Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Orthodoxy's Growth

The Havdalah Ceremony at an NCSY Winter Conclave
There has been much made about the Pew statistic which states that even though the only segment of Jewry in America that is growing is Orthodox Jewry, their retention rate is not that great… and their outreach programs are not that successful in light of the far greater number of Orthodox Jews that are no longer observant.

I’ve discussed this issue before. But in light of an article by Jerome A. Chanes in e-Jewish Philanthropy  a rebuttal and clarification is in order. From the article: 
(The)Orthodox reaction (of triumphalism) is a tad puzzling, especially in light of the “retention” numbers: how many people have chosen to remain Orthodox – and how many have not?
 On retention rates for the Orthodox, there’s bad news and good news. The bad news is that among those who were raised as Orthodox, only 48 percent are currently Orthodox; the rest are now affiliated with less traditional movements. (The retention numbers for the Conservative are bleaker: only 36 percent of those who were raised Conservative are currently Conservative.) 
The good news: among Orthodox Jews under 30, the retention rate is 83 percent. Noteworthy is that Orthodox retention rates are vastly lower among older people who were brought up Orthodox than they are among younger people. A mere 22 percent of Jews 65 and older who were raised Orthodox are still Orthodox, while 57 percent of people aged 30-49 who were raised Orthodox are still Orthodox – and the percentage rises as the group gets younger. 
 This phenomenon of more younger people retaining observance is easily explained by the author: 
It may be almost clichéd to point this out, but attending day schools through the high school years largely works. Furthermore, we ought not to discount the “gap-year” phenomenon. Unknown 50 years ago and rare 40 years ago, the post-high-school gap year, often spent in a yeshiva in Israel, has become standard for Orthodox youth. The gap year in Israel is a powerful factor cementing adherence of youth to some flavor of Modern, Centrist, or even sectarian (yeshivish) Orthodoxy. 
Day school education is the key to Jewish survival in our day. There is no better proof to that then to see what is happening to other denominations that have not educated their children that way. And as I said yesterday, the ‘gap year’ in Israel does generate ‘growth’ in ones Yiddshkeit which of course means that a lifelong commitment to observance has a solid foundation.  Which is rarely abandoned.

Unfortunately there is a serious and growing OTD phenomenon, where young Jews from religious families abandon observance of Halacha…and in some cases - core Jewish beliefs. But in my view that does not come anywhere near the numbers cited by the Pew report of Orthodox dropouts. Let us examine this.

The abandonment of Orthodoxy seems to be greater in older demorgraphics. The older one is the more likely he will abandon observance. Mr. Chanes does not explain this statistic. But I think the explanation  is obvious. The further back in American Jewish history one goes, the less Jewish education there was. That combined with the melting pot spirit of the times which had a strong assimilationist pull. Becuase of this, many Jews abandoned Orthodoxy in favor of an American lifestyle free of the hindrances of religious observance.

It is also a fact that many immigrant parents found it hard not to work on Shabbos fearing the loss of employment. Working on Shabbos was a standard operating procedure for many if not most jobs all the way into the 50s. So no matter how much a parent wanted their children to be religious, those children saw hypocrisy in the fact that they were expected to be Shomer Shabbos while their fathers worked on Shabbos. That - plus the desire to be ‘American’ in every sense of the word led many a Jew from an ‘Orthodox’ family to run away as fast and as far as they could from their Jewish identities and any level of observance.

It would not surprise me that in the Pew statistic is based on defining Orthdoxy by Shul membership. It was certainly the case that many early immigrants who worked on Shabbos belong toOrthodox Shuls. This was in fact the case in my father’s Shul in Toledo. The president of the Shul used to drive many of  its members to Shul every Shabbos. There were 3 Orthodox Shuls in Toledo back then. And only 3 observant families in the entire city.

If Toledo Jews would have been asked by Pew if they belong to an Orthodox Shul they would have responded in the affirmative. That may very well have been how Pew defined Orthodox Jewry.I can also attest to the fact that not a single one of their children were observant back then - all of them attending public schools. On the other hand it’s possible that some of their grandchildren are. That is where Kiruv comes in. Kiruv (outreach to non observant Jews) has indeed been very successful. As Mr Chanes points out:  
There are data that suggest that a substantial percentage of the Orthodox community – as much as 25 percent, according to some estimates – are “baalei t’shuvah,” so-called “returnees to observance” from other movements. 
And yet earlier in the essay he mentions that 80 to 90 percent of the participants in Kiruv Programs do not ‘stay the course’.  The implication is that with such low percentages of success, how can Kiruv movements claim success?!  I think that misses the point of Kiruv. Certainly these organizations would like to see better percentages. 100% would of course be ideal. But realisticly that will not happen.

Becoming a Baal Teshuva means a major upheaval in one’s life. It requires a commitment to things they may not even know about when they decide to observe Halacha. It means giving up a lifestyle of complete freedom and replacing it with restrictions and rituals in service to God. It often means disapproval by parents and peers. It means not being able to eat at your parents unkosher home anymore. That is an almost impossible task to ask of anyone, no matter how sincere they may be about Judaism.

And yet 25% of Orthodox Jewry has done exactly that. We can never hope to convince all those who participate in organizations like NCSY to make these kinds ofradical changes. But even if the perecentages are low, the numbers are great.  Tens of thousands (if not more) of young Jews from secularor irreligious homes have become observant via Kiruv over the last few decades. While Mr. Chanes is correct that the majority of Orthodox Jewry’s growth is internal, I think he does a disservice to Kiruv organizations like NCSY and Chabad to imply their success rate is dismal.

This is not to say that we should be triumphalist. We shouldn’t be. The sad fact is that we Orthodox are still a minority of  all Jews - less than 10%. Sadly, assimilation is so great that being Jewish is irrelevant to many of them. This is something that needs serious thought and action. Solutions about how to stop the hemorrhaging need to found and implemented. Other denominations are scratching their collective heads about this and are coming up short.

So even though the attrition rate is so very worrisome, we  can take comfort in the fact that in spite of that and in spite of the OTD phenomenon in our own circles,  we are experiencing unprecedented growth both internally and through Kiruv. 

My hat is off to those like NCSY, Chabad, and the many other fine Kiruv organizations who are out in the trenches. Because of all these factors, I believe that Orthodox Jewry will continue to increase their percentages and eventually become the majority. This is not triumphalist. It is just the way I see things unfolding going forward.