The NY Population Study and R. Yisrael Salanter’s Horses

Mixed emotions are best conveyed by an imaginary of scenario of watching your sworn enemy go over the side of a cliff in your new Lotus. R. Akiva had to contend with worse. When he met up with the wife of Tyrannus Rufus (Avodah Zarah 20A), he laughed, cried, and spat, satisfying three – not two – concurrent emotional needs. We might take a page from his playbook in reacting to the UJA-Federation New York population study.

R. Akiva laughed, because he foresaw that one day she would become his wife. We can likewise take some pleasure in the vindication of our prognostications for decades that the heterodox movements were doomed to self-destruct, while Orthodoxy would grow by leaps and bounds. The study shows an erosion of both numbers (40,000 lost to both Reform and Conservative between 2002 and 2011) and religious observance. On the other hand, 40% of the respondents saw themselves as Orthodox; a whopping 74% of Jewish children in New York are now Orthodox. The other movements, as predicted, are not marrying, or deferring marriage, or marrying out and then having 1.3 children (and a dog); the Orthodox marry, marry Jewish, and are fruitful and multiply as if they believed it were a Biblical mandate.

R. Akiva cried, because he understood that her beauty was ephemeral. She would die and decay, like everyone else. The study gives us no real cause for celebration. We are witnessing the decimation of the ranks of acheinu Bnei Yisrael, and have no way to stop it. It is the end of the line for tens of thousands of Yidden – lines that wended their way through thousands of years of persecution and mesiras nefesh, only to wither on the vine. The thinning of our ranks will have, at least according to the natural order of things, disastrous consequences on the quality of Jewish life in this country for us survivors. (It becomes easier each day to see the Hand of G-d nudging us closer to the Aliyah office.) We have become comfortable in this galus – undoubtedly too comfortable. Part of that comfort derives from the huge, positive impact that Jews have had on general society, which makes us richly networked and valuable to our neighbors. But it hasn’t been the Orthodox who built that power base. As the heterodox continue to disappear, the importance of Jews in America – and hence their influence – will decline. This, in times of stress, will tend to make life here gradually less comfortable.

Most importantly, the study should not lead us to rejoice, because it does not put Torah in a very positive light. One in four of those Jewish New Yorkers is poor. In the Chassidic communities of Brooklyn, the poverty figure is 43%. There is nothing shameful about poverty; the gemara says that it is appropriate for Klal Yisrael. Poverty can and often does mean less dependence on material things, and more simplicity. We should be proud of those values, regardless of the norms of our cultural surround. Poverty is embarrassing, however, when it is accompanied by an expectation that others will unwillingly foot the bill for it. (Daniel Patrick Moynihan used to deride the “cycles of dependency” inflicted upon the Black community by lax and generous welfare allocations. Just whom would he be pointing to today?) It took Peter Beinart’s blog little time to mock the growth of a community that depends on the largesse of society to survive while opposing social service assistance to other groups. It was followed not long after by The Forward. The image certainly does not promote Torah as a system that – as people in the kiruv world are wont to preach – offers the most satisfying answers to the problems of life. A community that can only survive by having others pay for their spiritual lives is hardly a kiddush Hashem.

R. Akiva also spat. He realized that the woman’s beauty was not just objectively pleasing, but also tempting. He needed to resist the temptation, and reminded himself that what is so exciting to men is ordinary blood and tissue. We as well need to resist the temptation to be triumphal or even complacent about the study. As denominational affiliation declines, the possibility of reclaiming non-observant Jews would seem to decrease. We worked for decades to open doors wide to invite return. Those doors are inexorably closing, despite our efforts.

Or are they? When R. Yisrael Salanter left for Paris, he was asked why he was turning his back on the frum communities of Lita, and heading for assimilationist Western Europe. “Picture a team of horses which have escaped the control of their master, and are charging at full speed. How do you reassert control? Your first impulse might be to run into the roadway in front of them to try to stop them. This will just mean that they will run over and crush you. Alternatively, you recognize that eventually they will tire and stop on their own. At that point, you can calmly walk towards them and lead them back where they belong. The Jews of Eastern Europe are galloping out of control. In Paris they have been running so long, that they can be brought back.”

