First Thoughts on OrthoPew

We’ll likely be talking about the new analysis by Pew of the Orthodox community. I read it quickly, and one item caught my eye that has not been over-masticated yet. It lies in the footnotes – note 6 to be exact:

It appears, however, there has been less switching out of Orthodox Judaism among younger adults. Among Americans raised as Orthodox Jews, 83% of those ages 18-29 are still Orthodox Jews, compared with just 22% of those 65 and older. Some experts believe that this gap is explained in part by a “period effect” (i.e., a surge in switching away from Orthodox Judaism from the 1950s to the 1970s, followed by higher retention within Orthodox Judaism in recent decades), as explained in the Jewish Identity chapter of the Pew Research Center’s 2013 report “A Portrait of Jewish Americans.”

This note is important for three reasons. 1) It offers eloquent testimony to the efficacy of Jewish day schools, just as they are under assault by unrealizable tuition requirements. If 83% of young people raised Orthodox are still Orthodox, our schools have succeeded, and whatever we have invested in them has been worth it. Those who are beginning to speak of alternative options to day school education should realize that they run the risk/probability of having their children wind up in the same place as the late-lamented Conservative movement. 2) It gives us some objective benchmark for dropouts and kids at risk. While other religious groups would be ecstatic to have an 83% retention rate, we must see a 17% dropout rate as tragic. (Yes, it is more than likely that the actual rate is much lower, because many who were “brought up Orthodox” came from homes without an even tepid commitment to halachah.) 3) For decades, demographers simply would not accept the growth of the Orthodox community. The burgeoning of Orthodox neighborhoods, the mushrooming of kosher eateries – all of this didn’t offset the losses to Orthodoxy over the last decades, they claimed. We called “foul.” The losses to Orthodoxy we claimed from the get-go were of people who were never committed to halachah, but who joined Orthodox synagogues because it was a family tradition. In more recent times, we said, Orthodoxy’s definition required shemiris Shabbos, kashrus, and taharas hamishpachah. People who accept those terms are not dropping out at the rate of 50%, we continued. The demographers continued dwelling in their make-believe communities, and refused to concede. Now, at least the authors of this report have thrown in the towel and admitted that the previous losses ascribed to Orthodoxy represented those who were Orthodox only in name. They became road-kill in the flight to suburbia and its Conservative temples that allowed driving on Shabbos

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13 Responses

  1. mycroft says:

    Pew has had a larger percentage of Orthodox Jews than other analysis see eg From Avi Chai Census of Jewish Day Schools 2008-2009″The narrow and vital field of Jewish demography is engulfed in statistical wars regarding the number of Jews and their characteristics. There is,however, a high degree of consensus regarding the number of Orthodox Jews, which is put at 10-12%. Interestingly, this statistic has scarcely changed in the nearly twenty years since the landmark 1990 Jewish Population Survey despite 1) the extraordinarily high Orthodox
    fertility rate, 2) the aging of American Jewry and 3) the ninety percent
    who are regarded as non-Orthodox reproducing at significantly below the
    2.1 children per family that is needed to sustain zero population growth.
    The U.S. Religious Landscape Survey conducted in 2008 by the Pew
    Forum on Religion and Public Life puts the Orthodox at 16% and
    indicates that the percentage is significantly higher for the below eighteen
    age bracket, which has major implications for American Jewry and,
    specifically, day school education. ” From

    Footnote 2 page 4 of report.

  2. DF says:

    Agreed with pretty much most of what you wrote, except for one item. You believe that the 17% dropout rate is inaccurate, and reflects mainly those who grew up in homes with only the barest connection to orthodoxy. Once upon a time I would have thought the same, but experience has taught me otherwise. While the dropout rate is nowhere near the 50% rate (an easily ascertainable fact), a 20% rate strikes me as just about the right mark. I’m talking about kids raised in Heimishe homes and regular mainstream orthodox homes, not the fringes of the community. Such kids are hard to see, because you’re looking for something you cannot see – the kids you DONT see at shul. But almost every week I learn of another family that has another son or daughter I never knew about, because they’re no longer observant. There are tons of such individuals out there. Tons.

    I don’t actually believe this is a crisis, because I think its part of life. As so many people rejected their secular upbringing to become religious ballei teshuvah, a like number of people will reject their religious upbringing to become unobservant. It’s a little sad, yes, but to expect otherwise is pie in the sky thinking. It was no different in Europe, and in fact, my sense is that the dropout rate then was MUCH higher. Drop outs are common to all religions. Halachic Judaism, in that sense, is no different whatsoever.

    The one thing we have learned, though, is the proper response, of whether to cut ties (the “tear keriah” approach) with such “wayard” youth, or to hold on to them. Many decades ago it was debatable, but today I think its obvious – DONT CUT TIES. There are so many types of Jews today, its not completely unreasonable to hope your son or daughter marries a Jew with a sense of tradition and respect for Judaism, even if not fully halachically observant. That can and does happen. People are living longer, and lots of things happen in the course of a lifetime. Ending a relationship before its time is tragic.

