As an illustration of this point, in response to comments on Pew that I posted on a major Jewish website, the retired rabbi of an Orthodox congregation in the South wrote that his “Orthodox congregation has a large and loyal membership. But aside from a handful of old local families, Jewish communal professionals and teachers and kollel members…the overwhelming number of members are not at all observant. Even the lay leadership at the shul are to be found in the best local non-kosher restaurants. Barbeque and seafood are favorites. On the HH [High Holiday] days and a very few Sabbaths of the year, as a non-observant member you can park your car on the surrounding streets, block driveways and then walk a discrete distance to your Orthodox congregation.”
Accordingly, the real attrition rate, meaning people who have been Orthodox in practice but who have abandoned religious life, is far smaller than Pew suggests. This should not be an occasion for smugness within Orthodox ranks. Even if we remove from the Pew data the marginal Orthodox who are not religious in practice, the attrition rate is too high. I believe nearly all of us have had classmates and/or friends and/or relatives raised fully Orthodox who are no longer observant.
Of course, much of this has to do with the openness of American society. The more open or tolerant a society, the greater the capacity for persons to walk away from their roots. The United States is an open and generally tolerant society and it is quite easy for Jews to walk away from any sense of Jewishness and to join the great American melting pot. This is true of other ethnic groups, the single major exception being blacks, for whom race is obviously a powerful barrier against massive assimilation. Every white ethnic group in America has experienced greater assimilation and abandonment than American Jews. But we American Jews are getting there because, as noted, the intermarriage rate for the non-Orthodox in the recent period has been 70 percent.
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Pew also discloses that there is no more than minimal movement toward Orthodoxy among those who were not raised Orthodox. This is another way of saying that the statistics of kiruv are disappointing. Spiritually saving a single Jewish life is a noble achievement. The problem with American kiruv is not that the numbers are small but that the approach is not calculated to bring about good results. Kiruv organizations and activities constantly and intensively focus on fundraising and public relations.
The kiruv data also raise – or should raise – questions about Chabad, which is today a massive presence in American Jewish life. There are hundreds of Chabad institutions, thousands of full-time Chabad workers and hundreds of thousands of American Jews who interact each year with Chabad. If the statistics on Judaic abandonment are correct and the parallel statistics of paltry Jewish kiruv are correct, there needs to be self-examination on the part of Chabad as to what is being achieved.
I am beginning a fourth comprehensive census of yeshivas and day schools in the United States, a project I undertake every five years. In the 1990s, when this research was first undertaken, enrollment in kiruv and immigrant schools was more than double what it is today. At least as telling, there were a fair number of students from marginally observant homes in many yeshivas and day schools. Nowadays there are few such students, as our schools are reluctant to accept students who come from homes that do not meet the expected standard of observance.
Today there is a disconnect between kiruv and chinuch, something I decried in a speech about fifteen years ago at Torah Umesorah. This disconnect has meant that kiruv operates as a separate activity and that chinuch is abandoned as an instrumentality for kiruv. There is no better formula for guaranteeing that kiruv activities will achieve disappointing results.
I have no illusions about the challenges faced by those in kiruv and chinuch. The reality is that even with the best outreach to non-affiliated and marginally observant families, American Jewry is certain to experience overwhelming losses. What is disheartening is that there are families that can be reached and this is not happening, in large measure because of the disconnect between kiruv and chinuch.