The Good, The Bad and The Bad
It was fairly predictable but also quite unpredictable. This best sums up the findings of the just-released Pew Research Center survey entitled “Jewish Americans in 2020,” which polled a broad sampling of 4,718 Americans who identify as Jews, selected from a pool of 68,398 potential respondents, over the course of seven months. The last such Pew survey was conducted in 2013, and many of the trends projected at that time were robustly manifested in the new 2020 survey, often with more intensity and rapidity than expected. While the focus on non-Orthodox Jewry elicited the most interest among Pew’s world-renowned researchers, the survey’s findings about the Orthodox community are certainly of great import to us.
Although the general conclusions that non-Orthodox Jewry is unfortunately moving even farther away from Torah identity and the future of American Jewry is squarely in the hands of the Orthodox were predictable and are clearly demonstrated in the new Pew survey, the details, and a gaping hole or two regarding the Orthodox community, merit serious focus and discussion. Although this article does not purport to have the answers, perhaps by raising some of the uncomfortable issues and recognizing the elephants in the room, we can promote awareness and work toward resolution, im yirtzeh Hashem.
Non-Orthodox American Jews – or those who identify as such, but are sadly often not Jewish, due to intermarried lineage – are abandoning whatever vestiges of Yiddishkeit they may have at an alarming rate.
To quote from the survey: “Overall, about a quarter of U.S. Jewish adults (27%) do not identify with the Jewish religion: They consider themselves to be Jewish ethnically, culturally or by family background and have a Jewish parent or were raised Jewish, but they answer a question about their current religion by describing themselves as atheist, agnostic or ‘nothing in particular,’ rather than as Jewish. Among Jewish adults under 30, four-in-ten describe themselves this way.”
And: “Roughly four-in-ten Jewish adults under 30 identify with either Reform (29%) or Conservative Judaism (8%), compared with seven-in-ten Jews ages 65 and older… At the same time, younger Jewish adults are much more likely than older Jews to identify as Orthodox. Among Jews ages 18 to 29, 17% self-identify as Orthodox, compared with just 3% of Jews 65 and older. And fully one-in-ten U.S. Jewish adults under the age of 30 are Haredim, or ultra-Orthodox (11%), compared with 1% of Jews 65 and older.”
While the non-Orthodox population continues to move away from tradition, the opposite appears to be the case with Orthodox Jews. We dare not glee and gloat that our non-Orthodox brethren are falling off the cliff, and we must do whatever we can to reach out and bring them close, yet, at the same time, Hashem’s promise that the Torah community will endure and our mesorah of the demise of deviant movements are affirmed yet again by the new Pew survey.
Of additional interest in the Pew survey:
- 71% of American Jews overall identify with the Democratic Party, but 75% of Orthodox American Jews identify as Republican (up from 57% in the 2013 survey);
- Only 26% of American Jews “believe in the G-d of the Bible,” while 50% believe in “another spiritual force,” and 22% are atheists (!);
- 58% of American Jews overall rated President Trump’s policies toward the State of Israel as fair or poor (!), in contrast with 69% of Orthodox American Jews, who gave Trump an “excellent” rating on this point.
- “Young U.S. Jews are less emotionally attached to Israel than older ones. As of 2020, half of Jewish adults under age 30 describe themselves as very or somewhat emotionally attached to Israel (48%), compared with two-thirds of Jews ages 65 and older.”
- “Intermarriage is almost nonexistent in the Orthodox Jewish community… (But) among non-Orthodox Jews who got married in the last decade, 72% say they are intermarried.”
- “Nearly two-thirds of U.S. Jews (64%) say rabbis should perform marriage ceremonies for interfaith couples.” The survey then states that Orthodox Jews overwhelmingly oppose this practice, of course.
