Tuesday, August 02, 2011

Off the Derech Charedim

Hundreds. Maybe a couple of thousand over the least decade. These are the numbers of Charedim who go OTD cited in an article on Jewish Ideas Daily. Considering that there are an estimated 500,000 Charedim in the United States, this is not a large number. Less than 1% of the total.

But consider the following facts mentioned in the article. Charedi demographic growth is increasing because of their typically large family size. Other segments of Jewry have the lowest growth rate of any ethnic group. This reality is not limited to the US. It is a worldwide phenomenon. It should therefore not be surprising that if present trends continue there will be sizable increases in the number of Charedim that go OTD. Not that the 2000 or so that have already gone OTD should be ignored.

Why this phenomenon is happening is something I have written about in the past. But it is not the focus of this post. It is not about how they got there. It is about where they are now and where they are going.

I have long ago predicted that the wave of the future belongs to Charedim. But I have also maintained that the vast majority of them will be moderate – both of the Yeshivish and Chasdiic variety. And they will live their lives very similar to what I call the right wing Modern Orthodox – who will eventually merge into a more or less cohesive social if not ideological unit.

At the same time the hard core Satmar type Chasidic element as well as the hard core Charedi Yeshivishe element will basically lives separate and apart from the rest of the moderate Charedi world. They are the ones who will continue building the walls of separation between themselves and everyone else higher and stronger… while constantly increasing the number of Chumros in their lives – usually in the area of Bein Adam L’Makom.

I tend to believe that most of those who go OTD will be coming from those groups. At least this is what I have gleaned from the article:

(many Hasidic boys can't read English beyond third-grade level) and… Many possess only rudimentary secular knowledge and communication skills.

This is the description of the Satmar type Chasidic element. And if current trends opposing secular studies in the Yeshivshe Charedi world continues – it will not only be Chasidim who can't read English beyond third-grade level.

One of the interesting things about Charedim who go OTD is that they do not stop and look at other Orthodox alternatives. They do not even consider any of the other denominations either. They go completely secular. One has to ask why that is.

Here is a partial explanation:

What is true for nearly all of these defectors is that they want no part of established Jewish life, and the place you're least likely to find them is an American synagogue. For one thing, ex-Haredim, however alienated, usually see their past religious life as far richer than the more liberal versions of Judaism on offer, and are put off by the surprising (to them) Jewish illiteracy of congregants elsewhere. They are baffled by (and justly cynical of) the ubiquitous mission statements of Jewish organizations proclaiming that "Jewish values" find their highest expression in "social justice." There is no attraction here, either.

I can understand why they would feel uncomfortable as Conservative or Reform Jews. But what about Modern Orthodoxy? Do they see that just as devoid of the ‘richness’ of their last lives as non Orthodox denominations? It would seem so. But I would posit that they never really gave Modern Orthodoxy a chance. I do agree that modern Orthodoxy is a strange place for a Chasidic or very RW Charedi Jew to find himself. The backgrounds of these Charedim are so dissimilar to what they were used to that Modern Orthodoxy probably seems just as strange to them as Conservative and Reform Judaism does. They might take a cursory look at an MO Shul and say, this is not for them. It’s not what they are looking for. So they just chuck the whole thing! And begin a whole new life.

That’s where an organization like Footsteps comes in. They help them transition from an observant lifestyle to a non observant one and provide a tremendous service to these Charedi OTDs in helping them adjust. The irony is that most of the services they provide (as described in the article) are not in and of themselves anti religious:

In addition to social opportunities, Footsteps offers a high-school equivalency program (many Hasidic boys can't read English beyond third-grade level), an art group, college scholarships and career counseling, a housing program…

The question is where are we, the modern Orthodox world? Why do we not have a ‘Footsteps’ of our own? Wouldn’t it make sense to try and keep these expatriate Chasidim or Charedim observant? There are some very fine organizations that deal with outreach to the uninitiated. What about outreach to people who know what it’s all about? Why allow for conditions that make them shun Modern Orthodoxy right along with Conservative and Reform? Yes,their past religious orientation makes it is strange and even foreign to them. But is there nothing we can do to make them feel more at home? If it is the secular world they now seek, Modern Orthodoxy can certainly give it to them! And at the same time they can remain observant.

I realize that in many cases they simply want to opt out of any observance at all. But I also believe that in at least some cases, they might just get want they want in modern Orthodoxy as well. Shouldn’t we be providing incentives instead of ignoring them or just writing them off?

If they look with a certain nostalgia at their past, why not offer them a path to retain some of that culture within the context of a Modern Orthodox setting. Are there no Shteiblach in the upper West Side? Are there no moderate Charedim or Chasidim that have gone to college and professional schools that can serve as role models to them? ...that have retained much of their heritage and at the same time embraced the modernity that is so appealing to them?

I think we can do a lot better.