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August 29, 2015 / 14 Elul, 5775
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The State of the Jew According to Pew

Very few middle aged and older people consider themselves ultra-orthodox. It’s a youth movement.
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Pew conducted a study of Jews in America and has released a comprehensive report based on its findings. Nearly 2800 religious Jewish people were interviewed and the results of those interviews make up the model for the results of the study. It’s difficult conduct a study like this and achieve meaningful results. I am not a statistician nor can I compare the sample sizes used in this study with others. To my untrained eye, it seems small.

There are many very interesting findings to discuss. I have three things I want to say about the study.

First, people will point to the staggering number of orthodox Jews who are no longer orthodox. That number is 52%. It seems impossible to believe. That means that over half of people raised orthodox are no longer orthodox. Think about the orthodox Jewish friends and family you know. Does it make sense to say that over half of them are no longer orthodox? I don’t think so.

If you drill down a bit you notice a couple of things. For starters, I know many people who say they were raised orthodox because they went to a yeshiva or modern orthodox school even if they weren’t frum at home. I went to school with several people like that. Those people certainly skew the numbers. After all, the study relied on self identification. There was no process to classify people into categories other than to ask them.

But the real key here what the numbers are for young people being raised in contemporary orthodoxy. Those numbers are impressive. 83% of people raised as orthodox Jews under the age of 30 stay. This is a huge success. It’s also a number that correlates with anecdotal evidence. So the people who were raised orthodox and no longer are orthodox are mostly older people. What does this mean?

It means one of two things or perhaps a hybrid of two. [It doesn’t mean that orthodox Jews leave the fold in their 30’s and 40’s at alarmingly high rates.] It could either mean that orthodoxy is much stronger today than it was 20 and 30 years ago. People get a better Jewish education, there is more insularity, and the shift to ultra orthodoxy which outnumbers modern orthodoxy by nearly 10:1 in this demographic is working to keep more orthodox Jews orthodox. Alternatively, it signifies a shift in who attends orthodox schools. In other words, 20-30 years ago it was far more likely for a family to send a child to an orthodox school and identify as orthodox even if they were not totally observant of halacha. There was more cross-pollination and there were fewer non-orthodox options. So you wind up with more people from previous generations identifying as being raised orthodox even though they weren’t truly orthodox through and through. This is rarer today because we are more insular and non-orthodox or unaffiliated Jews feel less comfortable in orthodox institutions. The truth is likely a combination of the two but the latter does concern me.

Also, very few middle aged and older people consider themselves ultra-orthodox. It’s a youth movement. Sure, some mellow out and switch affiliation. But it’s also a recent phenomena that is sweeping orthodoxy. It’s pretty compelling evidence that what is happening now for the under 40 orthodox Jew is different from what their parents and grandparents experienced. It’s a different kind of Judaism. The numbers bear it out.

Next, the non-orthodox denominations are falling apart. The numbers support the rumblings and rumors regarding the demise of Conservative Judaism and Reform Judaism is dwindling as well. Some orthodox Jews like to cheer while these two denominations begin to disappear. Others view it as a sign that those Jews must be saved and brought into orthodox Judaism.

I think that it is important for Judaism that non-orthodox denominations are strong and vibrant. I think that orthodox Jews should be concerned and make efforts to help revive non-orthodox Judaism. This sounds controversial and heretical but it’s really not. Orthodox Judaism is not going to magically become the Judaism for the 89% of non-orthodox Jews. We can either wish them well and watch them disappear or we can try to keep them connected to their Jewish heritage. I think the latter choice is preferable. Now we can either keep them connected by “making them orthodox” as if that is even possible, or we can rely on strong non-orthodox denominations to keep them in the fold. I think the latter choice is preferable here too. It’s certainly the more likely option to achieve widespread success. While resources are precious in the orthodox community, I think strengthening the non-orthodox denominations is a worthy endeavor. They are also our brothers and sisters. If we value what we have, we should do whatever we can to help them stay somewhat connected to their Judaism. A little bit of a good thing is a whole lot better than nothing.

About the Author: Rabbi Eliyahu Fink, J.D. is the rabbi at the famous Pacific Jewish Center | The Shul on the Beach in Venice CA. He blogs at finkorswim.com. Connect with Rabbi Fink on Facebook and Twitter.

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4 Responses to “The State of the Jew According to Pew”