Of note, as well, is that two-thirds of the survey’s respondents who were raised Reform still identify that way, while only 40% of those raised Conservative are still part of the Conservative movement. This dovetails with the overall trend of mass shrinkage in the Conservative movement, which has been closing down more and more of its congregations, day schools and summer camps. Several kiruv professionals have lamented that this trend has negatively impacted kiruv rates in an acute manner, for most American baalei teshuvah have typically hailed from the Conservative movement, where they had some level of familiarity with Torah and mitzvos and a very basic working knowledge of Hebrew, which could be built upon and developed so as to lead to commitment to halachic observance and a full Torah lifestyle when these people would be exposed to inspirational kiruv rabbonim, events and experiences. This is now mostly gone.
Again, we absolutely must do whatever we can to help bring our non-Orthodox brethren back, both through active kiruv and by setting a positive example as Torah Jews. It is soon going to be too late.
Turning to the Orthodox community, although most of the Pew data was positive, there were a few exceptions. The one that caught my eye most was that in the 2013 Pew survey, Orthodoxy represented 10% of American Jewry, but in the 2020 survey, the figure is 9%. This is quite puzzling, as even if the numbers are not exact, it is incredibly odd that the only segment of American Jewry in a growth mode is not represented by a greater percentage in the overall Jewish population distribution. What is going on? While the proportion of people who identify as Reform rose from 35% to 37% between 2013 and 2020, and the number of people who belong to “no particular branch of Judaism” also rose from 30% to 32% during that period, this would not impact the mysterious Orthodox negative growth or no-growth figure.
There is more to the conundrum. When asked how important religion is in their lives, 86% of Orthodox respondents replied “very important,” 9% replied “somewhat important,” and 4% replied “not too important/not important at all”. And when asked what “is an essential part of what being Jewish means to them,” only 83% of Orthodox Jews surveyed opted to include “observing Jewish law” in their answers. And even fewer Orthodox Jews – 75% of those surveyed – replied that their religious faith “provides them with a great deal of meaning and fulfillment.” Furthermore, only 77% of Orthodox Jews replied that “they often mark Shabbat in a way that is meaningful to them.”
My friends, we have a serious problem on our hands.
We all know that there are many Jews on the fringe of Orthodoxy, and the troubling Orthodox figures in the Pew survey likely reflect these people and confirm a real off-the-derech (“OTD”) situation, such that despite major Orthodox growth, there is a net loss or even break due in large measure to this phenomenon. Dr. Mark Trencher, president of Nishma Research, led the 2017 Nishma Research Profile of American Modern Orthodox Jews and reported some truly disturbing findings, such as:
- Only 73% of respondents said that Orthodoxy is an extremely important part of their lives;
- Only 70% of Jews raised as Modern Orthodox remain observant (with the median age of dropping observance being 28; Dr. Trencher reported this figure from a social media survey that was not part of Nishma’s formal study);
- Fewer than a third of Modern Orthodox men attend shul on weekdays, and when dealing with Modern Orthodox men between the ages of 18 and 34, the number drops to just 25%;
- Only 35% of Modern Orthodox men learn Torah daily;
- The risk of going off the derech is almost ten times greater (!) for those who describe themselves as “Open Orthodox” or “Liberal Modern Orthodox” than the rest of Modern Orthodox Jewry;
- Emunah in Torah MiSinai and observance of mitzvos among the former two groups is likewise very wanting (only two-thirds believe in Torah MiSinai, and only around half of the men lay tefillin daily);
- A large plurality of the children in these Open Orthodox and Liberal Modern Orthodox groups is less frum than their parents (49% and 38% respectively), whereas a smaller percentage of these groups’ children is more observant than their parents. (Nishma’s researchers specifically noted that this likely suggests a trend toward OTD in these two groups.)
And, predating these very important Nishma Research findings, Rabbi Steven Pruzansky wrote in a 2012 seminal article entitled “The Three-Ply Cord”:
“A new unpublished study recently brought to my attention has challenging implications for the Torah world – to wit, that 50% of the graduates of Modern Orthodox high schools are no longer Shabbat or Kashrut observant within two years of their graduation. Another study from last year reported the not-quite-shocking news that 25% of those graduates who attend secular colleges assimilate during college and completely abandon Torah and mitzvot.”
