Sad, Not Stunning

The Baltimore Jewish Times calls them “stunning:” the results of the new demographic survey commissioned by the Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore. They highlight both the tremendous growth of the observant community and the decline of heterodoxy, with numbers too powerful to ignore. While they should come as little surprise to us, they are a distress call. They indicate that we are not doing enough.

Twenty-one years ago, the first National Jewish Population Survey alarmed the Jewish world: half of Jews married since 1985 had chosen a non-Jewish partner (see p. 20). It also reported that while 25% of active Jews were raised Orthodox, only 6.6% of Jews remained so (p. 16). [The Orthodox cried undercount; much of the data was collected on Shabbos.]

The high percentage raised Orthodox, but no longer observant, was the tragic consequence of the lack of day schools – but the “ex-Orthodox” still identified as Jews. Less than 6% of those who (r”l) chose another religion or atheism were raised Orthodox (also p. 16). Other denominations were serving as waystations for departure from the Jewish people.

Federations responded by pouring resources into “Jewish continuity,” plastering these words upon everything from modern Israeli dance to ecology retreats. In their eyes, Orthodoxy was a vestige rather than the solution. The “Jewish Outreach Institute” was formed – not for Kiruv, but to attract non-Jewish partners to Judaism. Intermarriage was recast as a blessing in disguise: if these couples would decide to both be Jews, the population would grow.

A second survey was performed in 2000, and found that 13% of all respondents were Orthodox (p. 6) – doubling in just 10 years. Moreover, the Orthodox were 23% of all children. Federation analysts highlighted that twice as many Jews were raised Orthodox (20%) as were Orthodox adults (10%) (ibid., p. 7), and failed to discern both the vast improvement and its meaning: the younger generations, products of the day-school movement, remained Orthodox – prompting recognition of a crisis for heterodoxy that had existed all along.* The results also pronounced the Sunday/supplementary schooling received by most non-Orthodox children essentially worthless, and discerned little or no results from the “continuity” and “outreach” efforts of the previous decade.

Yet nothing changed. Additional money flooded into programs with no known impact. After a decade during which the Satmar system alone added nearly 100 classrooms, Orthodox population growth was dismissed as statistical error. Some finally recognized the Orthodox undercount of 1990, but imagined that this alone accounted for the increase, while Brandeis researchers concluded that the non-Orthodox were undercounted in 2000.

What is remarkable about the new Baltimore survey is not the results, but the pollsters’ acknowledgment that there are only two relevant “denominations.” There is little practical difference between Conservative, Reform, or unaffiliated.

Orthodoxy is flourishing. 87% of Orthodox adults under 35 are married (all to Jews)(p.8), families are large, and their population has grown by over 50% in ten years.1

Heterodoxy, though, is imploding. Only 15% of non-Orthodox adults are married, and 42% of those have intermarried (p. 57). In intermarried homes, only 30% of children are being raised exclusively as Jews, and less than 50% as Jewish at all (ibid, p. 60). Continuity efforts have failed, as the problem is worse not better: the non-Orthodox Baltimore population declined by over 10% during the decade.2

Michael Hoffman of the Associated talks about the opportunity “to figure out what’s next.” Shmuel Rosner opines that Baltimore isn’t “the future of American Jewry” in the Jerusalem Post. And as for the Jewish Outreach Institute, it sees “an amazing opportunity to increase the number of families making Jewish choices” – because so few families have already made them.

We, on the other hand, already saw the trends and know where this is leading – and we have the answer. Do we, as a community, feel the achrayus, the responsibility, to do all we can for our fellow Jews – now, before it is too late?

