The Price and Success of Contemporary Orthodoxy: Sociology or Theology?

In analytical Torah study, we learn to distinguish between a siman and a sibah – to differentiate between that which is a symptom and that which is a core factor which gives rise to the symptom. A student in a Gemara shiur who offers up what seems like a superficial distinction between two halachic applications may rightfully be challenged back by the rebbe: “It is a chiluk, but is it mechalek?” (“It is a distinction, but does it reflect any axiomatic difference?”)

In Lessons Learned From Orthodoxy’s Dramatic Growth, Dr. Steven M. Cohen provides jaw-dropping data about the exponential growth and ascendancy of Orthodoxy in America over the past two decades:

… Since 1990, the number of Orthodox Jewish congregants in the U.S. has at least doubled, the Jewish engagement indicators have moved higher, and their average age has declined… the numerical details are stunning: The sheer number of American Jewish adult congregants who identify as Orthodox (be it haredi, Modern Orthodox, or other) leapt from 220,000 to 448,000.

The surge in Orthodox adults is surpassed by the even steeper growth in the number of their children. While Orthodox children up to age 17 amounted to 85,000 in 1990, the comparable population more than quadrupled, reaching about 350,000 in 2013.

Orthodox households contained 61 percent of all Jewish children in the area. For the five boroughs alone, 74 percent of Jewish children were Orthodox. In both the national and New York surveys, the haredi growth certainly led the way, but the Modern Orthodox also grew in number.

Consistent with the high birthrates and population explosion among the Orthodox, since 1990 the average age of adult congregants in Orthodox shuls in America declined from 51 to 44. The trend sharply contrasts with the aging of congregants in the other movements. In 1990, among the three major movements, the average age of adult congregants was almost the same. By 2013, about ten years of age separated the more youthful Orthodox from the older and aging Conservative and Reform congregants.

While Orthodox numbers grew from 1990, so too did their Jewish engagement. Among Orthodox congregants, we find more live in homes where Shabbat candles are usually lit (64 percent to 98 percent), more attend services weekly (50 percent to 66 percent), more belong to Jewish organizations of some sort (35 percent to 60 percent), and more make donations to a Jewish charity (82 percent to 98 percent).

While just 2 percent of Orthodox congregants intermarried in 1990, by 2013, none of the Orthodox congregants interviewed in the Pew reported marriage to a non-Jewish spouse. In the same period, the proportion of Orthodox Jews with mostly Jewish friends rose from 76 percent to 91 percent.

Dr. Cohen concludes this exceptional article with some analysis:

The “secret” of Orthodox retention and expansion can be summarized by a five-letter acronym: PRICE.

That is, they exhibit extraordinary Passion about Jewish norms and purpose. They perform numerous religious Rituals. They maintain high rates of Informal association (more spouses, friends, and neighbors who are Jewish). They engaged in Community — be it in synagogues, organizations, charities, or political-like activity. And they undertake Educational activities, be it learning groups for themselves or sending their children to day school, overnight camps or to Israel for a very influential gap year.

Similarly, non-Orthodox Jews who follow the same path exhibit extraordinary success in raising their children as committed and active Jews.

The Orthodox have shown that the price of intensive Jewish living has its rewards. The question is how many others will be willing to pay the PRICE to assure a rich Jewish life for themselves, their children, and their grandchildren.

Yes, “PRICE” has assuredly contributed to the smashing success of contemporary Orthodoxy in terms of growth and engagement, but PRICE itself is a siman, not a sibah. It is a chiluk, but it is not itself mechalek. What is the underlying, core factor that animates Orthodox Jews to “pay the PRICE”?

Although Dr. Cohen writes that “non-Orthodox Jews who follow the same path exhibit extraordinary success in raising their children as committed and active Jews”, the qualitative returns of such cases are far, far lower. It is true that Jewish retention and engagement rates of non-Orthodox families whose children attend Jewish day schools and who surround themselves with Jewish friends and rituals are incomparably superior to those of non-Orthodox families who do not follow this path – yet the overall levels of general and enduring commitment on the part of the heavily involved non-Orthodox are notably lower than those of this group’s Orthodox peers. While there is scant formalized data about this topic (as the statistics predominantly lump together all Jews of each non-Orthodox denomination, failing to rigorously examine non-Orthodox Jews in terms of individual or specialized group pursuit of PRICE-type endeavors), there is an overwhelming amount of anecdotal evidence of significant retention and engagement casualties even among non-Orthodox Jews who fully pursue PRICE-type endeavors.

