Leading the Blind
The results of recent Jewish community surveys are alternately delightful and dismal, exciting and excruciating. The growth of Torah-observant households is a stunning phenomenon, while Jewish sociologist Steven Cohen observed, “the sky is falling for the rest of the population.”
Given this dichotomy and the urgency of the problem, we might imagine that everyone would want to know what it is that we, the Orthodox, are doing right. But apparently we would be wrong. Despite multiple surveys detailing the divergent trajectories of young traditional versus liberal Jews today, we have seen no studies dedicated to understanding our successful formula. Instead, Federations and well-meaning philanthropic foundations continue to invest great sums of money on projects whose claim to promote Jewish continuity is nothing more than conjecture — with predictable results.
As we all know, the Torah community is thriving. In less than a decade, the number of Orthodox Jews grew by over 100,000 in the New York area alone, according to the UJA/Federation survey — over 20%. In Baltimore, a similar survey showed an increase of 50%. Last year’s Pew Survey reported more modest growth nationally, but noted that while 11% of adults 18-29 are Orthodox, the same is true of 27% of Jewish minor children. 60% of Jewish children in the New York City area live in Orthodox homes.
But a birth rate of over five children for the average charedi family is only one important factor. According to the Pew Survey, only 22% of retirement-aged Jews raised Orthodox remain Orthodox today. By contrast, the retention rate for those now 30-49 is 57% — while fully 83% of young adults (under 30) remain in our community. Again, one would expect that understanding the dramatic improvement in Orthodox retention would be a high priority.
Instead, many Jewish pundits find themselves living in the past. Writing in The Forward, Josh Nathan-Kazis opines that “The picture is of a denominational rockfall sliding from more traditional streams through the Reform movement and out of the denominational structure altogether.” While this image may have been accurate for thousands of families, “Orthodox by default,” who immigrated from Europe prior to the War, today it is as dated as a rotary phone.
Pini Herman, a researcher at the Jewish Federation of Los Angeles, went still further, arguing that “it is in the self-interest of the Conservative and Reform movements to encourage the flowering of the Orthodox American Jewish community, for they are the ultimate beneficiaries of the adult choices of Orthodox-raised children.” They have missed the boat on our success, neatly explaining why they cannot chart their own.
For it is not true that the educational efforts of the Orthodox community, which Herman acknowledges as “heroic,” “legendary,” and “to the point of actual impoverishment,” have resulted in the production of yet more heterodox Jews. On the contrary, commitment to Torah education over multiple generations has made the retention of our youth the norm rather than the exception. Today’s Torah community is literally that — a community of Torah, in which parents, rebbeim and teachers all work together to transmit the mesorah.
Why is this so poorly understood by outside observers? Liberal Jews have been trained to believe that their traditional brethren — especially those labeled the “ultra-Orthodox” — comprise a society so alien that their experience is irrelevant. Besides news stories highlighting bizarre tales of (often exaggerated, if not invented) wrongdoing, there is a more basic depiction of traditional Jews as no more modern than the Amish, but more hostile. Further, our brethren regard the Talmud and other traditional texts as practically our exclusive province.
Yet learning is and remains the answer. There is no magic or gimmick, and no alternative that will ever be effective. Their lack of awareness remains their own loss — and it remains our obligation to do all we can to show them the way forward. To study Judaism, to connect yourself to generations past, and to make this the centerpiece of a child’s education, comprise the only effective route to ensuring a Jewish future.
This article first appeared in Ami Magazine.
I’m not sure why essays such as these continue to appear. Is it necessary for the Conservative and Reform movements to admit to us, “You were right”? Why do Orthodox readers need to read again (and again and again…) how these failed deviations from Tradition refuse to face the demographic and statistical truths?
And by the way, we ought not be so sanguine. There is mounting evidence that while Torah true Yiddishkeit is flourishing, there is, lulei demistafina, a growing undercurrent of “shell” Jews – those who appear frum – even very frum – on the outside, but have little or no belief on the inside. While these Jews may never defect to nonsensical movements, they very well may restock the pool of potential baalei teshuvah. At least the kiruv movement will continue to have its work cut out for it.