This article originally appeared in Ami Magazine, Feb. 2

* Rampant intermarriage among the 2nd and succeeding non-Orthodox generations is as old as Mendelssohn’s own family. American Judaism of the late 19th Century was almost entirely Reform, and numbered roughly 1.5 million Jews, yet very few Jews today can trace their lineage back to the Reform Jews of that era. In the past, though, this phenomenon was hidden by the constant influx of newly ex-Orthodox Jews.
1 This is true both within the Orthodox community internally, as well as a percentage of Baltimore’s Jewish total. The survey records 93,400 Jews as +2% from 1999. That would mean that in 1999 there were 91,500 Jews, of whom 21%, or 19,200 were Orthodox, vs. 32% of 93,400, or 29,900, today.
2 Determined by subtracting the Orthodox number from the total, as per the data in the previous footnote.

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14 Responses

  1. dr. bill says:

    2 minor points. 1) Recognition that it was binary – orthodox and non-orthodox – was made in the famous 1969 Commentary issue. A remarkably prescient observation back then. 2) Comparisons to Mendelssohn are often misleading. Given the successful emergence of what might be called modern/centrist orthodoxy, there is now a community to which those with Mendelssohn’s views can belong. In his day the ability to be both modern and orthodox was not even in its infancy. It would take a number of generations for Hildesheimer and Hirsch to establish German modern orthodoxy. Before then, efforts were nascent and generations were lost.

  2. Ellen says:

    The Baltimore statistics are not at all surprising for those of us who have always believed that anecdotal evidence of Jewish population trends is a lot more accurate than the telephone surveys that Jewish Federations have been basing their funding priorities on for decades. Telephone surveys always undercount the most religious and most nonmainstream population in any population group. That is why no one can get an accurate figure for the Muslim population of America even after 45 years of immigration.

    However, the bigger issue, as pointed out above, is that secular Jewish organizations for years used their undercounted proportions for the Orthodox and their lack of anecdotal knowledge of what was going on in the traditional community to justify warped funding priorities – supporting any half-baked “continuity” initiative rather than giving more funding to day schools. Now, it’s quite clear that 2-day a week Hebrew school does nothing for anyone’s Jewish identity. This was known 40 years ago, by the way. But a secular Jewish leadership was unwilling to draw the most obvious conclusion, ie, that secular Jewishness is shallow and trivial and nonsustainable in an open society.

    It’s about time that the secular leadership was retired away altogether, and a religious Jewish leadership was allowed to formulate the future of the American Jewish community, including what remains of the Conservative movement. I wouldn’t write off the Conservadox, by the way. Much of the growth in Orthodoxy comes from Conservative dropouts. But Jewish organizations that essentially believe in nothing more than secularism and liberalism should just become secular liberal organizations with secular liberal members, and leave Jewish life to those who truly care about it and don’t use it as a vehicle for promoting other ideologies.

  3. Alan S. says:

    Why do you bill it that “we” aren’t doing enough?

    Why does blame for the implosion of the non-Orthodox – who are all thinking adults – lie at the feet of the Orthodox?

  4. Ori says:

    Ellen: But Jewish organizations that essentially believe in nothing more than secularism and liberalism should just become secular liberal organizations with secular liberal members, and leave Jewish life to those who truly care about it and don’t use it as a vehicle for promoting other ideologies.

    Ori: This explains it. There is no point, from the perspective of those secular Jewish organizations, in perpetuating a different form of Judaism from the one that they follow.

  5. dovid 2 says:

    We keep harping on the shortfalls of the secular segment of the Jewish population and their organizations and agencies. We know their shortfalls. In light of the growing numbers of the Haredim within Eretz Israel and the Jewish community in Chutz La’Aretz, and the prospect of gaining the majority within our lifetime, how about dwelling on taking greater responsibility for (1) supporting ourselves and (2) for defending Eretz Israel? If we don’t take the initiative in assuming a greater slice of these areas, in ways that are compatible with our Torah outlook, the secular segment of the Jewish world will force us to do it anyway in their terms because they are still the majority and control the government.

  6. Michoel says:

    The %15 married below 35 stat is absolutley chilling. That means about that at most %10 of halachically Jewish women stand to bare Jewish children that have a halachically Jewish father. And that is assuming that the large majority of those women want and are able to have childen. We should all tear kriyah of this. We are quite litterally witnessing the disapperance of non-Orthodox Klal Yisroel.