Aside from the acute shrinkage of the Solomon Schechter day school system, there is a dearth of multi-generational sturdily observant/engaged Conservative Jewish families. Among such Conservative Jews, robust observance and Jewish engagement generally wane after a generation or two at most, with the notable exception of those members of highly-traditional Conservative congregations who become Orthodox. (Please also see this important article.) And we all know about and behold pervasive intermarriage even among the children and grandchildren of very traditional Conservative Jews, inasmuch as this intermarriage rate pales in comparison with the overall picture among non-Orthodox Jewry.

So, what is the sibah behind the Orthodox pursuit of PRICE? What is the factor that is truly mechalek and has wrought astounding success?

Emunah. Belief. Awareness that Torah and Mitzvos are Divine Truth – Ultimate Truth.

When one observes Mitzvos due to a belief that the Master of the Universe requires such, and one learns Torah with the belief that it is the holy and literal Word of God, there is no real room for apathy, decline or degeneration. Of course, there are always major and powerful influences that tug a person in the other direction, and gross deficiencies in Jewish education, coupled with the forces of parnassah (making a living) and social acceptance, have taken incredibly massive tolls in terms of unprecedented assimilation, particularly in the first half of the 20th century.

However, it is not commitment to Jewish identity, Jewish culture, or even Jewish preservation that drives people to invest well beyond their means and then some, and to strain themselves beyond imagination, for the sake of Torah education and the fulfillment of Mitzvos. It is rather an awareness of a holy obligation, as expressed in God’s Mandate, that propels Orthodox Jews to sacrifice everything for Torah and Mitzvos without second thought.

The Holy One, Blessed be He, has promised that Torah and the Jewish People will always endure. It is this promise that has sustained us against all natural odds through millennia of persecution, exile, slaughter, forced isolation and constant discrimination on all levels. Just as the Torah Jew knows that commitment to Torah is not subject to debate, and that it must be manifest without compromise no matter what, God has blessed us with supernatural endurance and resurgence, defying “normalcy” in every way.

We pay the PRICE, often with indescribable sacrifice, but what ultimately matters is the special and holy motivation that animates the investment. And we continue to be wondrously inspired by the return on this all-encompassing life-investment, as provided by the Ultimate Guarantor and Perpetuator of our endurance and future as a Torah nation.

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26 Responses

  1. Steve Brizel says:

    R Fischer has hit the nail on the head-just going through the rote of being a Shomer mitzvos because of one’s family background and upbringing cannot be compared to being a Shomer Torah UmItzvos because you are part of the actual transmission of Torah MiSinai, which contrary to Dr Cohen’s acronym, is one of those things that is priceless. We should always be on the guard for the age old problem of Miztzos Anashim Mlumada.

  2. micha berger says:

    To interject a sad note… 17% of our children elect to leave the American Orthodox community. (That number was reached by independent methods by YU’s Center for Jewish Future and by a report given by R’ Z Wallerstein. It’s apparently contant across all segments of Orthodoxy.)

    In comparison 10% of us are Baalei Teshuvah.

    The “only” reason why we are growing as a community is because we have a birthrate that triples our population through natural growth. We therefore can grow quite steadily even though more people are choosing to leave than to join.

    That doesn’t spell a rigorously healthy ideological community, though.

    Which leaves me two possibilities: Either there is a flaw in the posted argument or…

    We have allowed some critical part of the Emes to fall through the cracks in our practice and/or attitudes, so that while the Orthodox community possesses it on a cerebral level, we need much further to get there before we see the more of the effects sociologically. It’s not that avante gard of an idea; the possibility of this happening is mentioned a few times in shas.

    I argued for the latter, complete with an outline of what we may have forgotten to focus on and how to correct our course. See

    • Mycroft says:

      A comparison to the Mormon experience in the US might be interesting. They have essentially been stagnant in their numbers except for high fertility rates. Given data that Michael Berger wrote our situation in a demographic area might be very similar. Where there are very high fertility rates such as chareidi subset great increase in numbers where fertility rates are not that high such as MO the numbers have stayed the same at best.

