Jewish Continuity Isn’t a Zero-Sum Game

Long-standing journalistic tradition has it that although writers of articles and opinion pieces may suggest titles for their submitted work, editors have full discretion to use titles of their own devising. So one might imagine that Messrs. Cohen, Gussow and Pinker greeted publication of their recent piece in The Forward with some consternation, finding it beneath the inflammatory title, “Does Orthodox Explosion Signal Doom for Conservative and Reform?

What the authors provided was a thoughtful and cogent demographic analysis of the Jewish community, divided into three relevant groups: the Orthodox, the liberal movements (Conservative, Reform, and smaller denominations), and the “nondenominational” Jews. Among their conclusions are the following:

The number of middle-aged Jews in 2045 or so is destined to be smaller than it is today… We have a surge of nondenominational Jews in their 20s, possibly owing to the fact that so many children of Reform and Conservative parents have eschewed their childhood denominational identities… At least until now, the nondenominational Jews are far from reproducing themselves. Accordingly, they are destined to decline some decades down the road — unless their numbers are replenished by “dropouts” from the religious denominations.

But the truly startling situation is among Conservative and Reform Jews… If current trends continue, then, in 30 years, we’ll see about half as many Conservative and Reform Jews age 60-69 as we have today. And the number of Conservative and Reform children do not reverse the decline.

Turning to the Orthodox, we find wildly different trends. While just 40,000 are in their 60s, we have triple their number — 120,000 — in their 30s. And, perhaps even more astounding are the number of kids aged 0-9. They amount to 230,000 — over five times the number of people in their 60s.

They bring their data to life with the following contrast:

Metaphorically, every 100 Conservative and Reform Boomers have only 56 photos of Jewish grandchildren in their wallets (or smart phones)… If 100 Orthodox grandparents gathered in shul, they could show their friends photos of 575 grandchildren on their smart phones (but not on Shabbat, of course).

Yes, you read that correctly. The Orthodox are projected to have ten times the number of Jewish grandchildren, and to grow six times as large in two generations — while the liberal population is sliced nearly by half.

The data does “tell a jarring story” — simply that the two communities are heading in opposite directions, and at an accelerating rate. That, however, has no relevance to the chosen title hanging over this important content.

The Forward must engage its readers and entice them with catchy headlines, and it is a journal not known for its fondness for the beliefs or practices of observant Jews. But there is something uniquely unseemly about a title implying that Orthodoxy’s gains are somehow related to Conservative and Reform’s losses. One cannot determine whether the editor imagined a thriving Orthodox community to be merely an indicator of liberal decline, or a causative factor — as the article beneath that headline utterly contradicts either implication.

It was once true that there was an inverse relationship between Orthodoxy and liberal Judaism; at that time, immigrants worked on Shabbos (in an era where one was likely to lose a job otherwise) yet prayed in Orthodox synagogues — but their children turned primarily to the Conservative movement. So the decline in Orthodoxy contributed to the rise of the Conservatives, making the latter the dominant American movement for much of the twentieth century. The next generations moved yet further to the left, such that the Reform peaked in the 1970s or 80s.

Intensive Jewish education and commitment reversed Orthodoxy’s decline; today neither an Orthodox nor liberal upbringing feeds into the other in significant numbers. Although it may be true that many Jews from non-Orthodox families adopt Jewish observance each year, their numbers are at most a minor factor in the decline of the non-Orthodox movements. Cohen, Gussow and Pinker don’t even mention this aspect. And, perhaps tellingly, those who drop out of observance after obtaining a day school education rarely join either of the liberal movements. So the growth of Orthodoxy and decline of liberal Judaism are independent phenomena.

Not only are the Orthodox not contributing to the implosion of liberal Judaism, but they are in the forefront of efforts to hold it back. Among the identity-enhancing Jewish activities suggested by the authors are several in which Orthodox Jews help to inspire non-Orthodox youth and young adults: Jewish day schools, Chabad on campus, Hillel, and trips to Israel. Olami on campus and Orthodox-run websites like, and are but a few other examples. While Orthodox teachers and guides in these programs would readily agree that full Jewish observance might be the ideal outcome, they would also tally anyone who commits to building a Jewish home as a “success,” and acknowledge that this is the far more likely outcome of their efforts.