  7. Mike S. says:

    I went to a serious afterschool and Sunday Talmud Torah (of a sort I am not sure still exists) until graduating high school and it laid a foundation for a lifetime (well, at least as much of it as I have lived so far) of learning and observance. I am not certain that the community has correctly sorted out whether the lack of success the format generally had was because of the format or because the families of so many who were sent to such schools were not really serious about Jewish education. Given the pressures funding full private education places so many families under, I wonder if a serious Orthodox Talmud Torah (say 2 hours an afternoon 4 days a week plus Sunday for an increasing period as the students get older) with real homework should be tried as a way of reducing the financial burden on so many families. I share the unease of experimenting with children’s futures, but I also see that getting one’s children’s secular education at taxpayer expense would make paying a more limited tuition for limudei kodesh possible for many families that now send kids to public school and teach them Torah as best the parents are able because day school is unaffordable for them.

  8. Bob Miller says:

    If the vast majority of today’s non-Orthodox Jews have a hazy knowledge of Judaism and Jewish peoplehood, and some even oppose one or both of these, what could possibly make them want to fund Orthodox activities? If they won’t, the Orthodox need to become more self-sufficient.

  9. Ellen says:

    Dovid 2,

    We know their shortfalls ( I was raised that way, by the way), but they have rarely been openly discussed in an honest way, and certainly not in our Jewish newspaper world, until now, when the secular population is literally just disappearing from communal life, so it’s OK to say their type of Jewishness was a failure, because they are not around to hear it anyway.

    But, I might point out, many of the secular organizations still survive as hollow shells (klipot, if you will) with almost no living membership, but with substantial endowments. I used to work for one, so I know. The income from the endowments of these shell organizations could support many, many day schools and lower tuition for middle class parents. That is why the failure of secular Jewishness must be stated over and over again. Who will inherit the large endowments of these dying organizations? But yes you are right, the Orthodox organizations and people must become active in general Jewish organizations (those that deserve to survive) to make sure that the Jewish community of the future will have the right priorities.

  10. Steve Brizel says:

    Unfortunately, most demographic studies that are commissioned in the heterodox world either don’t consider the Charedi and MO worlds or view them as portraying an insufficiently broad definition of Jewish identity. As long the heterodox world refuses to accept that Torah, Avodah and Gmilus Chasadim are the bread and butter of “Jewish continuity”, we will see more communal dollar spent on more polls and studies that reach similar conclusions.

  11. mycroft says:

    Sadly one cannot extrapolate Baltimore figures to the US as a whole. Baltimore since at least the time of Rabbi Rice has been much more Orthodox than the country as a whole. TA in baltimore was founded just after WW1-the first Jewish HS outside of New York.
    If one goes to far larger Jewish communities than Baltimore one will find vast areas with much less than 10% Orthodox. The 3rd largest Jewsih community of the US is in Palm Beach County by itself-what percent Orthodox do you find there? What percent in Broward County the 5th largest by itself of a Jews in that community.
    “Orthodoxy is flourishing. 87% of Orthodox adults under 35 are married (all to Jews”

    If they were marriedto non Jews they would not ber Orthodox-of interest is how many of our children who attended Orthodox day schools/Yeshivot are married to nan Jews-still a small percentage-but at least as high as the percentage of Jews in general in the US who were marriedto non Jews 90 years ago.

  12. Charlie Hall says:

    I see little in the survey that is good. Yes, more identify as Orthodox, but fewer are attending a Pesach seder, fewer are lighting Chanukah candles, fewer are fasting on Yom Kippur. We Orthodox remain fervent but we are losing the rest of the Jewish world.

  13. Micha Berger says:

    Baltimore’s experience is typical. See this article from The Forward: “Liberal Denominations Face Crisis as Rabbis Rebel, Numbers Shrink“.

  1. March 14, 2011

    […] one reader already noted, some aspects of this article jibe very well with the Baltimore data. Share It: Category: Jewish Media, Jewish World, Judaism, Religion, Short var zflag_nid="794"; […]

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