Off the Derech: Are We Retaining Our Youth?
Yesterday, at the end of a post criticizing Yossi Beilin’s call for new methods to “enable non-religious non-Jews to become non-religious Jews,” I made the following closing remarks:
Like many others, Beilin has forgotten the cardinal rule of customer service known to every business owner: client retention is far less expensive and far more profitable than client acquisition. Your first priority must always be retaining what you have.
And no one in the Jewish community—American or otherwise—is succeeding at retention, save the Orthodox.
I’ve since received two comments from individuals arguing that the Orthodox are not, in fact, succeeding in this area. We are not retaining our youth, they argue, because so many are at risk or dropping out.
My impression is that as great as the phenomenon of youth going “off the derech” might appear to be, it is being blown out of proportion. Using multiple quasi-random samplings of people and families I know personally, my estimation of the incidence of “going off” in the charedi community remains at under 2% of children. This is far too many, to be certain, but 98% would be considered an outstanding retention rate in any business. We would be proud of a number like that, were not every Jewish neshama (soul) so important, and every affected family not suffering so tremendously.
It is also worth pointing out that a high percentage of ex-Orthodox Jews still marry other Jews. By community standards, most of our so-called “drop-outs” are still “retained.” In fact, a great number of them “come back” to whatever degree, once they pass through young adulthood and settle down. The percentage of teens engaging in behavior of which parents wouldn’t approve is probably no higher than outside our circles — it’s just that in our community, the expected standard of behavior is such that “hanging out” is already in the “unapproved” category, and those not following community standards are much more visible.
Finally, Ezzie’s reference to a “very slight offset thanks to baalei tshuva” vastly undercuts, in my opinion, the importance of the BT phenomenon. Similar measures to those used above lead me to believe that Baalei Teshuvah represent perhaps 20% of the adult charedi population in Baltimore.
My suspicion is that while Ezzie may be overreacting to our community’s intense reaction to the dropout phenomenon, our numbers are genuinely different as well — he and I are part of two very different Orthodox communities. My understanding is that there are more Modern Orthodox leaving Orthodoxy, although that is by even less formal methods than those I used above.
I propose this to readers (and fellow C-C writers) as a thought experiment, in any case. Take a list of known Orthodox business associates, neighbors in a certain radius, or other measure — what percentage have a family member leaving our community, and what percentage are BTs? What sort of community do you live in — and do you believe that has any bearing on your observed data?
OK-try this thought experiment. If historically your estimates were representative, what percentage of the world’s population should now be Jewish? If we’re better at it now, how does that square with the view that we’re at a lower level than previous generations?
Now how about this thought experiment – if we really wanted to know the answer, why not commission an impartial survey? Oh, you think people might not honestly answer that they have family members off the derech because it might hurt the chances of a shidduch? Or perhaps we might not like the answers? What about people who go off the derech internally but play the part so as to stay in the community?
The book off the derech was not particularly scientific but it points to an issue that we might want to get our arms around as a community rather than ponder anecdotal information.
May we all find our way home soon.
“My impression is that as great as the phenomenon of youth going “off the derech” might appear to be, it is being blown out of proportion.”
The point is that for every frum kid that officially drops out there are others who are otherwise spirituallly unavailable. So even though from a sociological point of view, we may be in fact “retaining” a high degree, if you consider the unprecendted robustness of 2006 frum societal infrastructuure, it would shocking if we didn’t retain this many. What is more important to take note of is that there IS a significant percentage (I see it in my own neighborood) who do drop out.
“Take a list of known Orthodox business associates, neighbors in a certain radius, or other measure—what percentage have a family member leaving our community”
To your point I do not see many completely dropping out. Thoough I would say that out of every 100 families there are probably 8 to 10 whose kids appear to be struggling mightily with frumkeit.
“and what percentage are BTs?”
This is a trick question. The question shuold be, what percentage have become BT’s through the community. The fact a minute percentage of overall jews has been converted over by schools in israel and happen to be living in the community, doesn’t speak to the rate of change.
By the way, if you applied your experiment – the way you articulated it – to Flatbush, I think you would find a MUCH higher percntage of kids dropping out than BT’s living there.
I suggest you check out this post by Charlie Hall (based on others’ posts) from a while back: Dropouts.
