set the philosophical agenda based on their history, the idea of `We have to take care of everybody' and `Justice, justice,' " he said. "I think there will be less of that."

But others cautioned that making predictions about Jewish influence on the basis of population numbers can be tricky. Dr. Jacob B. Ukeles, who along with Dr. Ron Miller was the study's principal investigator, said that Jews had been leaving the city at a lower rate than other non-Hispanic whites, and so constitute an increasing share now almost 35 percent of the city's white population. Others pointed out that exit polls in 1992 and 2001 show that Jews, who vote at a higher-than-average rate, comprise an increasing percentage of all voters.

The study contained other significant findings for the Jewish community. The proportion of Jews who call themselves Orthodox has increased sharply over the decade, to 19 percent from 13 percent. The proportions of Reform and Conservative Jews have fallen accordingly. The rate of interfaith marriage, which rose sharply in the 1970's, has stabilized, the study found, with 13 percent of Jews marrying someone of another faith.

Since the United States Census does not ask religious questions, the survey is likely to be the gold-standard measure of Jewish population in New York City and the three suburban counties. The study was based on telephone interviews with 4,533 randomly selected households conducted between March and September 2002. It has a margin of error for various parts of 1.8 to 2.7 percentage points.

Dr. Ukeles pointed out that given the margin of error, the Jewish population for the city might be seen as holding steady.

Nevertheless, Jewish communal leaders have been anticipating the results for months and many understood that a figure below one million would be a significant milestone in the city's Jewish history. In the first decade of the 1900's, when Jews from Eastern Europe and Russia immigrated to the United States in large numbers, the Jewish population grew from 600,000 to 1,250,000, according to the primitive estimates at that time. It continued to flourish and in 1957 was counted at just over two million, meaning that one out of four New Yorkers was Jewish, compared with one in eight today.

But an increase in Jewish affluence as well as a surge in citywide crime and turmoil, led to an exodus of Jews to the suburbs, particularly from the Bronx in the 1970's. (Today, the Bronx has approximately 45,000 Jews, scarcely more than Staten Island, with 42,000 Jews, up 27 percent in the last decade.)

By 1981, the Jewish population stood at 1.1 million. By 1991, that figure was at 1.027 million.

Although the study did not look at New Jersey or Connecticut and other New York counties, the American Jewish Yearbook shows that in 2001, there were 417,000 Jews in northeastern New Jersey, 90,000 in Rockland County, N.Y., and about 62,000 Jews in the Connecticut communities of New Haven, Bridgeport, Westport, Stamford and Greenwich.

The Jewish population of the United States was put at 5.5 million on the last completed study, taken in 1990, Dr. Ukeles said. A tentative study released last October put the national Jewish population at 5.2 million, but the study's methods and definitions have been questioned.

The new study of the New York area was designed in part to alert Jewish communal agencies how to tend to the population and from that point of view, the new poverty figures surprised many. Dr. Ukeles blamed much of the increase in poverty on the economy and on an increase in the proportion of immigrants, who tend to be poorer at least for their first few years in the country. But stories like that of Cathy Markowitz show that other factors come into play as well.

Mrs. Markowitz, the mother of three teenage boys, said she had been living a solid middle-class life in a house in Baldwin on Long Island when her husband, an accountant, suffered a severe stroke in 2000. She discovered that his health insurance was not paid up and that he had not put away enough money to care for his family. Now divorced, she receives Medicaid and food stamps and earns $24,000 a year as a medical receptionist.

"All Jewish people are not wealthy," she said. "What happened to me can happen to anybody."

The study found that engagement in Jewish religious and communal life remains very high, with 92 percent in the 8 counties saying that the survival of Israel was very important to them, and 86 percent saying it was very important to help struggling or endangered Jews.

In New York City, and particularly Manhattan, Jews consider it less important to belong to a synagogue than do Jews in other parts of the country. Dr. Ukeles speculated that the smaller numbers of synagogue affiliation may be because of the many Jewish cultural offerings in the city that fill the need for Jewish identification. Still, only 16 percent of respondents in the 8 counties said they never attend synagogue during the year.

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