Digesting the New Pew Data on the State of American Orthodoxy

Triumphalism? Pride? Encouragement?

What exactly are the messages that we should glean from newly-released Pew Research Center data about Orthodox Jewry in the United States, which affirms the incredible growth and ongoing expansion of the Orthodox population, its exceptionally strong rate of Jewish education, and its consistency of adherence to Torah values and observances (although some of the statistics are confounding and lend doubt, such as 22% of Orthodox-identified respondents not lighting Shabbos candles, 17% not keeping kosher, and so forth; however, these statistics most likely reflect not fully-observant Jews who are nonetheless members of Orthodox synagogues).

Here are a few thoughts on this overall topic:


The newly-released Pew data confirms the eternal endurance of Torah, against all odds – similar to the miraculous endurance of the Jewish People and our defiance of the patterns of history. We should be inspired that despite the numerous prognostications of the eventual and total demise of traditional Torah-observant Jewry in America, as the Great Melting Pot was burning away the religious and ethnic identities of immigrant populations on these shores, the Orthodox community survived and grew into a thriving force, and is positioned to be the future force in American (and probably worldwide) Jewry. Our emunah in God’s promise of the permanence of Torah should be robustly fortified by the Pew data, and it should animate us to learn Torah, perform mitzvos and live an Orthodox life with utmost confidence in our actions and our special path.


As Torah-observant Jews, we of course must be ever so conscious of how our actions are perceived by others. Now that we are positioned to be more representative of American Jewry as a whole, not only do our actions require utmost care and forethought, but our Jewish “ambassadorial” status will change as well, for we will likely in time represent the face of mainstream Jewry. Furthermore, along with this mainstreaming of our identity, there will of necessity come a need for new and unprecedented levels of involvement with the broader Jewish community. Whether organizations such as American Jewish Congress and AIPAC will in time become increasingly Orthodox by nature, or will be replaced by alternative Orthodox communal and advocacy organizations, Orthodox Jews must be ready to step up to the central communal plate and provide guidance and leadership on a scale that heretofore was unthinkable.


As the Orthodox community expands and its educational needs per force grow and diversify, meeting the needs of a much larger pool of students, the Tuition Crisis will become even more acute. Presently, some Orthodox parents feel forced to send their children to public schools, due to financial constraints. Once the frum community becomes stretched significantly further and includes a broader diversity of family economies, it will really be compelled to create a system that enables children from families of lower incomes to attend our schools. Otherwise, aside from failing to provide our children with a Torah education, whatever communal gains are made will comprehensively sour and spoil, should far larger numbers of our youth not be enrolled in Jewish schools.

Retrospective Lessons of Religious Dilution

Pew data depicting the practical demise of non-Orthodoxy and the ascendancy of Orthodoxy does not hold much long-term promise even for the more traditional Jewish subgroups outside of Orthodoxy. The lesson for us is that, aside from it being inherently wrong, historical dilution of halachic and other Torah standards has clearly inflicted a mortal wound on Jewish continuity, as is glaringly seen from the direction the data points regarding a non-Orthodox future of any stripe. When movements that self-identify as Orthodox innovate and reform “within halachic boundaries”, despite the arguments proffered for technical justification, we must look back to the origins of the Conservative movement, which propounded and followed similar approaches, and we must think about what the Pew study has to say about that movement’s current state. (As a very unfortunate yet revealing aside, the recent death of Theodore Bikel, who was arguably the most important celebrity ever on the non-Orthodox Jewish cultural stage, received less than nominal coverage by secular Jewish media. Despite Bikel’s decades-long starring role in Fiddler on the Roof and his countless years of performances of the most popular Jewish cultural hits for packed audiences around the globe, the man and his music are relative unknowns for Jews under 50. For those of us who recall the momentous and iconic significance of Bikel’s music and theatrics for the non-Orthodox Jewish world, this is a shock, and it is so telling.)


When ethnic and minority groups become more of the mainstream, even as they retain their individual and unique customs and cultures, thed]se groups’ attitudes and social comportment can change and assimilate into those of larger society. Many of us viewed the recent “Kiddush Hashem Video”, in which yeshiva bochurim were the only ones to come to the aid of a (staged) fallen person on a crowded urban sidewalk in California. Although I was so proud of the kiddush Hashem involved, demonstrating that the Torah’s values of sensitivity permeated the very beings of these conspicuously Orthodox young men, I was mortified and sickened by the video’s coverage, spanning more than five minutes, of other people passing over and at times taking fun videos of the individual lying on the sidewalk in apparent pain and danger, without aid; the studio audience’s laughing about this all did not instill much faith in mankind either. God forbid that a Jew ever act this way or find someone else’s anguish entertaining. As Orthodox Jews by definition become an increasingly larger component of mainstream society, we must be incessantly vigilant to harbor the attitudes and sensitivities that the Torah demands. This is far greater of a challenge than maintaining our “ritualistic” lives as frum Jews.

