As Hasidic population grows, Jewish politics may shift right

November 27, 2006

GAINESVILLE, Fla. — In an era when the Jewish population in America is stable or declining, ultra-Orthodox Hasidic Jewish numbers are growing rapidly — a trend that may make the Jewish community not only more religiously observant but also more politically conservative.

So says a University of Florida population geographer who recently completed the first estimate of the Hasidic population based on the U.S. Census.

Geography professor Joshua Comenetz estimated today’s Hasidic population at about 180,000, just 3 percent of the approximately 6 million Jews in the U.S., in a recent paper published in the journal Contemporary Jewry. However, Comenetz calculated that the Hasidic population doubles every 20 years because Hasidic Jews tend to have many children. That’s occurring even as demographic studies show that the non-Orthodox Jewish population is flat or falling. If current trends continue, Hasidic and other growing ultra-Orthodox Jewish groups will constitute a majority of U.S. Jews in the second half of this century – a potentially profound cultural and political change.

“In demographic terms, Hasidic Jews are more similar to some highly religious Christian groups than liberal Jews,” Comenetz said. “They may also sympathize more with the Republicans than the Democrats on values questions. So, one outcome may be a change in the way Jews vote.”

This bodes a turn toward conservatism among American Jews, most of whom traditionally support the Democratic Party, Comenetz added. For example, most ultra-Orthodox Jews send their children to religious schools, which makes they more sympathetic to faith-based initiatives of the sort identified with the Republican Party.

Hasidic, which means “pious” in Hebrew, refers to a Jewish movement that believes in a strict interpretation of the laws and ethics of the Torah, the first five books of the Bible. Hasidic Jews frown on contraception, abortion and divorce, although they do not absolutely ban them. Hasidic Jews also tend to have large, traditional families, with most Hasidic women working in the home, although Hasidic women are not forbidden from entering the workplace.

Comenetz is not the first to try to estimate the national Hasidic population, which is centered in the New York area. But his estimate is the only one based on U.S. Census data, and the most recent data at that — the 2000 U.S. Census. The Census might seem an unlikely source of information for such research because it does not ask questions about people’s religious affiliation. In effect since the first Census in 1790, that policy is rooted in the constitutional separation of church and state.

What made Comenetz’s research possible was a question the Census does ask: “What language do you speak at home?” Hasidic Jews are rare among immigrant groups in that they continue to speak the native tongue of their Eastern European forebears today, many generations after their ancestors first came to America. That language is Yiddish.

Comenetz’s effort was more complicated than simply summing all Census-counted Yiddish speakers, however. That’s because not all Hasidic Jews speak Yiddish. And many elderly non-Hasidic Jews who immigrated to America from Eastern Europe through the post-World War II era also speak Yiddish. This population complicated the picture enough for Comenetz to find a way to isolate them from Hasidic Jews.

He did that by using other Census questions about age to narrow his focus to Yiddish-speaking children, counting about 40,000 between ages 5 and 17, most in metropolitan New York. Other information about Hasidic family structure allowed Comenetz to extrapolate the 40,000 children to 140,000 total Hasidic Jews.

That was in 2000, and Comenetz estimates the number has grown to 180,000 in 2006. There are about the same number of ultra-Orthodox Jews who are not Hasidic. Unlike many Christian groups, such as Mormons, most Jews including the ultra-Orthodox do not seek converts, so the growth of their population is almost entirely due to births. It is not at all unusual for ultra-Orthodox families to have four, six or more children, Comenetz said.

In New York, the effects of the growth of the Hasidic population are already apparent, with Hasidic people leaving their traditional neighborhoods in Brooklyn to set up communities in rural suburbs. Hasidic Jews believe in living close together, within walking distance of a synagogue, so these settlements tend consist of closely spaced apartments or rowhouses – a far cry from the big-house, big-lawn American suburban archetype. As the population grows, New York can expect to see more such unique settlements, Comenetz said. “They do the opposite of suburban sprawl,” he said.