There was an interesting and somewhat shocking claim made on an e-mail list to which I belong. The claim was that 50% of Orthodox Jews who attend secular universities go Off the Derech (OTD). I don’t know if that’s true but after thinking about it, it would not surprise me all that much if it is. It is unfortunately the nature of the beast in certain circumstances.
That statement requires some explanation.
Modern Orthodoxy is a huge category. It encompasses many different types of religious Jews some of whom may have less in common with each other than some they do with some Charedim at one end and Conservative Judaism on the other.
Modern Orthodoxy is not really a description of an ideology. It is more of a sociological description which encompasses many ideologies. What they all have in common is that they are observant and embrace modernity. This is in contrast to Charedi and Chasidic attitudes that see utilizing modernity only as needed - for example driving a car or going to the best doctors - but to be otherwise avoided whenever possible.
In my estimation there are three distinct groups that comprise it. Right Wing Modern Orthodox (RWMO), Left Wing Modern Orthodox (LWMO), and Modern Orthodox Lite (MO-Lite).
There is another group of Jews called Orthoprax. They consist of Jews who are religious in practice but are in fact not believers. They continue to practice the Mitzvos - but do not do so for religious reasons. They might do it for social reasons so as to be accepted by their religious peers, or to please religious parents, or simply because they believe that the observant lifestyle is the best way to live one’s life and produce the best results for their children. Or maybe even because they are simply just used to being observant. But I do not include them in the category of Modern Orthodox because this group crosses all Orthodox lines including Charedi and Chasidic ones. Orthopraxy is beyond the scope of this essay.
RWMO is that category that seeks to follow Halacha as meticulously as possible, follows long established non Halachic traditions and resists attempts to change them in order to accommodate the current Zeitgeist. I consider myself to be in this category. Ideologically we tend to follow the principles of Torah Im Derech Eretz as interpreted by Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch, or Torah U’Mada (in broad and varied interpretation). And we embrace modernity where it does not conflict with Halacha.
LWMO is pretty much the same with the exception of trying to innovate change in non Halachic but traditional areas of Jewish life - pushing the envelope of change to fit in with the spirit of the times.
MO-Lite may very well be the largest category of Modern Orthodox Jews. They tend not to be as focused on the ideological as they are on the social. They are heavily peer influenced and are in effect more modern that they are Orthodox. They were themselves raised modern in observant homes and have minimal religious educations.
They continue following in the paths of their parents, are basically observant in the major areas of Shabbos and Kashrus, but will almost always choose lifestyle over what they see as minor Halachos when they come into conflict. They will call it ‘picking and choosing’ and say something like ‘Everyone picks and chooses what they observe anyway, don’t they? ... this is what we choose.’
So for example in matters of Tznius in dress, MO-Lite women wear the kind of clothing worn by the general public. Jeans or slacks; sleeveless tops or open cut tops are fairly common. Running shorts are the apparel of choice for MO-Lite female joggers. And they generally do not cover their hair. (Both RWMO and LWMO generally do cover their hair.) MO-Lites will have mixed dance sets at their weddings usually after the separate ‘Hora’ type one sees at religious weddings.
They do value religion enough to send their children to parochial schools but insist that the secular studies be the primary focus of the school – all with the goal of getting their children into prestigious universities.
If the focus of a home is lifestyle and success at the American dream, it should not be too much of a surprise that when a son or daughter goes off to college and imbibes in the permissive and often promiscuous lifestyle of the university campus that they can easily go OTD - and often do. In effect they do what their parents did, choosing lifestyle over observance.
It is from this group that the statistics about MOs in universities going OTD at such a high rate is drawn.
Let me be quick to add that there are no hard and fast lines drawn between these three subgroups. Some have a little of this and others have a little of that. As always there exceptions to every rule. Additionally age is a factor. So for example an older woman may very well be RWMO and not cover her hair because that was simply not done by anyone in her circle when she got married.
With these descriptions of MO demographics in mind let us now look at that college attending MO -OTD statistic.
50% is a huge number and it may very well be overblown. And it also means that 50% of these kids do not go OTD and remain observant – even in the sexually permissive environment of a secular university in our day. That probably has something to do with the peer group one associates with, and the amount of religious support and services available on campus. If there are Minyanim and religious study groups and there are kosher meals available on campus, a motivated MO student can – along with other motivated students find their way there. That’s a good thing.
But even if we cut it in half 25% is still a huge number of kids going OTD. That’s one out of every four!
I don’t know that there is anything that can be done about this. Parents who are determined to send their kids to the prestigious universities will remain convinced that this is the way to go. They will point to campuses that have successfully kept Orthodox students observant. But that does not change the fact that so many kids from Orthodox backgrounds do go OTD.
To those who insist on the prestigious school for their kids - my advice would be to send your kids to a place like Yeshiva University for undergraduate school and to one of the prestigious schools for grad school or professional school. I believe the success rate for retaining observance will be much higher then.
But at the same time it is far more important for MO-Lites to start being more serious about their Judaism and choose Halacha over lifestyle. That in the end will make all the difference in the world.