The study suggests a new strategy for kiruv, one that poses an enormous challenge to us. Much, although not all, of our outreach has relied upon the fragile connection that many Jews still maintained with their Judaism, and tried to build upon it. Reform and Conservative were conduits away from observance for some people, but they were also placeholders for others, keeping them involved with the Jewish community and therefore available for more intense involvement when the proper programs were offered. Kiruv workers were able to push the right buttons, because those buttons were still connected and operational. We are going to see progressively less of this kind of outreach, even though it is clear that today there are still many Jews who are good candidates for traditional forms of kiruv.

When Jews move away from all kinds of Jewish affiliation and shun even the most basic observances like the Pesach seder, it becomes that much harder to reach them with some traditional kiruv techniques. Like R. Yisrael’s horses, however, those who plunge headlong into the often vacuous lifestyle of a hedonistic world will tire of it at some point. They will be looking for something to fill the void, to satisfy their quest for meaning and significance. Will we be the ones best positioned to give them what they need? Only if we get our act together, attend to the cracks in our own Orthodox edifice, and evidence to them the beauty, joy and fulfillment of a properly lived Torah life style, deeply comprehended. That is a tall order, but it is nothing less than what the Ribbono Shel Olam has always asked of us. Until now, we have been successful in many cases simply by talking about a Torah lifestyle. The talk could succeed, because there was some overlap in our Jewish vocabulary. In the kiruv of the future, our actions will speak for themselves. We must become obvious exemplars of living satisfying spiritual and material lives according to the instructions of our Torah, proudly showing off what others do not have.

On second thought – why wait?

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18 Responses

  1. Yehoshua Friedman says:

    I always enjoy Rabbi Adlerstein’s provocative, out-of-the-box analysis, and this article is no exception. I just want to ask if we can really classify heterodox/secular Jewish America as similar to the crumbling of the fortress of Eastern European Judaism. In the case of a few generations ago, there was still hope because secular Jewish couples were still meeting and getting married and raising children. In this generation the birthrate is so low that there will be little to save or bring back. Even an intermarried family holds more hope than the non-existent one. Nobody is going to do kiruv on the child who was never born. That is the real tragedy.

  2. Reb Yid says:

    It is a mistake to group all former Conservative and Reform Jews as “hedonistic”, just as the authors of this blog would remind us that it’s mistaken to group all Orthodox Jews under one label.

    Many of these Jews are searching for meaning. Just because they have not found it in the institutional settings of the denominations does not mean they are not interested in morals, ethics, rituals and beliefs.

    The other big story here is that the Orthodox growth is being fueled by the Chassidim–more than half of all of the Orthodox children are Chassidic. While one can talk about the non-Orthodox being swallowed up by the Orthodox, if present trends continue it will also be the non-Chassidic Orthodox being swallowed up by the Chassidic Orthodox.

    [YA – It’s not the people I characterized as hedonistic, but the general tenor of the society into which they are assimilating. And the thrust of my piece agrees with you, if only as an optimistic projection. Whatever the reasons for falling away from the Jewish community, I believe that many will, at some point in their lives, become interested in morals, ethics and beliefs. I hope that when that happens, the Torah community will be up to the challenge of offering them something attractive.

    The non-Chassidic Orthodox are not going to disappear. There has been significant pushback against the inroads, among people who are still having 6 children per household, and building new schools while others are shutting theirs down.]

  3. Tuvia says:

    I did spend time with Aish Jerusalem years ago – but did not “take the bait,” and become frum.

    This is totally my own opinion, but I believe that kiruv is actually also appealing to our “hedonistic” selves – even as it disparages a world gone mad with pleasure seeking!

    I found that the main idea in kiruv was to experience this ultimate pleasure of being frum. That they tried to lure young folks with promises of a wife, of a life where your career did not matter (perfect for young men who were unsure in that area).

    They also held out the specialness of being Jewish – so your status was already elevated and your pedigree was excellent just by virtue of your being a Jew.

    In short, it tried to promise a shortcut to happiness – but a happiness defined basically in the same way the hedonistic western person defines it!

    This is appealing to the yetzer hora I believe. I ran out of there, even though I was having a great time in many ways. It was a process of seduction and indoctrination, not education.


  4. AA says:

    Um, check your statistics.

    If the non-frum 70% lost 15% of their numbers…they went to 60%…so when the Orthodox went from 30 to 40% it was mostly on the back of the decline in non-frum.

    In other words, we are not gaining so much as the non-frum are losing.

    If everyone abandons Judaism except the Orthodox, is that called ‘winning?’ Absurd. For the non-frum the truth is that religion is LESS AND LESS USEFUL to their lives. Our product is LESS ATTRACTIVE EVERY DAY, and because of the numbers we think we are winning.