  1. Rabbi Fink
    I applaud your notion that Orthodox Jews must support non orthodox streams. It is rather pragmatic and unexpected from what I have come to expect from factions within our community. If we can encourage such support it would go a long way to bridge our communities. We are indeed one people and judging by the study’s result, we better start recognizing it quick.
    As to your point of Othopraxy – cute, by the way – you suggest that if that movement grows, orthodoxy may begin some kinds of witch hunt to identify them and “vet” people for true orthodoxy, and it would force orthopraxists into the closet. I would argue that they are already in closets. If they were not, they would not be counted among their Orthodox neighbors and community.
    That said, the study seems to have missed a segment of a population. You may define them as Orthopraxists, but indeed they are believers. There is a growing number of people who do not see Conservative Judaism or Reform (not reconstructionist, ethical cultural, etc,. either) as suitable to them. The people who grew up in religious homes, went to yeshiva, studied and understand, but do not have the ability or desire to practice every “restriction” for arguments sake. They daven in Orthodox shuls, keep kosher, send their kids to Jewish schools, and believe in God and Torah, but may not be so strict on the 39 malachot in the privacy of their homes.
    These people are Jewish, proud, Zionists, involved, but cut corners, not because they do not believe, but because they just don’t want to. It may be something simple as their wives wear “beg’ed Ish” (pants) and may not cover their hair. They may watch the ballgame after shul in their basements, or eat ice cream on a beach that may not have a certification label.
    I grew up in t he Bialystoker shul. My zaidy was the president in the sixties and seventies, and he set his shabbos clock to turn on the ballgame Saturday afternoons. My wife and I owned the bialy store on Grand Street until a month ago and we hired a rabbi and certified it kosher. Yet, growing up, “everyone” ate there (before we owned it) because it was flour, water, yeast, onions and salt. No one said it was treif – it just wasn’t “kosher”.
    In the fifties and sixties we ate Kraft cheese because rennet was considered a chemical by product and not a chunk of meat from an animal. And I have an actual letter that my wife’s grandfather wrote to Sholom Klass in the early seventies asking his advice on the new phenomenon of glatt kosher. Shalom Klass wrote back – and I have it – saying it was an unnecessary restriction and expense and “only a passing” phase for Judaism. How wrong he was. If we can embrace the harder and more expensive, we certainly did.
    These people today may feel religion has taken a sharp right turn to an uncomfortable and even unsettling point. The study should unsettle us all as it shows that those who stay Jewish longer are those more associated with it regularly – friends, neighborhood, school, etc.
    What does that mean? Being a practicing Jew has become expensive. Schools, kashrut, neighborhoods , etc. To pay for it all we had to be enlightened, find work and become business leaders. That enlightenment has in a way influenced today’s youth who never saw the struggle but now see a burden.
    Didn’t we do this to ourselves?

  2. Rabbi Fink
    I applaud your notion that Orthodox Jews must support non orthodox streams. It is rather pragmatic and unexpected from what I have come to expect from factions within our community. If we can encourage such support it would go a long way to bridge our communities. We are indeed one people and judging by the study’s result, we better start recognizing it quick.
    As to your point of Othopraxy – cute, by the way – you suggest that if that movement grows, orthodoxy may begin some kinds of witch hunt to identify them and “vet” people for true orthodoxy, and it would force orthopraxists into the closet. I would argue that they are already in closets. If they were not, they would not be counted among their Orthodox neighbors and community.
    That said, the study seems to have missed a segment of a population. You may define them as Orthopraxists, but indeed they are believers. There is a growing number of people who do not see Conservative Judaism or Reform (not reconstructionist, ethical cultural, etc,. either) as suitable to them. The people who grew up in religious homes, went to yeshiva, studied and understand, but do not have the ability or desire to practice every “restriction” for arguments sake. They daven in Orthodox shuls, keep kosher, send their kids to Jewish schools, and believe in God and Torah, but may not be so strict on the 39 malachot in the privacy of their homes.
    These people are Jewish, proud, Zionists, involved, but cut corners, not because they do not believe, but because they just don’t want to. It may be something simple as their wives wear “beg’ed Ish” (pants) and may not cover their hair. They may watch the ballgame after shul in their basements, or eat ice cream on a beach that may not have a certification label.
    I grew up in t he Bialystoker shul. My zaidy was the president in the sixties and seventies, and he set his shabbos clock to turn on the ballgame Saturday afternoons. My wife and I owned the bialy store on Grand Street until a month ago and we hired a rabbi and certified it kosher. Yet, growing up, “everyone” ate there (before we owned it) because it was flour, water, yeast, onions and salt. No one said it was treif – it just wasn’t “kosher”.
    In the fifties and sixties we ate Kraft cheese because rennet was considered a chemical by product and not a chunk of meat from an animal. And I have an actual letter that my wife’s grandfather wrote to Sholom Klass in the early seventies asking his advice on the new phenomenon of glatt kosher. Shalom Klass wrote back – and I have it – saying it was an unnecessary restriction and expense and “only a passing” phase for Judaism. How wrong he was. If we can embrace the harder and more expensive, we certainly did.
    These people today may feel religion has taken a sharp right turn to an uncomfortable and even unsettling point. The study should unsettle us all as it shows that those who stay Jewish longer are those more associated with it regularly – friends, neighborhood, school, etc.
    What does that mean? Being a practicing Jew has become expensive. Schools, kashrut, neighborhoods , etc. To pay for it all we had to be enlightened, find work and become business leaders. That enlightenment has in a way influenced today’s youth who never saw the struggle but now see a burden.
    Didn’t we do this to ourselves?

  3. Sadly for non orthodox streams it would appear that there is no Judaism without Jewish law and tradition. It is clear that as young kids are born furthet from the source of jewish light, the less they affiliate. Whether or not you consider kashrut or shabbat to be archaic is less important than the facts that shoq without them we lose what it means to be who we are.

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