You were right with one estimate and wrong with the other:
Raised Orthodox and currently Jewish: 587,000
Currently Orthodox: 240,000
Currently non-Orthodox: 347,000
Raised Jewish and currently Orthodox: 297,000
Raised Orthodox: 240,000
Raised non-Orthodox: 57,000
You are right to estimate that about 20% of the Orthodox population is made up of BTs. But that number pales in comparison to the amount of people going “off the derech” on a regular basis.
I’m actually wondering why you estimated 2%. Assuming an average of 5 children per family, you are claiming that just one child in ten families has a child off the derech; I would say that 3 or 4 of ten do, with some families having multiple kids who “go off”. I’d have guessed that somewhere closer to 15-20% of kids “go off”; my elementary school is generally very highly regarded, yet I can think of 5-6 in my grade that are no longer religious (out of 27).
I wisj I could agree with Rabbi Menken. Baltimore has always been a very Orthodox community-the percentage is many times that of Philadelphia, and Washington. In fact, except for obvious cities like Lakewood-it probably has the highest percentage of Orthodox Jews in the US.
It is undisputed that Orthodox Jews in general have a very high amount of children compared to the rest of the popoulation–yet according to population figures the amount of Ortho Jews is only marginally greater than those in 1970.
Then there is my esrog analysis-a few years ago about 170,000 esrogim were imported into the US–for better or worse –essentially all post 13 males in the US get their own esrogim, some kids do, there is some unused-I\’ve bought my esrog less than a couple of hours before Succot-and the vendors have many left over, there are even a small amount gought by Conservative Jews–what does that tellu s about the amount of Ortho Jews.
There is slippage. The BT movement is overratede in terms of numbers–one must treat each person as if the whole world is dependent on him–but since we are discussing numbers I believe the US % of those more religious than their parents according to the Barry Kosmin analysis is aless than 1%.
Use Victor Gelller\’s analysis of the number of schuls going down each decade from at least 1940-1990.
My anecdotal experience is different than yours-looking around at those who go to minyan regularly a high percentage have kids who are not frum.
I dormed in a Yeshiva HS–a decent percentage today decades later are not Shomer Shabbos.
Kids and adults are being pushed off the derech. Kids generally that by raising the bar–we are telling those who are not geniuses they don\’t belong–an example is day schools/Yeshivot the Principals don\’t want to keep those who are not future Rav Rudermans–my way or the highway. Adult populations there is a big economic cost to Yahadus in the US–how can the average person afford to pay Yeshiva tuition. BTW my cost for 1 in a local Yeshiva HS next year including fees etc is close to 20K — most Jews can\’t afford it.
Joel Rich wrote: >
Are you saying that our percentage of world population is low because of drop-outs over the years? I imagine I’m misunderstanding you because surely you’re not unaware of pogroms and massacres over the centuries, to say nothing of the Holocaust? Additionally, G-d informed us right from the get-go that we would always be the smallest of nations (in Devorim, “ki atem ha-me’at mekol ho-amim”)
The problem is that we don’t have any good statistics in this area, at least that I’m aware of, Thus, we’re down to this duel of anecdotes, which is not really going to sway either party very much. In spite of that, let me give it a shot.
I was in high school not _so_ long ago, and there is only one guy from my class of 20 who isn’t observant, that I’m aware of. As R’ Menken pointed out, a lot of these guys find themselves after high school. Blaming the community for them being typical teenagers is misguided, IMHO.
The 8%-10% figure in Baltimore is definitely way overblown, in my own admittedly anecdotal experience. I used to hang out in the “off the derech” circle from time to time (I knew many of them from NCSY and other organizations), and 10% sounds much too high. This was maybe 35-40 people, max, and considering their still high level of Jewish involvement, pointing to them as where things are going wrong in the Jewish world is a bit laughable – they had levels of Jewish involvement to make others denominations jealous.
Maybe other communities have it worse; I don’t know. But, this is a problem on a community level, and I need to whole-heartedly agree with R’ Menken that the Baltimore community does exceedingly well at this one. I would also agree with his assertion
Joel: I do think that “off the derech internally” is something you can’t measure, and using it to account for all those missing people from your argument is a bit silly. As for his historical estimates, I must have missed those, because he said nothing about historical birth rates or whatever. 98% of 100 and 98% of 1000 are two different end numbers, yet the same success rate.