    The kiruv movement is NOT increasing its annual conversion rate. So. Enough of the triumphalism…

  5. Dr. Yitzchok Levine says:

    The story you tell about Reb Yisroel Salanter is not completely correct. See the essay on R. Yisroel on the Tzemach Dovid website.

    Other tales, not so widely circulated, are the following, taken from Meoras Hagedolim:

    o When disciples in Lithuania pleaded with him to return from Germany to fight Haskallah, he replied with a parable: A farmer was chasing a team of runaway horses down a hill. He shouted to a man sitting under a tree further down the slope to stop them. The fellow did not respond. Reaching him, the farmer asked him why he made no effort to stop the horses. “Wait here until they reach bottom and I’ll bring them back for you. If I’d have grabbed them on their headlong charge, they’d have dragged me down with them. At the bottom of the hill, their energy is all spent and they can be led back.”

    Said Reb Yisroel: “Lithuanian Jewry is plunging headlong into Haskallah. I cannot grapple with them without being dragged down. The Jews of Germany have reached bottom.”

  6. lacosta says:

    A community that can only survive by having others pay for their spiritual lives is hardly a kiddush Hashem. [and]
    Only if we get our act together, attend to the cracks in our own Orthodox edifice

    ——- could it not be argued that current daas tora mandates some of what we see as problems? eg it mmandates [ at least in israel] secular ignorance, material poverty, strict segragation from the Other, and abolition of any modus of publication not under hermetic askonim control? [ie on point 2 ,
    the blogs are treif precisely because they emphasize there are problems that the powers that be dont /wont/cant acknowledge…]

  7. mb says:

    “There is nothing shameful about poverty; the gemara says that it is appropriate for Klal Yisrael.”

    I can think of many statements from Chazal that say it’s not so lovely.

  8. Neil Harris says:

    R Adlerstein,
    A beautiful essay. You wrote, “They will be looking for something to fill the void, to satisfy their quest for meaning and significance.”

    I think is is why the Mussar Institute has been so successful. Dr. Morinis, his staff, and event faculity are able to communicate and reach those who are seeking to fill the void.


  9. Manny Saltiel says:

    In response to Tuvia’s note, the approach is not not a hedonistic one, quite the contrary. The ultimate joy and pleasure that Rav Noach, ZT”L, always discussed was a spiritual and emotional one, not one filled with physical goodies. “The specialness of being Jewish” indeed raises one’s feeling of significance – I count for something. That’s not hedonistic; that’s recognizing that G-d has a job for each and every one of His children. The “promise [of] a shortcut to happiness” is anything but. It’s hard work. It’s just worth it. And it’s not the yetzer harah you heard, it was your yetzer tov. Your yetzer harah was the voice that convinced you to “ran out of there, even though I was having a great time in many ways.” If you keep reading Rav Adlerstein’s columns, you are getting pure Torah wisdom. And I’m sure Mrs. Adlerstein woujld be willing to serve you dinner, too.

  10. Abe Kohen says:

    The “new” liberals won’t come necessarily from the C or R “movements.” They will, as always, spin off from the UO, O, and MO. You can quote Kohelet on that. Dor holech, v’dor ba …

  11. ARW says:

    I think your the one who needs to check their statistics. What you are saying would only be true if the overall Jewish population declined. However, according to the survey the overall number of Jews in NY grew despite the decrease in the non-orthodox population. Thus the conclusion was exactly the opposite of the one you stated. In reality the growth in the percentage of the Orthodox population was not on the backs of the decline in the non-Orthodox but due to the population growth of the Orthodox.

  12. James says:

    “They will be looking for something to fill the void, to satisfy their quest for meaning and significance.”

    There are plenty of ways to find meaning and significance outside of Torah and just as non-Jews can find meaning and significance without Torah, so can Jews. They will turn to politics, public service, social justice, etc. A life spent in public service can be very meaningful and rewarding.

  13. cvmay says:

    Quite an order for us to fulfill yet we Can & Should but not for the sake of kiruv rechokim rather for the sake of kiruv kerovim.