  3. Mycroft says:

    Combining various types of Orthodoxy may or may not make sense theologically but sociologically they have taken entirely different paths. Day school attendance in the MO schools has been flat in the past few decades while it has exploded in the chareidi and yeshivish types. One would have to start by analyzing the birth rates and numbers of the various components of Orthodoxy to start to analyze what we have in the US. The sub components have different interests from each other. They are far from one group and must be analyzed separately.

  4. Y. Ben-David says:

    This triumphalist “look how successful we are” is very nice now, but it must not be forgotten that the large majority of Jews abandoned Torah observance in the 19th and first half of the 20th centuries. Why? Because most of the Torah teachers of that era were not able to show the relevance of Torah in a society that was permeated with antisemitism and poverty. Today, thanks to the welfare state and the pervasive supposedly “tolerant” Post-Modernist value system which teaches that everyone can pick his own “truth’ and which encourages respect for “exotic lifestyles” and “New Age spirituality”, there is far less pressure coming from outside on the Orthodox young people. But what if the situation changes? Do today’s young Orthodox Jews have the ability to articulate what the Torah stands for if the outside culture becomes hostile as it was in the past? What if antisemitism becomes de-rigeur like it was before 1945? What if there is a major economic crisis and the cushion of the welfare state shrinks? What if the true level of understanding of the Torah is too shallow to stand up to these challenges? What if the current popularity of Torah is a mile wide but only an inch deep?
    A prominent Torah educator who talks to a lot of young people says when he asks highly educated young Orthodox Jews WHY are they observant or how they would convince a non-observant Jew about the relevance of Torah to him he gets blank stares in return or something like “I was born into it”. This should give a warning light to the Torah educators of today.

    • Shmuel W says:

      This isnt triumphalist. I agree with you that the relative freedom to believe in the west allows for Judaism to flourish, but R’ Gordimer is talking about is honest belief, and that will perpetuate to the next generation, along with education and commitment and hashem’s havtacha in Klal yisroel’s nitzchius.

    • David F says:

      Why is anything positive that is mentioned about Orthodox Judaism always dismissed as “triumphalism”? There’s plenty of criticism leveled in this direction and it doesn’t seem like anyone has a problem with that. What exactly is the problem with pointing out that we’re also doing certain things very right especially in areas that count?

      Regarding why Jews left Orthodoxy in the 19th century, there are many reasons that have been suggested, but many who lived in those times will contend that it was not so much a failure of Orthodoxy as a miracle that it survived at all. The forces that were marshaled against living a Torah lifestyle were so great that anything less than that would have disappeared into oblivion.

      • Y. Ben-David says:

        The problem is that if a triumphalist approach is used saying “look how big they are they must be right!” and then going further having people end up saying “if we want to be as successful as them we should do everything they way they do it” then everything could end up boomeranging. For instance, if a certain large group opposes all secular education, marries off their young people by the time they are 18 years old to avoid having them see the “outside world”, and conducts vituperative ideological wars against other Orthodox Jews who disagree with them and this then inspires others to copy this approach it could very well lead to many fine Orthodox Jews throwing up their hands and say that they can’t live like this and end up chucking the whole thing.
        As I pointed out conditions in Western society today cushion these groups from having to deal with a possibly harsh reality in the outside world Should things change (and I think they will sooner than later) then these triumphalist groups will not have the tools to respond to the upcoming challenges, thinking that what worked in the past will work in the future even though conditions may have changed radically.

      • Yaakov Menken says:

        It wasn’t about “poverty,” it was “if you don’t come in on Saturday, you’ll be looking for a new job on Monday.” And it’s not at all about “Torah teachers … not able to show the relevance of Torah” — because they never had the opportunity. These were largely unlearned people coming over to the “goldene medinah” without any education whatsoever designed to help a Jew who would be living outside the shtetl. If we are only talking about being sheltered from the outside world and its influence, today’s world is far more open, even for a resident of Kiryas Joel, than it was in the shtetl surrounded by (often anti-Semitic) non-Jews with no TV, phone or Internet.

