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September 19, 2014 / 24 Elul, 5774
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Do Statistics Tell The Real Story? Reflections on U.S. Jewry

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This past autumn the Pew Research Center’s Religion and Public Life Project released the findings of its survey of American Jews. “A Portrait of Jewish Americans” immediately won the attention of a good number of American Jews and became the focus of considerable media coverage.

The survey, which questioned 3,475 Jews on telephone landlines and cell phones across the country, found that American Jews can be divided into three sectors: Jews by religion, Jews of no religion, and people of Jewish background.

Members of the first group identify themselves as Jewish on the basis of practicing religion. Members of the second group describe themselves as Jewish but having no religion. Members of the third group have some Jewish connection, perhaps a Jewish parent or grandparent, but do not consider themselves Jewish at all, and indeed may be practicing another religion entirely.

The general findings indicate that great generational changes are taking place within the Jewish population of the United States. For example, whereas 93 percent of Jews born between 1914 and 1927 identify themselves as Jewish on the basis of practicing religion, only 68 percent of Jews born after 1980 identify themselves as Jewish on that basis – and 32 percent of this younger group describe themselves as having no religion, identifying as Jewish on the basis of ancestry, ethnicity or culture.

The Reform movement remains the largest denomination of American Jewry, though the survey finds a weakening in the numbers and degree of commitment among that denomination’s membership.

And while the Conservative movement is shrinking drastically, respondents who identify as Orthodox are notably younger than Jews of other denominations and tend to have much larger families and show greater commitment on almost all measures of Jewishness.

The researchers find the evidence suggests that the Orthodox share of the Jewish population will grow significantly in the short-term future.

At first glance, these findings would seem to be cause for celebration by the Orthodox community. Many of us still remember how social scientists in the 1950s predicted that Orthodoxy was fading into history and would soon disappear altogether.

But some of the findings about our Orthodox community are troubling to me. Among them:

1. The Pew Research Center has also conducted surveys of other religions in the United States. Most interesting is a recent study of Mormons. Like the Jews, the Mormons represent about 2 percent of the U.S. population. Jews, certainly when compared with Mormons, are relatively untroubled by prejudice and believe they are well integrated into American society. (This finding is consistent with the intermarriage rate among non-Orthodox Jews, which exceeds 70 percent.)

However, what is instructive and of great concern is that 87 percent of Mormons report they pray every day, while no Jewish group, including the Orthodox, approaches that percentage. One reason for that discrepancy is the fact that there are no significant gender differences between the religious practices of Mormon men and Mormon women, whereas among Orthodox Jews there are great gender discrepancies in synagogue attendance and daily prayer.

2. Another interesting finding (one that can admittedly be interpreted in various ways) is that whereas in the older generation there was a significant dropout rate from Orthodox practice, there is now a retention rate of 83 percent among the 18- to 27-year-olds. Judged against the percentages in most other religions, that retention rate is considered indicative of great success in keeping youth in the fold. The bad news, however, is that 17 percent – almost one in five of Jews in the 18-27 age range – are dropping out of Orthodoxy.

3. Evidence of a significant dropout rate from Orthodoxy is, unfortunately, not matched by clear evidence of success on the part of the kiruv (outreach) movement in winning over significant numbers of non-Orthodox Jews to Orthodoxy. Many individuals involved in outreach who are studying these results are scratching their heads in amazement that their efforts, and the success they feel they have achieved, are not reflected in the results of this particular survey. Why that is remains an open question for future careful study.

* * * * *

Three implications emerge from the preceding findings. First, many people who identify themselves as Orthodox do not necessarily conform to the religious expectations of traditional Orthodoxy. Second, there is a troubling dropout rate among our youth that must be understood and addressed. Finally, much needs to be done to enhance the impact of our outreach efforts.

In general, the findings are encouraging when Orthodoxy is compared with the other denominations. It is, of course, sad to see the degree to which non-Orthodox Jews are falling away from every semblance of Jewishness – from religious behavior to support for Jewish causes, even to the point of feeling little or no sense of connectedness to the state of Israel.

But the findings also allow us a glimpse into the Orthodox world itself, and some of what becomes apparent is new and disturbing. I refer to the fact that the researchers felt compelled to make a distinction between the two major groups comprising Orthodoxy and to label them “Modern Orthodox” and “Ultra-Orthodox.” It is not clear to me what criteria were used to distinguish between these two Orthodox subgroups. It appears that respondents to the phone calls were simply asked whether they identify themselves as Modern or Ultra.

1. The most glaring difference between the Moderns and the Ultras regards their respective attitudes toward Israel. Thus, when respondents were asked about their emotional attachment to Israel, 77 percent of the Modern Orthodox reported they felt very attached, as opposed to only 55 percent of the Ultra-Orthodox. When asked if caring about Israel was an essential part of being Jewish, 79 percent of the Moderns said it was while only 45 percent of the Ultras felt that way. And whereas 86 percent of the Moderns responded that they had been to Israel, only 74 percent of the Ultras reported having been there.

The increasingly negative attitude toward Israel within the Ultra-Orthodox community, however that is defined, has been apparent for some time and is no news to anyone. But seeing this negative attitude reflected in percentages is jarring.

2. Much more surprising is the difference in fundamental religious beliefs between the two groups. It is a common assumption that Ultra-Orthodox Jews tend to be more stringent in their religious practices than Modern Orthodox Jews. But it is also often assumed that there is some parity between them with regard to basic beliefs, to hashkafot. Yet the survey shows that when the question “How important is religion in your life?” was asked, 89 percent of all Ultra-Orthodox Jews said it was very important while only 77 percent of the Modern Orthodox gave that response.