It is pretty clear that the otherwise inexplicable data about the Orthodox community in the new Pew survey is a direct reflection of the findings reported by Dr. Trencher and Rabbi Pruzansky. This should obviously compel action and resolve to redress, although I think that those who can possibly make a difference might feel that the situation is beyond their control at this point.
(It is also noteworthy that the Modern Orthodox world has never been as disconnected as it is today from the yeshiva world. Whereas rabbeim in Modern Orthodox yeshivos and day schools were often the product of more “traditional” yeshivos, this is no longer the case, and a kesher with the larger Torah world is thereby much harder to find in even the best Modern Orthodox mosdos. Furthermore, some Modern Orthodox institutions which recognize the religious lapses in their midst have introduced new approaches in an effort to inspire their youth, such as “Neo-Chassidus” and Israeli-style Dati Leumi/hesder yeshiva culture, but in the larger scheme of things, not much appears to have changed as a result.)
Turning inward, how many of us know family members of people in the “Traditional Orthodox” community who are at risk of going off the derech or have already gone off? “Ain bayis asher ain shom meis.” The problem pales in comparison with the Modern Orthodox scene, which we deeply lament, yet families in the highest echelons of the yeshiva world are faced with the OTD phenomenon in a very direct and personal manner; it is not merely something affecting “others.”
I have no answers, nor am I (or most of us) in the position to point figures and highlight causes, but I think we can be confident that the enigmatic Orthodox data in the Pew survey reflects “our” community as well to a certain extent. Here are a few ideas to consider, which might possibly play a role:
- Do bochurim and yeshiva graduates who are not in the category of “Torasam umnasam” feel a less positive attitude toward their Yiddishkeit, perhaps based on messages they received at certain times during their chinuch?
- Is materialism going too far, such that ruchniyus is now defined by gashmiyus? Reading ads in glossy frum publications, with Jewish “models” – or promotions for kosher getaways of opulence and indulgence in the most exotic locales, and other luxuries, surpassing the flashy advertising of upper crust Madison Avenue boutiques – or story after story about young frum money-makers, in glitzy “heimishe” magazines, which are often pretty devoid of Torah content – does not exactly advance the mandate of Kedoshim Tihiyu, to put it mildly. The utterly materialistic “frum” lifestyle glorified by this all is surely not creating bnei aliyah, and will yield the exact opposite outcome.
- Is the herd mentality of seemingly everyone in the frum community suddenly cramming into a few popular neighborhoods and fleeing from other very established and important Orthodox population centers, resulting in children not being able to be placed in yeshivos and Bais Yaakovs due to overcrowding into an inadequate infrastructure, and causing a total disruption of communal equilibrium, something to embrace? What are the effects of this on chinuch and on maintaining close relationships with one’s rabbonim? And is the opposite extreme of rushing to totally unestablished, far-flung rural cities the answer? How is one’s kesher with his and his family’s rosh yeshiva, rebbe and rov impacted? Does this novel trend foster growth in Yiddishkeit? Ads for these new and remote pop-up communities do not emphasize opportunities for harbotzas haTorah there, but instead stress personal comfort and enrichment. Do this message and its fulfillment create kirvas Elokim, the goal of true Torah Yidden, or the opposite?
- How can our mosdos hachinuch pay their mechanchim better, so that the rabbeim and moros have more time to focus on each yochid, and so that smaller classes can be achieved, rather than a mass-production factory volume that is prone to cause many talmidim to fall through the cracks?
I don’t have answers, and perhaps these questions are not pertinent, but we must accept the new Pew report as a thundering wakeup call. Let us daven fervently for siyata di’Shmaya for the future of Klal Yisroel and do what we can with the facts on the ground to improve the situation.