    [YA You may be correct, but we won’t know without further analysis. Prior to reading the report, I would have gone along with the figure of <10% assumed by many. No idea what is behind it. If someone told me 20%, I could not have disagreed. I also observe how many families have one child that has opted out. What I meant, though, is that if Pew is correct and the dropout rate is capped at 17%, then we have heard good news. There is no question that SOME of that 17% owes to counting kids from families that really were never what we would call Orthodox, but went to Orthodox schools. If they are a contributor to the 17%, there is that much less left for the OTDs.]

    • mycroft says:

      I essentially agree with what DF wrote. We don’t have good data. Over a decade ago I discussed with a leading person in Jewish numerical research the feasibility of receiving from various day schools-lists of 4th,8th and 12th grade students from decades ago and doing an indepth attempt to determine what percent were Shomer Shabbos today. We both sadly did not believe day schools would want such an analysis.

  3. Bob Miller says:

    Do you think Pew researchers had much success polling Yiddish-speaking Jews in Chassidic communities?

    [IIRC from the controversy over the methodology in 2013, they didn’t even try]

  4. Steve Brizel says:

    At long last, the demographers are out of their self contained bubble. The portarit shows how dynamic and multi faceted the committed MO , yeshivish and Chasidish communities are in reality, as opposed to the urban myths and stereotypes perperated both by the secular Jewish media and some would be academic scholars of these worlds

  5. Kalman Neuman says:

    I doubt if it is a good idea to include taharas hamishpacha in the “core” definition of Orthodoxy (not to mention the question of what part of the halachos should be included in the core), if only because they are not matters of public knowledge. (By the way is daily davening part of the defininition?)I don’t know of any statistics on this – It would be interesting to try to determine number of mikva visits as compared to membership in Orthodox shuls. Paradoxically, because tznius considerations preclude extensive learning of taharas hamishpacha at least at the high school level, it is more difficult to emphasize its importance. By the way an Israeli MD , who defines himself as Orthodox has written a book calling for a radical change in the halachot. To the best of my knowledge, no rabbi (even from the “liberal” wing) accepted his opinion, by I have much anecdotal evidence that there are young couples who keep “taharat hamishpacha midoraita” (vhamayveen yavin)

  6. Red Yid says:

    Rabbi Adlerstein:

    First of all, as one who has written about these trends, it is simply factually untrue to report that I have “had it in” for the Orthodox over the years, underestimated them, etc. My own analysis has been quite the opposite over the years–you know my actual name so you can check out my published writings for yourself.

    Second of all–Pew is being a bit disingenuous in this report. When skimming this study, have you found the margin of error? No? For that, you actually have to go back to the main 2013 report, where the overall Orthodox margin of error was reported as 9.1% (and even higher, of course, for the various subgroups).

    Third of all–you are in danger of being tautological, explaining away some deviance by claiming that “well, those aren’t actual Orthodox Jews”. If you play that game long enough, at some point other Orthodox Jews will start saying that about you, too.

    Fourth–to a limited extent, however, I would agree with your critique regarding that deviance. I’ve found with these studies over the years, for example, that a certain Orthodox minority that does not light candles. That minority is overwhelmingly male, seeing it as a gendered activity (even though, as you well know, “technically” males should nonetheless light–certainly, at minimum, if no-one else is around to do so).

    [YA – Alas, you don’t have a monopoly on reporting about Orthodoxy from the outside. I hope you will believe me if I tell you that I had some general material in mind, and one or two specific writers, but not you at all.]

  7. Steve Brizel says:

    Mycroft-day school enrollment is only one factor to consider. Look at how many simchos,dinners, shiurim, lectures are ongoing during the week. The Charedi , and commited MO worlds have far more factors to be included in any survey than k-8 school enrollment. Also, look who is buying homes in a community, and the availability of shopping and other needs such as a seforim store, mikveh and eruv. These factors are the proof on the ground.

  8. mycroft says:

    I obviously agree with your paragraph that there are more factors than a day school that should be considered when choosing a neighborhood.
    I don’t see the connection between your comments and my comment which essentially quoted a footnote from the report that Marvin Schick wrote for Avi Chai.

  9. dr. bill says:

    I do not know if it is significant or accurate, but i have noticed that many children of relatives and friends, mostly MO with a few chareidim, have made aliyah. It may be only a statistical aberration, but they also tend to have somewhat larger families, (my observation 3-5 in the US versus 4-6 in Israel.). I know nothing about extensive this phenomena is in the chareidi world. I find that those who I know come with educations that add expertise particularly in areas like medicine, technology and finance.

  10. mycroft says:

    Taharas Hamishpacha is an essential part of Yaddus-precisely because it is private-it is not public.
    However, sadly outside of relatively few communities very few people use mikvaot. One can only get the figures if one lives in the community and know the budget of the mikvah and compare revenues from patrons to the price they charge. In addition a community in which you have to let them know on a weekday that one needs the mikvah otherwise they won’t open is sadly one without extensive mikvah usage.

    • Kalman Neuman says:

      Does that mean that “outside of relatively few communities” there are no people who identify as Orthodox Jews?

      • mycroft says:

        No-there are many communities where people identify as Orthodox-attend synagogues associated with the OU etc, do not work on Shabbos but few married women of the appropriate age use the mikveh..

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