-DMZ (apparently famous from this month’s JA!)
“I would also agree with his assertion” that the MO have a much bigger problem with this, although on a sliding scale.
Number One: I too don’t know a ton of people or children of people who have dropped-out of Orthodoxy. However, those I know who have dropped out are from various sub-groups of Orthodoxy including Satmar, Yeshiva Families, Chabad, and Modern Orthodox Families. I know or know of drop-outs and strugglers from Rabbinic families and Baalebatish families. So, I don’t think it is fair to declare the problem overblown based on anecdotal evidence alone: My suspicion is that while Ezzie may be overreacting to our community’s intense reaction to the dropout phenomenon, our numbers are genuinely different as well—he and I are part of two very different Orthodox communities. My understanding is that there are more Modern Orthodox leaving Orthodoxy, although that is by even less formal methods than those I used above..
On a related note, there may well be a larger problem in certain communities that is not present in other communities to the same extend for a variety of reasons. So, just because Ezzie sees the issues in a different light than you, does not mean that you are in different types of communities (KGH and Baltimore are more similiar than different IMO), but that you are in different locals.
Number 2: While I have not read Off the Derech or Unchosen yet, I have read enough reviews to see that some of the issues brought up in the books resonate with even the most observant among us. While some of these issues may not be driving me away, I harbor no illusions that these issues may prove to be very challenging for my own children. And, therefore, I don’t think it is wise to dismiss these publications out of hand and declare quite yet (with only anecdotal evidence) that the issues raised are really only minor, minor issues.
I think that part of the problem is how to define ‘going off the derech’. Each neighborhood and / or sub-group probably has their own definition, and those are probably very subjective. Behavior that I might consider to be quite acceptable could bew considered ‘off the derech’ by, say, a chassidic family. Some of my children have hashkafic views that are a little to the left of mine; some of them are a little to the right. Are either of these ‘off the derech’ if they all still daven 3 times a day, put on tefillin, eat completely kosher, learn, etc?
We should define our terms before considering annecdotal evidence.
http://www.cross-currents.com/archives/2006/07/04/off-the-derech-are-we-retaining-our-youth/#comment-61283 Sarah questions my thought experiment
Your 2nd point is that HKB”H keeps us small by these measures?
Your 1st point is that those who died al kiddush hashem in Pogroms and massacres have been the primary reason we are not a significantly larger percentage (if you take the %’s in the post and the average family size and project forward our numbers would be growing exponentially)? I might agree if you include those who went off the derech due to these influences but I don’t think (iirc) the actual numbers bear you out (what % of the world population was Jewish before the churban?)
http://www.cross-currents.com/archives/2006/07/04/off-the-derech-are-we-retaining-our-youth/#comment-61287 DMZ questions my actuarial mathematics
Off the derech internally was a side comment although it likely results in descendants going off the derech. See the rest of my post concerning the 98%- are we better now than in the past and why? If not, then using the 98% would imply there should be a lot more of us now than there are.
Think about this as a possible example, if we’re more successful now because times are relatively good (i.e. there’s less of a cost to being frum now than ever before) and we rest on our laurels, then R”L if times get bad, we’ll have not built the hard core as individuals and groups to stay the course and history could R”L repeat itself.
WADR, Off The Derech, despite its unscientific methods but novel and important contributions to this issue, concluded that the phenomenon crosses all hashkafic labels. I would hesitate to conclude that any community in particular is either immune or relatively free from this problem.
We should define our terms before considering annecdotal evidence.
I think the only good measure of OTD is if a person is no longer Shomer Shabbat. All of my “evidence” was for non-Shomer Shabbat people.
“the only good measure of OTD is if a person is no longer Shomer Shabbat”
how would you classify an HFB (heimish from birth) person with a Torah-true upbringing starts using the Flatbush eruv?
Jewish Observer-How your you classify a Chassid who starts eating Chalav Stam?
With such measurements, the ranks of OTD are bound to swell (except perhaps in the very modern Orthodox from birth who are now FTP-Frummer Than Parents).
The At Risk phenomenon, the better known name for kids going off the derech is not a business to be calculated; and when you determine the percentage of kids coming back have you taken into consideration how many died before they had the opportunity to be reached and turned around? This is not to be taken LIGHTLY in any forum. Kids at risk and Parents at risk of losing their children is a tremendous issue and yes this needs to be addressed as seriously as Kiruv for Baalei Teshuva.