[After reading the print version of this essay, someone active in the Baltimore community requested the sources for the statistics assembled in this article. He’s active in several community causes that are linked to the Associated Jewish Charities (what is called the Federation in most cities), and wanted to use the data to affect funding priorities. So yes, there is a clear need for more “essays such as these.”
Orthopraxy is an essay for another time. But in a nutshell, “הלואי אותי עזבו ותורתי שמרו, מתוך שהיו מתעסקין בה המאור שבה היה מחזירן למוטב” — better they abandon Me and keey My Torah, because from their involvement in it, its light will bring them back to the good. Because such people outsource the education of their children to Yereim U’Shleimim, their children will iy”H turn out ok. –YM]
This was not a well-designed study. One flaw was that the survey asked, “Were you raised Orthodox?” and then asked, “Are you Orthodox today?” Many people in my parents’ generation – those who are now 70+ – SAY that they were raised Orthodox, because they attended Orthodox shul when they went, kept kosher, made a Seder, lit Chanukah candles, went to Talmud Torah after school, had bar mitzvas, and even spoke Yiddish at home. But these people sometimes had fathers who went to the office on Saturdays, most attended public school, etc. Not surprisingly, a significant number did not remain “Orthodox” – it is not clear they were really raised that way. A better question would have asked if the person’s parents ALWAYS kept Shabbes, no exceptions, when they were growing up, and if they attended public school or not. According to my mother, ALL her friends with parents who truly kept Shabbes remained religious (even those who went to public school), while those whose fathers worked on Shabbes – even though the mothers often kept Shabbes – stopped being religious. So rather than thinking that today we are doing great because 87% of our kids stay on the derech, perhaps we should worry that anecdotal evidence shows a higher rate of those raised by religious parents a couple of generations ago stayed in the fold. Any readers have info to support my theory?
The author of this post has it exactly right–in order to understand these trends, learning is one of the essential keys.
Except that the learning to focus on is secular education. One of the key findings of these studies shows a tremendous link between the Orthodox population “explosion” and poverty, certainly among the Haredim and especially among the Hasidim. We know from US census data that Kiryas Joel and Kaser, for example, have the highest poverty rates in the entire state of NY.
The lack of secular education severely limits socioeconomic mobility in the aggregate. There are abundant similarities to studying other groups suffering from poverty, including poor health, skyrocketing birth rates, large families, poor education levels, and very limited job prospects, among other factors.
In short, for a growing proportion of Orthodox Jews, this model is economically unsustainable. What will happen in the future? Tough to tell, but predictions can be a dangerous thing. In the 1870s it looked like Reform Judaism would be triumphant–in the 1950s, the same could be said for Conservative Judaism.
Why is this so poorly understood by outside observers?
Because understanding Orthodox success gives one a very unpalatable choice:
1. Become Orthodox, move somewhere within walking distance of a synagogue, possibly upset one’s spouse (who doesn’t want to become Orthodox) to the point of divorce, etc.
2. Accept that Judaism isn’t as important as other things (to the person making the choice).
People are very effective at ignoring things it would be inconvenient to see.
Sara, because the “Orthodox” continue to include anyone who attends an Orthodox shul, given the attrition rate of those who send their children to full-time coed colleges (Rav Meir Goldberg of Rutgers Jewish Experience claims the numbers are horrific), the retention rate of the charedi community is assuredly much higher.
Reb Yid, we understand your desire to look at the numbers through a particular lens, but let it not lead to outright distortion of fact. It is not true, for example, that Orthodox poverty is the cause of skyrocketing birthrates. It is the effect. Were the Orthodox satisfied with 1.7 kids, a dog, and public education, precious few would fall below the poverty line. But when every one of your 10 kids must get a full-time Jewish education, it’s an entirely different story.
Federations invest in “Jewish continuity” that is politically appealing vs. that which is effective. They pay lip service to the importance of full-time Jewish education and invest pennies in making it viable. They fight tooth and nail against any form of government support (e.g. tuition tax credits) for parents who choose private or parochial education. And then they talk about the “problem” of Orthodox poverty that their efforts and lack of foresight helped create.