The American Jewish population is not a zero-sum game; one community’s failure to perpetuate itself cannot be blamed upon the other. Several of the reasons for Orthodoxy’s burgeoning growth were beautifully described by Avital Chizhik-Goldschmidt in her op-ed which appeared the same day — none of these come at the expense of liberal Judaism. If the prognosis for Conservative and Reform Judaism is “doom,” it is not because of Orthodoxy, but despite Orthodox efforts to help their more liberal brethren to stanch their losses.

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13 Responses

  1. Bob Miller says:

    The goal is to attract the maximum number of Jews, really all Jews to believe and live as proper Jews. If we succeed, the pseudo-Jewish movements will collapse, but their former adherents and all other Jews will benefit in the best possible way. So the advance of Orthodox Judaism is a zero-sum game only on the organizational level, not on the people level.

  2. lacosta says:

    i wonder if there is data on what rabbi menken implies: that when O [MO? hareidi? ] youth go OTD , if they don’t ‘come back’ do they go ‘all the way’ and wind up essentially non-practicing anything; or do they opt for a less intense Conservative temple that would allow egalitarianism, pick-what-you-want observance, etc ?

  3. Heshy Bulman says:

    Noble sentiments expressed, but essentially untrue. The writer is conflating issues here. We certainly wish to express the fervent hope that Jews of all stripes find their way back to Torah observance, but we cannot deny that we sincerely wish for the utter demise of both Conservative and Reform Judaism, both utter falsifications of what we received at Har Sinai, and, as such, perpetual purveyors of Chillul Hashem As it happens, most likely Baalei Teshuva have always come from the Conservative camp, but that does not mean that we wish the MOVEMENT to survive and thrive. WE DO NOT WANT TO LOSE A SINGLE JEW – at the same time we cannot be complacent about Faux Judaism. How pathetic the following sentence: “they would also tally anyone who commits to building a Jewish home as a “success,” My father, Rav Nachman Bulman, Z’L , whose name is known everywhere among Kiruv activists, spent his entire career railing against just this kind of “success”. In truth, this is indeed a zero-sum enterprise – either Jews find their way to Torah through our efforts and encouragement or, Chalilah, they head for the exits, notwithstanding the relative few in a succeeding generation who might return. We must not forget for a single moment that we are engaged in a fierce struggle against these movements. The disclaimer serves no purpose.

    • Yaakov Menken says:

      I don’t, of course, disagree with you on the demise of the liberal movements, and how we hope that R & C adherents turn towards Jewish observance. But in practice we are shoring up the Jewish identity of their children, and thus are in no way responsible for their collapse — just the opposite.

      If you are correctly depicting your father’s opinion, I can tell you that most everyone in the field would disagree with it. it is hardly “pathetic” to prevent an intermarriage, opening up the possibility that the next generation will take further steps in the right direction. A Jew committed to marrying another Jew is no small thing, but is a success worth celebrating. None of that reduces our desire to help Jews find their way to true observance.

      • Mycroft says:

        Essentially agree with Rabbi Menken. It is positive to have Jews remain Jewish and certainly if they succeed in raising a new generation of Jews. Of course, the ideal is that every Jew finds their way to be. Torah observant Jew.

        It is nothing to celebrate if an R or C Jew leaves active Judaism,. Obviously, we prefer them to become fully observant.

        One can note that Rav A Lichtenstein once wrote that we are not worse off if the Jew in Dubuque goes to a R or C synagogue than nothing. Rav Soloveitchik while refusing to enter a mixed pew synagogue in a published letter praises the leadership of a Conservative Synagogue for helping bring Judaism to a new section of Boston.

        There are two covenants Bris Avot and Bris Sinai. Of course we believe that one must keep both, but certainly as RYBS held that Sinai didn’t repudiate Bris Avos. Obviously bidieved but we leave in such a world.Better to have Jewish identity stay pretty of Jewish people even if one sadly does not accept mitzvot.

      • Steve Brizel says:

        The real issue is that even if R and C provided a positive means of Jewish continuity (which is a debatable proposition), such does not last beyond one or two generations at the most and today increasingly is marked by the adoption of the progressive agenda when the same conflicts with any traditional sense of Jewish continuity. It is very debatable today as opposed to the 1950s or even 1980s whether Bris Avos as marked by support for Israel can compete with the progressive agenda.

