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.Rabbi Eliyahu Fink