Systems can and should be put into place and practice to catch the signs early and to avoid this from happening. Teacher training and more Shalom Bayis training are in order. More efforts and lectures on keeping families together and “Marriages are not disposable” should be addressed. Putting your chiildren at the top of your priority lists and making time for them in regard to raising them, homework, play time, family time, etc. needs to be addressed. Looking for the good and talents Hashem bestowed on each child needs to be addressed. How much each child can learn and how much each child needs in recreation, sports, arts and music needs to be addressed.
Each and every one of us as Jewish Adults must realize that we are Role Models for our Jewish Youth. They watch us carefully and when they see hipocricy in us, they turn away. That is what turns them off. We must be the best Jews we can be so they can follow our lead.
We have to stop trying to shove every square peg into round holes. Each neshomo is an individual gem and we have to learn to recognize that. Stop accepting “drop outs” to the religion as a fact. It doesn’t have to be.
Regardless of the retention level within Orthodoxy in absolute or relative terms, there is room for improvement. Also, more of those who stay should be doing so for the right reasons, allegiance to HaShem and commitment to His Torah, and not social pressure or inertia.
Drawing attention to possibly differing retention rates among various Orthodox groups seems like a waste of time, since the people already belong to one group or another.
These are all guesstimates, but I think its pretty absurd to think that only two out of a hundred Orthodox Jews from birth leave Orthodoxy. If average Orthodox families have four or five kids, shouldn’t our population be doubling, tripling and simply exploding if only 2% don’t stick around? Our population is growing, but certainly isn’t exploding.
Anecdotally, when people go “off the derech” from Orthodoxy they tend to fade away, out of sight, out of mind, from the POV of those in the community. I wonder if R. Menken can really account for 100 out of 100 people he knows by family to know for certain that 98 of them remained haredi. Does he really know the matzav with every kid, every older child who long since moved out or every sibling who comes for yom tov, even though he wears a yarmulke when he’s with the folks?
That said, R. Menken is probably right that people brought up Orthodox are far more likely to marry other Jews than people who were not.
“Jewish Observer-How your you classify a Chassid who starts eating Chalav Stam?”
– one step away from YU
“If average Orthodox families have four or five kids, shouldn’t our population be doubling, tripling and simply exploding if only 2% don’t stick around? Our population is growing, but certainly isn’t exploding.”
S.–If we assume that 5 children per family translates to 3% population growth per year, that means that our population should double every 25 years or so just from natural growth.
How do we know that’s not true? Can someone post some statistics on number of frum people in 1980 vs. right now?
From anecdotal evidence it seems to me that our community is indeed exploding, i.e. Lakewood, Teaneck and the incredible growth of Flatbush-Midwood area. This is all subjective perception though. Does anyone have some hard numbers?
The at-risk question, from a communal level, should look at how many people are staying ON (really on, internally as well as externally) because of who we are as a community, and how many go off for the same reason. There are always unique individual sitations, conflicts in the home, abberrant behavior, that can cause kids to go off. What should be addressed, though is are we setting up a sustainable model of a community that will encourage ‘regular’ kids and adults to stay on.
I became frum ‘because’ of my genuine, sincere, unsophisticated & warm out-of-town community. Now, I stay frum ‘despite’ my in-town community. Hipocrasy, emphasis on externals, huge housing & tuition expenses, and constant judgement and frummer-than-thou are things I hope I can teach my kids have nothing to do with Judaism or Hashem, but rather, only our imperfect implementation of His Torah in Galus. If our Torah leaders could openly admit the same, I think such honesty would bode well for conflicted kids with strong personalities to rise up & lead, as opposed to dropping out.
“Hipocrasy, emphasis on externals, huge housing & tuition expenses, and constant judgement and frummer-than-thou”
Why don’t you tell us how you really feel? Don’t you think you left out a few things in your sentence? Do you really have nothing at all positive to say about the community you live in? I’ve lived “in” and “out” of town and see both positives and negatives in both. Are you SO judgemental as to see nothing at all worthwhile in your community that you are only “staying frum despite” it?
Methinks you will need to teach your kids how to find good in people if you expect them to really implement His Torah in the proper manner. Widespread dismissal of a community that has many positive aspects is not a good model to set for them.