  4. Leah Frommer says:

    There is no doubt that a huge wave of balei tshuva came straight out of Conservative pews. It was the most dedicated serious Conservative kids with a strong background in Hebrew and Jewish ritual who made up a large percentage of the bal tshuva wave we saw 20-30 years ago. Orthodox Jews will be getting less BTs from this generation….

    • Yaakov Menken says:

      I agree with you on both counts. I would like to believe that I am one of those “most dedicated serious Conservative kids” to which you refer, and I certainly credit their training with the fact that I can daven for the Amud without sounding like, well, a BT.

      The impact of 100,000 BT’s is tremendous, and I didn’t mean to imply otherwise. But when we are talking about the near-50% decline of a community of 3,000,000, even more at the time, and some percentage of the BTs came from “nondenominational,” these BTs aren’t a significant numerical factor in the decline. This is especially true as you are sadly correct about the new generation, as well.

    • Mycroft says:

      IIRC half a century ago the then Jewish Studies Program at YU was heavily composed of two groups those who came from a Conservative background and those who went to Talmud Torahs associated with Orthodox synagogues. Sadly, both sources hardly exist anymore.

      The above sentence should not be misconstrued to mean that I would not prefer that every Jewish child receive a day school/ yeshiva education,. However, for various reasons that is not happening and thus we should not give up on anyone.

  5. DF says:

    I agree that Reform and Conservative – under those specific trademarks – are essentially doomed. But worthwhile recalling are the predictions of the 1950s that orthodoxy would soon disappear. Some of us, despite being quite aware of those failed predictions, might inadvertently be doing the same with regard to orthodoxy, only in the opposite direction. Having nothing similar in history to guide us, we have no idea if the current expansion rates are sustainable, or if the current dropout rates will increase or decrease. There are also “unknown unknowns” to consider, namely, the reaction of the larger community around us, both Jewish and Gentile. Surely no one is naïve enough to think their fortunes have no impact on our orthodox ones.

    We also don’t know how our children will react to all this “religion” surrounding them, which their parents never experienced. Indeed, many well-known orthodox personalities – including much of the American Agudah’s leadership, including the editors of this site – grew up in public school settings. That didn’t seem to hurt them; to the contrary, it probably helped. So what makes us think that kids today, growing up with “learning” being literally pushed on them almost every minute of the day, will be as receptive to orthodoxy as previous generations? Teens often rebel, after all, or if you prefer a happier term, they go off in their own direction. Perhaps the same spirit that fueled the baal teshuvah movement will fuel another movement in the opposite direction. In this regard we do have history as a guide, and unfortunately, that history isn’t very encouraging. (Jews left observance in Europe in the hundreds of thousands.) Were this to happen, it would not be long before Reform and Conservative arose again – under a brand new trademark – to fill the same roles they have filled, under countless different names, since the times of the second Temple.

    Not to be a Dovid Downer. Just some points for consideration.

    • Yaakov Menken says:

      You’re absolutely right about this, but there is a very substantial difference. The Day School movement reversed Orthodoxy’s decline — the problem was lack of involvement, and education ensures that children are involved. So there was a particular problem, and despite the gloom and doom predictions, the problem was resolved. Reform and Conservative are not getting their next generation more involved; the opposite is happening, as the far smaller number of Solomon Schechter (Conservative) and Reform days schools is in decline.

      • Bob Miller says:

        The problem is resolved by day school only for those admitted to day school. If the admission policy at the nearby day school(s) is too restrictive, because of a desire to advertise an elite program and clientele, or because of high tuition or a simple lack of space, some of the problem remains.

  6. Steve Brizel says:
    An important and excellent link. FWIW, JSS always had alumni of USY, NCSY and YU seminar some of whom, but certainly by no means all were there because of their experience in a Talmud Torah as pre Bar Mitzvah students but rather because they decided to not to go elsewhere because they wanted to learn how to learn and go to college at the same time. Perhaps, one issue is why MO as a movement except for the OU and NCSY seems to view Kiruv as the province of the Chareid world.

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