      • tzippi says:

        But it was about poverty. No job, no money. No money for food, shelter, medicine…That was why Shabbos was such a test. I am grateful my grandparents and great-grandparents withstood the test, and somehow, they managed to convey simcha along with mesirus nefesh. I also learned that I couldn’t judge those who didn’t pass the test as it was a very powerful one.

  5. Reb Yid says:

    There is another “price” to pay here, aside from what Steve Cohen mentions. It is interesting how some of the commenters here assume that the motivation here is all about being more “religious” (indeed how could they or anyone know what goes on in our hearts) when the truth is far more complex.

    What is known and clear, however, is that the social pressures on those in the Orthodox world have grown tremendously. A few of countless examples: It is now considered deviant if one does go to Israel in the “gap year”. And not just about going to Israel (where at my age one could have gone to kibbutz, Hebrew U, Tel Aviv U, along with spending time at a wide variety of yeshivot), but now the focus tends to be much narrower–going outside some preferred yeshivot or seminaries (even to other yeshivot) may raise eyebrows. And here the pressure is often to stay for Shana Bet, and/or not to come back at all to the US. Or pressuring students not to enroll at the colleges where they were accepted but instead to attend YU.

    I know of several high schools where a student was class valedictorian but the school would not give the student that designation, or allow her/him to speak at graduation, unless that student spent time in Israel in one of several “approved” seminaries, instead of going straight to college.

    The extreme culmination of the growing social pressures is seen in Hasidic communities, where the standards of conformity continue to grow more rigorous, and the sanctions for violating group norms even more nasty. No surprise we’re seeing more cases of those leaving these communities. But there is a variant of this, in different degrees, within different segments of the Orthodox population.

    Most Orthodox Jews I know who grew up in New York City in the middle of the 20th century went to public schools. They were, and remain, learned, observant and religious. The institutional growth of Orthodoxy and the social support system within it are as important to this discussion than any claims. In recent decades, they have enabled many more individuals to be called Orthodox and have strengthened the commitment to Orthodox behaviors which are sanctioned by group norms. But it is a different matter entirely to claim that these individuals are more “religious”.

    So yes, along with all of the positive elements there is, sadly, a “price” to be paid for all of this.

    • Steve Brizel says:

      I applaud any high school that views spending a gap year in Israel and discourages its students from attending the closed minded, decadent and culturally debased milieu of the secular academic world which has degenerated from places of higher learning to “Camp PC.”

      • Reb Yid says:

        It’s not “discourages”. It’s applying heavy-handedness, and following up on threats.

        Again, there is a whole cohort of people who grew up Orthodox (not just nominally so) and attended public institutions of all kinds. Today, this is usually only “permitted” in the Orthodox world if there are “problem” cases, or if a child is particularly “gifted” in an area where only the best general institutions can possibly meet the need.

        This, again, is an area where Open Orthodoxy flourishes. It is far, far less judgemental about what an individual needs to do in order to be considered a full fledged member of the shul and the wider community. You don’t have to go to a particular school, dress a particular way, have a bumper sticker for a particular political candidate (or vote against another) to avoid getting ostracized, tarred or feathered. That’s because all of this is really sociological. Being “religious” is all too often conflated with the social pressures of acting, behaving and “thinking” like the groupthink mentality of the uncritical hordes.

      • YbhM says:

        > This, again, is an area where Open Orthodoxy flourishes. It is far, far less judgemental about what an individual needs to do in order to be considered
        > a full fledged member of the shul and the wider community. You don’t have to go to a particular school, dress a particular way, have a bumper sticker for
        > a particular political candidate (or vote against another) to avoid getting ostracized, tarred or feathered

        This is also an area where “out of town” flourishes. Try visiting any stripe of kehila outside of NYC and the other mega-communities and you will find it much more accommodating.

        Having a big tent has nothing to do with making revolutionary innovations in halacha and dogma.

      • Reb Yid says:

        This goes for your response and Robert Lebovitz’s:

        I totally agree with you that NY is sui generis. I myself grew up in the Midwest (actually in the same shul as Jonathan Rosenblum) and although I currently live in the NY area I’ve lived in a number of other cities along the way.