The vision of 1870s Reform as “triumphant” simply accentuates the blindness involved. All of Mendelsohn’s children converted, and nothing has changed since. I am aware of only one 7th-generation Reform Jew — one. I have heard anecdotally (anyone to confirm/deny this?) that when Temple Emanu-El of New York celebrated its 150th anniversary in 1995, it tried to bring in descendants of the founders for a special presentation. This plan was abandoned because they were unable to find a single Jewish descendant of the founders.
I believe that Mendelsohn’s grandchildren, not children, converted. Mendelsohn was not Reform but a Torah-committed Jew. A look at the attrition rate of the offspring of some of the greatest names in the Orthodox pantheon of gaonim and tzaddikim from those days and later would be equally shocking.
I still find this study unreliable. Here’s a quote about the findings of the same study you are relying on for your statistics, from Daniel Treiman at Telegraph, for those who missed it:
“According to the survey, a full 16 percent of Orthodox Jews “attend non-Jewish religious services at least a few times a year.” The proportion is identical for Modern Orthodox Jews and what the survey describes as “ultra-Orthodox Jews” — 15 percent for both sub-groups. Shockingly, that’s slightly higher than the proportions of Reform Jews (15 percent) and non-denominational Jews (12%) who report attending non-Jewish religious services with similar frequency. (Are we to assume that sizable numbers of black-hatted haredim are ducking into churches or mosques for some interfaith davening on a semi-regular basis?)
Read more: http://www.jta.org/2013/10/01/news-opinion/haredim-in-church-the-wackiest-result-from-the-pew-jewish-americans-survey#ixzz32rBEjm6b
[There’s a lot that Pew got wrong, yes. It probably underestimated Orthodox growth. But many other sources support the increase in Orthodox children, which is the data I pulled from Pew. –YM]
Yaakov Menken writes:
Were the Orthodox satisfied with 1.7 kids, a dog, and public education, precious few would fall below the poverty line. But when every one of your 10 kids must get a full-time Jewish education, it’s an entirely different story.
And if one had any kids in Jewish day school, presumably one would be trying as hard as one could to earn a parnassah to support this decision. That is certainly the norm for many Jewish day school families (Reform, Conservative, modern Orthodox), where far more often than not, both parents are working, and often full time.
On the other hand, we know very well from the US Census as well as Jewish community surveys that this is hardly the norm in more Haredi or Hasidic areas. Quite often, when anyone is working at all, it is the women-in many cases, the men/husbands are not functionally employable or even functionally literate.
But again–this is part of the system that, increasingly, is not economically sustainable for most day school parents, regardless of denomination, no matter if they are Conservative, MO, Yeshivish or Chasidic.
[You are in error, in neither Kiryas Joel nor Kaser (using your examples) is it common for only the wife to work. The point is that with ten children in day school, any family bringing in less than double the current US median income is going to be struggling. Education level is much less relevant at that point. And as the end goal is propagation of Judaism, whereas money is merely a tool to that end, it is Jewish education which will always remain the higher priority.
You have also unwittingly highlighted why the tragicomic actions of the Federations are still more devastating to non-Orthodox families: because they do not consider full-time Jewish education mandatory, even upper-middle-class families decide they cannot afford it. –YM]
The key to understanding the Pew and many other surveys is that the academics who run the surveys and those who assist them really have very little knowledge of what passes for daily life in Orthodox communities, Charedi or MO, and really have no inkling why anyone would want to be a Shomer Torah UMitzvos in the 21st Century. We know why, but acting in a triumpalist manner about it won’t attract anyone.
Reb Yid-if there was such poverty as you claim, how then would the Charedi community be able to subsidize summer residences, camps, etc for many of its members? The simple answer is that many Charedim work for a living.
In response to Yaakov Menken, I extracted 2 facts from WikiPedia about Moses Mendelssohn:
FACT 1: 4 of his 6 children left Judaism.
FACT 2: Alexander Mendelssohn, who died in 1871 CE, was the last male descendant of Moses Mendelssohn to practice Judaism.
PS: The story about Temple Emanu-El was known to me in the early 1980s, so it could not have happened in 1995.