Interesting responses – I, too, feel like the baalei teshuva movement is perhaps a bit overcounted in terms of current growth.
As for the numbers, the major problem is the self-identification of Orthodoxy. We’re talking about people who are shomer Shabbos (correct?), yet there’s no such qualification in that report. You will have no trouble finding people who claim they were raised Orthodox, yet drove to shul and ate traife. It briefly discusses observance level, but there is no actual data on, say, electricity usage on Shabbos. Ergo, its relevance to our current discussion of “are we retaining our youth” is somewhat less than I think certain people wish. Personally, I’d like to see some data _by age group_ of people raised Orthodox and what they’re doing now.
Of course, labels stink, which is why we need that better criterion of “what you do defines you”.
Please excuse me for saying so, but I think this is the type of Judgmental Jew, Southern Belle was talking about. The sharp tongued, quick witted, sarcastic quick to comment without taking into account the pain behind the words. We have become a society of Judgmental Jews, and it is not our place to Judge, that is Hashem’s job alone. I am sure it was not easy for Southern Belle to post her comment, but you chose to ignore the meaning of her words and only picked out what you deemed offensive and what you could pick on without hearing her broken heart behind her powerful message.
When a person comes back to Yiddishkeit, with true emunah and kavonah,it is truly painful to see what FFB take for granted. When BT’s make a committment to take upon themselves the mitzvos and abide by them with purity of heart and soul, it is very disconcerting to see hypocricy in FFB. This is what our youth sees as well, and this is what turns them off the derech.
You are right — I should have reread my post before hitting send. I am not saying those negatives are all that are there, but the more complex and impersonal a community, and the more people are relating on an institutional and communal level rather than as individuals, the more likely that one runs up against the negatives without them being mitigated by the positives. This is very hard for young people who are idealists, who dont fit into the prevailing ‘mold,’ or who simply tend to push boundaries. If such a person sees a bad midda or problem with a person, thats just one person. with good attributes and bad. Its when those issues are more widespread, systemic (or even that they just feel that way to the person, especially a child), and they seem to be hushed or that everyone goes along with them, that can lead to the problems discussed in this post. A positive focus is key, as you said. So is positive leadership.
As a student in biostatistics and epidemiology both of which concern surveys and their conduct I feel I ought to point out the incredible difficulty of defining this problem and studying it. Im unaware of any thorough studies of the phenemomenon of being off the derech. The first issue is of course that we need a defintion of OTD. Does it mean lack of tznius, hanging out, no longer shomer shabbos, eating a cold salad in a non kosher resteraunt. Obviously deciding which if any of these defines being OTD is important. A second factor is of course that there are lots of people who lack emunah who go through the motions because it makes them or their family comfortable how do we account for these people, is it even possible? Thirdly, it is necessary to consider where we would survey as has been mentioned here there are numerous different types of Orthodox communities in this country so how would we pick. Clearly I dont think we have nearly enough data to make comprehensive recommendations about the problem, thus we are stuck doing what we can and counseling those people we do know to be at risk.
I’ll respond to your sentiments in a later post schedule permitting.
Believe me, I understand your difficulties in relating to the “in town” community. I grew up there and go back often and I left it [for good?] when I moved my family out of town almost 15 years ago. Certainly one who hasn’t grown up there and is used to out of town mentality will have a harder time appreciating it. However, I caution you not to allow yourself to get overwhelmed by the negativity because there is a HUGE amount of positive that goes on there as well [and in many ways far more than what an out of town community can offer]. Consider the chessed organizations, the availablity of shuls, the incredible people that reside there, the amount of Torah study and shiurim etc…You must also consider the fact that depending on which section of NY you live in, you’re dealing with a different type of Chareidi Jew. There are Chassidim, Litvaks, MO, etc.
After years of living out of town, I am more certain than ever that I don’t want to move back, yet I have learned to appreciate that community more than I ever did as well.
There are places that are right for us and places that are right for someone else. Every place has its place.
The discussion to date has been enormously rich and varied. Rather than trying to respond to various comments, I would simply like to share my experience.