  14. L. Oberstein says:

    There must be some connection between the NY Population Study and Parshas Korach. Perhaps it is that we engage in short term and eventually unproductive strategies because our judgement is clouded by “negios” ,self agrandizement. Leadership of a sinking ship is still leadership in the short term.
    As I understand it, the American Melting Pot has dissolved most ethnic and even religious differences and melted us into one nation with common values.The orthodox Jews who oppose intermarriage are an anomaly in a society where people change religions for minor reasons, like which church is nearby and more friendly. Ideology means very little to Americans, inclluding Jews.
    The hetrodox are tryng to adapt orthodox strategies, like having a “Kollel” and a “Kallah” and adding more Hebrew and wearing larger prayer shawls, but if the essence is missing, the apurtanences won’t matter.The black hat doesn’t make you frum.
    Time will tell if the rest of us can adapt and survive . In the meantime, Korach heirs cannot admit that they are losing, so they can find another way to push back, like blaming the Chasidim for having too many children. As a parent of many children, I can understand both sides, but we never decided that paying tuition would preventg us from bringing more Yiddishe kinder into this world. Tha is such a goyish idea.

  15. Raymond says:

    In response to a comment made above, I am not quite sure that meaning in life can be found outside of the Torah and its way of life, except to those whose minds are too superficial to contemplate ideas such as meaning of life in the first place.

    Secondly, while I personally have enjoyed most of my experiences with Aish HaTorah, I do have to say that their approach is significantly different from that of people such as Rabbi Adlerstein. Aish HaTorah does paint a picture of the Torah world vs the secular world in precisely the way described by Tuvia above. Rabbi Adlerstein’s approach, in contrast, is not only far more intellectually honest, pursuing the truth wherever it may lead him, but he has never struck me as somebody who sees the Orthodox Jewish world through rose colored glasses. I think that those who did not grow up religious but aspire to be so, may be especially prone to seeing the Orthodox world as some kind of utopia, when in reality, it is maybe just a little bit of an improvement on normal, secular life.

    As for what can bring more Jews into the Orthodox Jewish world, I think a lot of that depends on which kind of person one is addressing. Some of us relish a highly intellectual approach, studying the Torah in depth, as well as the ideas of such people as the Rambam and other Rishonim, the Maharal, Rav Hirsch, Rav Soloveitchik, and other traditional Jewish intellectuals. I know that is the approach I like best. Others may focus far more on its practical aspects, on how it helps ensure happier marriages and better-behaved children. Still others focus on its more emotional aspects, on its ability to make people feel happier and have more hope in their lives. Most of all, though, I think that such a radical transformation in one’s life, has to come from the person himself. Imposing such major life changes from the outside simply cannot last for any significant length of time, and is even likely to be resented after a while. Becoming religious must come from within a person. How such a mindset or passion is ignited in a person, is something beyond anything I will ever understand.

  16. Steve Brizel says:

    I thought that the survey’s description of the Orthodox community was seriously flawed and stereotypical in its description of the Charedi neighborhoods of Brooklyn as constituting the Orthodox community. A footnote on the first page of the study proves that the authors defined the NY area in terms at variance with the definition used for official US governmental purposes. I could not imagine a survey of Orthodoxy in the greater NY area that did not begin with the Charedi communities in Orange and Rockland County, the vibrant Beis Medrash of RIETS, the strong MO communities in Teaneck, Bergenfield, West Orange, Highland Park-Edison as well as such strong and vibrant communities as Passaic, the Five Towns and Lakewood, the heartland of the Charedi world in the US. I agree that the results of the survey present a unique opportunity for Kiruv that is non-judgmental and avoids simplistic answers and triumphalistic rhetoric and concentrates on the deeply profound message that Torah Judaism, whether Charedi or MO, is a 24/7 approach to life, regardless of the political, cultural and societal norms of the secular world.

  17. Reb Yid says:

    To Steve Brizel:

    The study only covered the region that constitutes the New York federation’s catchment area. That region happens to be New York City, Long Island and Westchester. “The authors” were working for the NY Federation to conduct a study for their service area…they did not invent the definition of the NY Federation area.

    Totally agree with you that we need to realize what was counted and what was not counted. It is a mistake by the all of the Federations in the NY metro area (as defined by the US census) not to work together to conduct a single study.

    That said, there is no question that within the confines of the NY Federation area, Brooklyn has by far the greatest concentration of Orthodox Jews–it’s no contest. Not to say that other areas in the study such as the Five Towns, Rockaways, Kew Garden Hills, Riverdale, New Rochelle, Washington Heights don’t matter–they do–but Brooklyn dwarfs them all, particularly when factoring in the Hasidic cohort.

  18. Steve Brizel says:

    Reb Yid-the above referenced definition is NY Federation’s definition, but IMO, it is hardly descriptive of the Torah observant world in the tri State area.

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