[What was the occasion? Could it have been the 120th Anniversary in 1965, which apparently included a “dramatic narrative” retelling the foundation of the Temple? –YM]
I agree that some have the wrong impression, and think of observant Jews as odd, and so they are not interested. The observant people around me are regular people, and people should come and notice that. Of course, there are good and bad individuals in different places, and a negative experience might turn one away. However, people shouldn’t just focus on the bad, but also on the good so we see the complete picture. And of course, we can always work on improving our selves so we can be a good example of Torah Jews.
People need to understand why it’s important to keep the Torah. Obviously, the most important reason is because G-d told our nation to. It is also nourishment for our soul and brings blessing to the world. –
Many people feel that any denomination is fine. Why is it a problem? The Torah says don’t add or subtract. If you takes away things like kosher or make things optional, that’s subtracting. Some might say they do things in their own way like Shabbos. However, there are certain Laws for Shabbos to keep so we do it properly. – The reason they feel they can do it how they want is because they feel the Torah is from people. But Observant Jews view the Torah as from G-d and therefore the Laws are eternal.
“All of Mendelsohn’s children converted”
Mendelssohn died well before 1800 and the last of his children died well before the 1870’s. None were Reform (which was decades away from being invented when Moses Mendelssohn died). Not all of his children converted (none when he was still alive, and only one who did was over the age of eleven when he did), and Mendelssohn had Jewish grandchildren.
No one seriously claims that the conversions had anything to do with Moses Mendelssohn himself or his beliefs. Children of Jewish leaders were converting right and left back then.
Mendelssohn was a great person, a Talmid Chacham, and a fully observant Jew who really doesn’t deserve the flippant disrespect he gets from certain quarters.
[I’m not sure why you are motivated to whitewash Mendelssohn, but however well-meaning and personally observant he may have been, it is not correct. I had meant to say grandchildren, but the most precise information comes from Wikipedia: only two of his six children remained Jewish, and his grandson Alexander was the last Mendelssohn to practice Judaism.
Yes, he predated the Reform movement, and that’s the point. He was considered the ideological forefather of Reform, with his application of then-current philosophy to Judaism. His family demonstrates that the experiment did not go well. –YM]
Admiting that their group is based on a fallacy would cause them to lose their parnasah. Also, their way of living has a palliative effect and keeps them comfortable while they still are alive. Conservative Judaism was a one or two generation phenomenon that has little appeal to the current young generation. Reform has never succeeded long term in keeping Jews Jewish and was kept alive by those who left nominal orthodoxy as they assimilated. The bottom line is that to be a real orthodox Jew you have to believe a lot of stuff and much of it is contrary to the zeitgeist. Is it worth pretending in the hope that the next generation will actually believe it? Most orthoprqax Jews, of whomne there are many, like being part of the community and know that there are rules that must be observed in public.
There is a person who sits in front of me in a shul (one of several) who talks non stop,even during the rabbi’s sermon. Is he a believer? Why is he in shul? Yet, he does show up, late, on a regular basis.
Reb Yid: “The lack of secular education severely limits socioeconomic mobility in the aggregate. There are abundant similarities to studying other groups suffering from poverty, including poor health, skyrocketing birth rates, large families, poor education levels, and very limited job prospects, among other factors.”
Ori: It also limits people’s ability to leave the community, contributing to a high retention rate.
To debate whether there is true growth, the numbers used, how the poll was taken or any other factor of this study is useless and futile.
INSTEAD, let us focus on, “learning is and remains the answer. There is no magic or gimmick, and no alternative that will ever be effective. Their lack of awareness remains their own loss-(NOT TRUE)— and it remains our obligation to do all we can to show them the way forward. To study Judaism, to connect yourself to generations past, and to make this the centerpiece of a child’s education, comprise the only effective route to ensuring a Jewish future”.
In the realm of education is where the restructuring and renovations are needed. Are we reaching our students/youth? and if not, WHY? Are the mechanchim/teachers/mentors properly trained for this holy challenge? How do we connect our children to generations past and ensure a Jewish survival? What “NEW” ingredients can be added to produce a tasty and fulfilling curriculum? When dealing with youth of the “selfie generation” do we have new skills and strategies within our reach to make this happen? THESE ARE THE ESSENTIAL QUESTIONS to focus on!!