        The reason why most US cities have far more accommodating Orthodox communities is that they realize they need to get along with other kinds of Jews and other Jewish institutions other than their own (as well as individuals and institutions that may not be Jewish). They are far more likely to participate in Federation and other Jewish communal organizations, and often those Federations play an important role in contributing to local Orthodox institutions. New York Orthodox subgroups can afford to be insular…they don’t even need to deal with the larger spectrum of the larger NY area Orthodox world, let alone the larger NY Jewish communal world.

        New York is central to this discussion since without the explosive Haredi and Hasidic growth the overall US Jewish population would be in serious decline. These are precisely the subcommunities which demand that more and more aspects of Jewish life be done in a single narrow fashion–heterogeneity can be reason enough for censure and expulsion. And we are seeing this seep into other segments of the Orthodox population to varying degrees.

        This is why discussing other forms of general and Jewish education (among dozens of other examples that can be brought) is quite relevant. In my Orthodox shul, we have people who send their kids to every conceivable Jewish shul from a variety of denominations, as well as a few who send their children to public school. No-one is excluded and no-one is considered more “kosher” or ‘religious” based on that criterion.

      • Robert Lebovits says:

        On the hand you write ” New York Orthodox subgroups can afford to be insular…they don’t even need to deal with the larger spectrum of the larger NY area Orthodox world, let alone the larger NY Jewish communal world.” Then later you say “These are precisely the subcommunities which demand that more and more aspects of Jewish life be done in a single narrow fashion…And we are seeing this seep into other segments of the Orthodox population to varying degrees.”
        Which is it, insular or influential? If they don’t deal with other groups then what makes them influential? Except we are talking about NY where the need to be predominant and commanding is that part of the local culture that has infiltrated the Jewish communities as well. Remove those destructive attitudes and the scene changes dramatically.
        Again, there is no enduring continuity of yiddishkeit with an educational model that includes public school.

      • Reb Yid says:

        “Again, there is no enduring continuity of yiddishkeit with an educational model that includes public school.”

        This is precisely the kind of example of heavy handed social pressure which has created new categories of deviance that used to be considered normal.

        No school is good for everyone–period. This is certainly the case in terms of Jewish day schools. Don’t get me wrong–my own kids are in day school (although of a particular type that is known for its educational progressivism and differentiated instruction). But people need to realize that the local Jewish day school/yeshiva may not be appropriate for certain children for a whole host of reasons.

        And then there’s economics. Jewish day school is becoming prohibitively expensive (particularly in the larger communities, aside from the Haredi/Hasidic schools where education is cheap but the quality is poor). But the social stigma attached to leaving a day school, or not sending a child to one is so strong, that it puts unnecessary strains on a family to keep a child or two (or more) in.

        And so we have started to see (in Los Angeles, for one) the reemergence of afternoon Jewish schooling in synagogues since some public schools have had a spike in the numbers of Orthodox kids. There are other ways to educate children Jewishly (home schooling, tutoring, camp, Israel trips). In combination, these have shown to be effective.

        At any rate, one is ill-suited to start casting “religious” labels around; the social context in which Jewish life is being carried out is often a key determinant.

      • Robert Lebovits says:

        Study after study – both from Orthodox and non-Orthodox research sources – has made it crystal clear that children who do not have day school educations are more likely to assimilate by an order of magnitude.
        There are a very small number of children who have exceptional special needs that may not be addressed in a day school, though more and more day schools have extensive special ed programming. That is hardly a model for the more typical child.
        However poor the secular education at some chareidi schools may be, your typical urban public school is at least as bad or worse. In Los Angeles county 44% of elementary school students scored proficient in English and only 31% in math. That’s a worthwhile education?
        The reemergence of afternoon schooling is a ridiculous waste of community financial resources when it’s results has been and remains abysmal. The other ways you mention are hopelessly out of date and of very limited utility to prevent assimilation. Even Birthright – a self-selected program for post HS adults – has been moderately successful in instilling some enhanced Jewish “identity”, but intermarriage among that group is still at an unacceptable level.
        I would suggest you examine the Pew Report on the state of Jewry in America that was done in the last three years to examine “the social context in which Jewish life is being carried out”. When Jewish humor and food is considered a significant source of connection to Judaism, that Jewish soul has long been lost from our people.