The newly-released Pew data immensely inspires and commandingly summons us. May Hashem grant us the wisdom and ability to move forward toward greater communal success and an invigorated and impassioned commitment to the eternal truth and values of His Torah.

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10 Responses

  1. Joel Rich says:

    Lesson # 1 – courtesy of R” R Zimmerman
    prophesier with your pen
    And keep your eyes wide
    The chance won’t come again
    And don’t speak too soon
    For the wheel’s still in spin
    And there’s no telling who that it’s naming
    For the loser now will be later to win
    For the times they are a-changing

    The eternal nation does not fear the long road

    “עם הנצח לא מפחד מדרך ארוכה”

  2. Mr. Cohen says:

    According to the Pew Survey, how much growth in Orthodox Judaism’s numbers came from Orthodox parents intentionally having more children than they can afford to support?

    According to the Pew Survey, what percentage of Orthodox Jews are exemplary in: Derech Eretz, Kavod HaBeriot, Shmirat HaLashone and Business Ethics?

    Or should we thank G_d that those questions were not asked?

    • Bob Miller says:

      How would you answer if some survey asked you about your own level of shmirat halashon? You’re implying some negative things about us in general.

    • Steve Brizel says:

      The Pew Survey was focusing on indicators of identify on a group and individual level-while we all need improvement in each of the areas that you mentioned, they are not really relevant to the criteria used and conclusions reached by the Pew Survey-that it now recognizes the fact that Torah observant communities ranging from MO to Charedi are alive and well in the US, and the factors that sustain those communities on an individual and communal basis-a conclusion that prior demographic studies studiously avoided discussing

  3. Bob Miller says:

    Also, the mainstream society, and not only in the US, is becoming ever more eager to impose its PC norms (abnorms?) on us, whether we like that or not.

  4. Daniela says:

    1) Those percentages cited re: not lighting, not keeping kosher, etc, could also easily refer to people who are about to leave the Orthodox life they were raised with. It’s not happening “by the droves” that some anti-Orthodox claim, by no means, but it is happening more than in the past. I myself have begun seeing it, when I never used to.
    2) It was Spongebob, come on! And with a funny voice – – in *California* ! People passed him by because they saw right through it and knew it was a joke. Put that same situation in Kansas without a stupid sounding voice and see what happens. How much you wanna bet those boys came to the rescue only because they had never seen Spongebob before?

  5. Daniel Alter says:

    Rabbi Gordimer. I think the video you reference at the end of your piece is from a late night talk show. They stage things for ratings. If I saw a costumed Sponge Bob lying on the floor, (and probably making funny comments while he was lying down to make people laugh) I would also probably laugh and think it is part of the act. They are on the street to entertain people and have people give them money in return. I am not sure that this is the best example to use to show how the Orthodox world is strong. Not sure that this merits being “mortified and sickened”.

    • Mikey says:

      Here’s an example of the same phenomenon NOT staged, from popular psychologist and best-selling author Daniel Goleman – http://www.ted.com/talks/daniel_goleman_on_compassion/transcript?language=en:
      “One day soon after that — it was a Friday — at the end of the day, I went down — I was going down to the subway. It was rush hour and thousands of people were streaming down the stairs. And all of a sudden as I was going down the stairs I noticed that there was a man slumped to the side, shirtless, not moving, and people were just stepping over him — hundreds and hundreds of people. And because my urban trance had been somehow weakened, I found myself stopping to find out what was wrong. The moment I stopped, half a dozen other people immediately ringed the same guy. And we found out that he was Hispanic, he didn’t speak any English, he had no money, he’d been wandering the streets for days, starving, and he’d fainted from hunger. Immediately someone went to get orange juice, someone brought a hotdog, someone brought a subway cop. This guy was back on his feet immediately. But all it took was that simple act of noticing, and so I’m optimistic.”

      It’s indeed sickening, yet purely natural.

      • Steve Brizel says:

        Mikey-One morning I was riding to work on the subway and a young woman passed out on the train. A young frum MD in his scrubs applied the necessary treatment immediately. I told him the next morning in shul where he sometimes davens that his actions were a great Kiddush HaShem, which he brushed off as just doing his job

  6. tzippi says:

    Are we playing Dueling Kiddush Hashem Stories? Rebecca Dana (Jujitsu Rabbi and the Godless Blonde) has a beautiful piece about her chasing after a black hat that someone lost, and a moving and heartening encounter she had pursuant to it.

    And of course there’s the legendary Bronx Youth Poetry Slam: http://www.aish.com/j/fs/Jtube-The-Bronx-Youth-Poetry-Slam-2013.html.

    Attrition in the non-observant circles might better be called hemorrhaging. Thank G-d we don’t have that. I won’t say yet but no one can deny that it’s happening. Of course we have to recognize it, and we have to work on ridding ourselves of all the ills and causes for disillusionment mentioned in other comments. But surely we have to spend equal if not greater energy on supporting, maintaining, and building on the positive, if we want to make authentic Judaism attractive. We can legitimately recognize and acknowledge our successes.

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