Yaakov Menken wrote:
You are in error, in neither Kiryas Joel nor Kaser (using your examples) is it common for only the wife to work.
Actually, I’m quite on the money. Here is the data file from the 2008-2012 American Community Survey:
In brief, Kiryas Joel is a community where very few people work. To your precise point–only 1 in 5 households with a child under 6 have both parents in the labor force, and the same is true for only 1 in 4 households with a child age 6 to 17. The comparable estimates for the rest of NY State are 63% and 70%.
[This is where lies, d***ed lies, and statistics come into play (besides that your link doesn’t work for anyone but yourself, but I looked around). Looking at the employment status of all persons over 16 (!) in a place with a inordinately young population distorts the number of workers in general, but in those two communities you are looking down your nose at stay-at-home moms, not non-working fathers. If you understood the charedi population better you would already know that. A less jaundiced view would note the extraordinarily high percentage of intact, two-parent families, of of high school graduates, and those employed as educators. –YM]
Orthopraxy is an essay for another time. But in a nutshell, “הלואי אותי עזבו ותורתי שמרו, מתוך שהיו מתעסקין בה המאור שבה היה מחזירן למוטב” — better they abandon Me and keey My Torah, because from their involvement in it, its light will bring them back to the good. Because such people outsource the education of their children to Yereim U’Shleimim, their children will iy”H turn out ok. –YM
I am not so sure about your conclusions here. Don’t forget that the large majority of Jews, who were all raised Orthodox, abadoned “Orthodox” Jewish observance in the 19th and 20th centuries. It has happened before and it could happen again. The fact that children of Haredi Orthodprax Jews will be educated by “yirei shamayim” doesn’t meant that the children will automatically take up the values of their teachers. In fact, they are living and seeing a conflict between what they see at home and what they learn at school. They may NOT view their teachers as “yirei shamayim” because they know their parents are merely pretending to be observant and they may think their teachers and leaders are doing the same which leads to corrosive cynicism. Or, alternatively, they may just end up having contempt for their parents who they don’t view as being “frum” enough, leading to conflict within the family.
[One conjecture piled upon the next does not change anything. It is not true that “the large majority of Jews” abandoned observance; it very much depended upon where they lived. It is also obvious that the enlightenment, secular Zionism, communism and Reform are hardly the seductive forces they once were. I’ll save my additional comments on Orthopraxy for later. –YM]
Orthodox Jews are a minority of world Jewry today (maybe around 20%-a wild guess on my part). Since all the ancestors of the non-religious population at one time were religious, that does mean that the large majority of Jews abandoned observance at some point in the past. While it is true that many of the ideologies of the past that pulled a lot of Jews away from observance are not longer attractive, there is the possibility that new ones will arise. Similarly, the economic pressure that drove a lot of Jew away from observance could recur, especially since the welfare state is under pressure all around the world. Being religious by rote stopped working a couple of hundred years ago and if Jewish educators and leaders can not give persuasive arguments why Torah is relevant in the here and now, another mass fall-away of religious youth could happen, and may actually be under way not.
I would also like to make another point regarding the assumption that an Orthoprax Haredi will send his children to be educated by yirei shamayim….the Orthoprax father himself received an education from yirei shamayim yet that didn’t prevent him from ending up the way he did, so the same could happen to the next generation as well.
For those interested, look http://www.vosizneias.com/165961/2014/05/27/kiryas-joel-ny-kj-resident-turns-yeshivas-refusal-into-positive-experience-graduates-from-yeshiva-university here at a recent YU grad. Hardly a resident of a bastion of MO, or someone who ran away from his community of origin.
Yes, Steve. It’s a beautiful story. But it remains the exception that proves the rule.
Rabbi Menken wrote above, “[One conjecture piled upon the next does not change anything. It is not true that ‘the large majority of Jews’ abandoned observance; it very much depended upon where they lived. It is also obvious that the enlightenment, secular Zionism, communism and Reform are hardly the seductive forces they once were. I’ll save my additional comments on Orthopraxy for later. –YM]”
Here is yet another discussion where neither side has statistics to support broad statistical claims.