More dramatically, when questions about belief in God were asked, 96 percent of the Ultra-Orthodox reported they believed in God with absolute certainty, whereas only 77 percent of the Modern Orthodox were absolutely certain of His existence.

3. Two other differences between the two groups will be obvious to most of us. The family size of all Orthodox families is significantly greater than that of the non-Orthodox groups, but Ultra-Orthodox families tend to be significantly larger than Modern Orthodox families. Also, Ultra-Orthodox individuals report that upward of 95 percent of their friends are also Ultra-Orthodox, whereas Modern Orthodox individuals say that 25 to 35 percent of their friends are less observant than they, and that they are often not Orthodox or sometimes non-Jewish.

* * * * *

Several aspects of the survey troubled me from a different perspective entirely. It must be understood that the survey is based on a sample of fewer than 4,000 individuals yet generalizes its conclusions to an estimated Jewish population in the United States of roughly six million. Granted, such an approach to sampling is standard for surveys of this kind. But there seems to be a concept of sampling error here that is at least sufficient to justify a degree of skepticism about the validity of the research in drawing conclusions about the totality of the American Jewish population. It also bothers me that people were categorized as Ultra-Orthodox or Modern Orthodox or Reform based on self-identification. Because of this, self-identified Reform individuals – for example, a person actively involved in Jewish causes such as Federation or the Jewish National Fund who regularly attends services and classes in his or her Reform temple – will be lumped together with a Jew who might attend a Reform High Holiday service once in several years and is otherwise totally unaffiliated Jewishly.

Similarly, a Jew who drives to an Orthodox synagogue on Shabbat might very well describe himself as Modern Orthodox, but so might a Jew who attends synagogue morning and evening daily and studies Daf Yomi but who considers himself a religious Zionist and attended a secular university.

This confusion of categories can vitiate, or at least call into question, many if not most of the conclusions of the survey.

I can report from my own experience that at a conference in which one of the principal researchers explained the results of the survey, I was seated next to another senior Orthodox Union professional. At one point, we found ourselves asking each other how we would identify ourselves if asked to which category we belonged. Both of us wear dark suits, white shirts, and black hats. Both of us devote many hours a day to serious Torah study and are very stringent about the meat we eat and the milk we drink. But we both believe in the religious significance of the state of Israel, we both have advanced secular degrees, and he, at least, is clean-shaven. Are we Modern or are we Ultra?

He laughed when I told him a reporter once asked me this very question, and when I did not answer, decided to describe me in the article she wrote as “Modern Ultra-Orthodox.”

* * * * *

I also find the survey objectionable on theological grounds and questionable as a tool to better understand human behavior in all of its complexity.

My theological objections first became clear to me when I read an article on the Torah Musings blog written by my dear friend and respected colleague Rabbi Basil Herring.

The article, “The Pew, the Few, and the Many: Rav Soloveitchik on Jewish Numbers,” begins with Rabbi Herring’s translation of a lecture delivered in Yiddish by the Rav in the 1950s. The Rav’s theme can be summarized with these two quotations from his lecture: “God chose us precisely because we were the smallest nation” and “The more there is a numerical strength, the more there is a danger of distortion and falsehood.”

The success of our people depends upon its spirituality, not upon measures of quantity. As Rabbi Herring puts it, “the very emphasis on numbers and size is fundamentally un-Jewish, fully reflect[ing] the Bible’s own antipathy toward census taking.”

We Orthodox Jews dare not take our growth in numbers as evidence of the correctness of our cause or as an excuse for avoiding self-criticism and constructive introspection.

* * * * *

Finally, the survey did not sit well with me because of a perspective on social-science research I learned when I was a graduate student in psychology many years ago. Gordon Allport, a psychological theorist who was popular then, distinguished between two approaches in researching human behavior: nomothetic versus idiographic. Simply put, the former approach studies human beings in terms of statistics. The latter approach attempts to study human beings in terms of their unique individuality.

When we lump Jews into categories, whether those categories are denomination, age, cultural background, or geographic locale, we lose the opportunity to understand the humanity of each and every Jew. We become blind to the uniqueness, complexity, and paradoxes of his or her life.

To illustrate this, I point to some of the findings of the survey that are nothing less than bizarre. For example, the study found that 1 percent of Ultra-Orthodox Jews had a Christmas tree last year and that 4 percent of Modern Orthodox Jews had one. Even more puzzling is the finding that 15 percent of each Orthodox group attends non-Jewish religious services at least a few times a year. I am sure we all find these statistics hard to believe.

When I questioned one of the chief researchers about these peculiar findings, he responded: “You think those findings are bizarre? How about the 5 percent of those who reported themselves to be atheist Jews yet responded positively to the statement, ‘I believe in God with absolute certainty?’ “

If one is interested in numbers, statistics, and percentages, then the Pew survey is a gold mine for speculation about the condition of American Jewry at this point in time. But if one is, as I definitely am, interested in human beings with all their faults and all their glory, then help me find those Orthodox Jews, Modern or Ultra, with Christmas trees in their living rooms last year. Join me in interviewing the Ultra-Orthodox Jew with his beard and peyos, or the Modern Orthodox Jew with his kippah serugah, who regularly attends services at the local mosque or cathedral.

An interview with them would certainly be fascinating and would teach us a lot more than percentages and graphs and charts about the realities of Jews and Judaism in the United States in this day and age.

Assuming, of course, that such people really do exist and that their responses were not simply erroneous.

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