In my shul of about 300 families in Teaneck NJ (a “Yeshiva University” bastion), approximately 40% of the families have at least 1 parent who was not born Orthodox. I don’t know if that is accurate for the other shuls in Teaneck (which combine for an additional 1,700 plus families), but I believe that at a minimum their rate would be at least half ours. That is very impressive in terms of kiruv’s impact.
In terms of youth, for 10 years I directed our shul’s teen youth program, which had large numbers of participants from other Orthodox shuls in Teaneck as well as about 8-10% of our total participants from non-Orthodox families. My experience is that in terms of kids from Orthodox families a 2-3% rate of dropout is accurate. (Our high school division averaged about 120 participants, and our junior high school division averaged about 60. The high school division was much larger due to including students over 4 years rather than 3, and because at that level we had far more participants not members of our shul.)
Every single one who went “off the derekh” was a tragedy in terms of Chazal’s statement that “each person is a complete universe”, a perspective that we took extremely seriously. On the other hand, 97-98% retention is not bad from a “communal statistics” perspective.
In terms of the book “Off the Derekh”, which I have read carefully, I think that the author is impessively comprehensive in terms of identifying the full range of factors that can lead to going “off the derekh”, structures them in the proper order of significance, and offers excellent advice as to helping youth find genuine fulfillment in Yahadut, not just a mechanical or rote observance. Growth, not inertia.
We did many of the things that she suggests, and they were extremely helpful in helping teens, including many troubled teens, to grow into religious health-not just avoid overt signs of disaffection.
I agree that we don’t have sound statistical data on Orthodoxy in America as a whole, but I would suggest that real growth in the Orthodox population has been masked by at least 2 factors:
1. A serious undercount of Orthodox Jews, particularly Charedim.
2. Confusing very weakly Orthodox families of the past (many of whom were indistinguishable from Conservative Jews in terms of actual observance and educational levels) with a much more committed current population. Self-identification as “Orthodox” through the 1970s included huge numbers of people who were not terribly observant at all, but may have belonged to Orthodox institutions. These “nominally Orthodox” were light-years away from the current population in commitment and educational levels, and the 2 populations should not be confused.
Finally, an anecdote of my own. My wife has 30 Charedi first cousins (about half Ashkenazi and half Sephardi), only 1 of whom is not Shomer Shabbat (and he keeps kosher and married a Jew). All the others, who are married and have children (many children) of their own, are fully Charedi, as are all of their children (many of whom are also married). Multiply that by 3, and you come out with about a 3% drop out rate, with the drop outs still being Jewishly identified at a much higher level than the vast majority of non-Orthodox Jews.
Rabbi Chaim Frazer
I think you need to remember that dropout rates have changed a lot over time. I would guess that among pre-WWI Jewish immigrants to the US the dropout rate was well over 90%. Between WWI and WWII the dropout rate was very high. There were also many dropouts in the Survivor generation. Since then, I think that dropout rates have gotten much better. Today, I see very few children of Shomer Shabbos parents in my parents’ generation who aren’t Shomer Shabbos.
The Jewish Press a couple of years ago carried the number 6.9% for kids at risk.
And, as already noted, the NJPS survey found that most people who were raised Orthodox and aren’t Orthodox today are older — ie the trend isn’t recent.
Dr Luchens (of Touro and of NCSY) commented at an NCSY alumni Shabbaton that the number of Shabbos observant Jews has grown from 550k to nearly 650k in the past 50 years, but the number of Orthodox affiliated Jews shrunk from 1.2mm to roughly the same 650K. In other words, we have a small increase in the number of Shabbos observant Jews at the expense of many more who no longer think they’re supposed to be Shabbos observant.
This outflux was mostly in the years from 1920 to the 60s and early 70s, and not a current trend. And the unobservant O affiliated aren’t of anyone we would consider Orthodox or are likely to bump into. So they don’t show up in anecdotal testimony.
On the other hand, current growth is far greater than that 6.9%. Nor do all of the 6.9% stay off the derekh — but I also do not know how many leave after adolescence. It’s certainly far less than birth rate and “immigration” (BTs), enough to recoup the actual observant departures and then some.
The trend is young, numbers didn’t add up yet.
But trends aren’t worth much. If we were having this conversation a generation ago, we would be working with the assumption that there would ch”v be no Orthodox community left… Things are likely to change before those numbers add up. Hopefully for the better. Hopefully with NO Jews in the US, since we all followed that regal looking guy with the white donkey…