      • Robert Lebovits says:

        What precisely is your point in mentioning that once upon a time Jewish children attended public institutions of education? In what way is that relevant to the world we live in today? Are you suggesting that it ought still be viewed as a viable alternative for any Jewish child? It is certainly not “judgmental” to recognize that day school education is an absolute necessity in our times for any degree of Jewish continuity.
        Open Orthodoxy may or may not be judgmental of individuals who live less Jewishly-directed lives; they most definitely are judgmental and critical of large swaths of the community who lead more observant lives.
        Your presumption that being religious is conflated with social pressure is itself conflated. Trying living out of the narrow confines of NY/NJ. You’ll find far greater acceptance and unity of all segments of the Orthodox world and much less pressure for cookie-cutter conformity.

      • YbhM says:

        >I applaud any high school that views spending a gap year in Israel and discourages its students from attending the closed minded, decadent and
        > culturally debased milieu of the secular academic world which has degenerated from places of higher learning to “Camp PC.”

        College is still necessary for parnassa for most people. But yes, these days a YC student can probably get a better appreciation of Shakespeare and Aristotle than a student at Columbia. And thinking that secular studies are valuable in the TIDE or TUM sense is a reactionary view on today’s campuses.

    • Steve Brizel says:

      IIRC, the Talmud in Sanhredin 104 notes that each generation hopes that its children will be more knowledgeable and observant than themselves. We try to fulfill mitzvos in as optimal fashion as possible not R”L because of an OCD like fixation, nut rather out of Ahavas HaShem. Perhaps, the sources for the above comments re Chasidic communities should spend some time there and in the yeshiva world and see what kinds of academic and vocational training programs exist and are being used , as opposed to telling us about the cottage industry of memoirs from drop outs.

  6. Joel rich says:

    Emunah. Belief. Awareness that Torah and Mitzvos are Divine Truth – Ultimate Truth.
    A great study that will never be done – how many people really think about these things on a daily basis versus how many people act out of the path of least resistance or hergel
    Kol tuv

    • David F says:

      Hergel is not a new problem. It’s addressed in many seforim dating back at least a thousand years. Nevertheless, the Orthodox seem to persevere so it appears that it’s not a crippling problem. Furthermore, while everyone suffers from Hergel to some extent, most Orthodox Jews also possess deeply held beliefs that they summon when times are challenging.

      • micha berger says:

        Habit is only one possible alternative to meaningful avodas Hashem. Rav Wolbe (Alei Shur vol II ) also identifies something he calls “frumkeit”. To translate a bit:
        “However this frumkeit, as in all instinctive urges that occur in man, is inherently egoistic and self-centered. Therefore frumkeit pushes man to do only that which is good for himself. Activities between people and actions which are done without ulterior motivations are not derived from frumkeit. One who bases his service of G-d entirely on frumkeit remains self-centered. Even if a person places many pious restrictions on himself – he will never become a kind person and he will never reach the level of being pure motivated. This is why it is necessary that we base our service of G-d on commonsense (da’as). (Study Sotah 22b lists 7 types of activities which it labels as foolish piety. Each one of them is a manifestation of frumkeit without da’as). Da’as has to direct our service of G-d. From the moment we desert da’at and act only according to frumkeit, our Divine service becomes corrupted. This is true even for a person on the level of a Torah scholar.”

  7. Reb Yid says:

    Brief addendum–of course, I meant to say it’s deviant if high school students do NOT go to Israel.

  8. dr. bill says:

    Your essay is a good example of why there is continued controversy over the proper practice of the Brisker methodology. Your opening paragraph reminded me of my rebbe RAL ztl oft repeated comment – “a distinction without a difference.” To prove, or at least argue that a particular factor is defining requires rigor.

    Your term “axiomatic difference” does not help me. Meaningful differences are rarely if ever axiomatic. They must be rigorously demonstrated. Proposing a meaningful difference is much easier than demonstrating it, where the real value of the Brisker method lies.

    Educators and scholars who I tend to believe tell me that issues around emunah are rarely if ever the reason for leaving or joining a traditional religious community. I have never seen a credible demonstration of any single mechalaik/defining factor that guarantees religious continuity. It strikes me that the brisker methodology has been applied to a continually broader field; applying it to human behavior strikes me as a bridge too far.

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