Thursday, January 28, 2016

Do Ten Percent of Charedim in Israel Go OTD?

United Torah Judaism MK Eliezer Moses
According to a government statistic cited in this news website (Hebrew) one out of ten Charedim in Israel drop out of observance. If true - that is an astonishing number.

These numbers are backed up by a survey taken by the Central Bureau of Statistics . Approximately 157,000 respondents said they were Orthodox at home at the age of 15 , more than 12 thousand define themselves as non Charedi.

Add to this fact is another astonishing statistic: more Charedim in Israel leave observant Judaism than come into it as Baalei Teshuva.  Now I doubt that this means that the Charedi world is shrinking. Their very high birth rate more than compensates for the loss.  If you have 10 children and one goes OTD, you have still added 9 people to your group. And those nine children will no  doubt have 10  each of their own.

But still, the dropout rate is shocking. Yehuda Moses, son of Charedi MK, Eliezer Moses sees this as a revolution comparable to the Arab Spring. There is no Charedi home that is no affected by it. One has to wonder if the rate of dropping is increasing,  will it ever catch up and surpass the internal growth rate and actually shrink the population?

The question is why? Why are unprecedented numbers of Charedi young people rejecting the teachings of their parents and teachers? What makes this question even more compelling is the fact these communities go to extraordinary lengths to shelter their children from the outside world for a variety of reasons. Not the least of which is this one. They live lives in virtual isolation from the rest of society – entering it only as absolutely necessary. And even then they try and do so with as little interaction as possible.

The problem causing this high dropout rate is obvious. Charedi leaders know what it is. And they have tried mightily to deal with it. But by now it should be clear that their solution to it isn’t working.

The problem is that their insular ways are not working for 10% of their population. The things they forbid become the objects of obsession for the masses. The ‘information highway’ is now accessible at your fingertips.  Telling people not to use it, just makes it all the more desirable.  The Gemarah in Nedarim 91B (quoting Mishlei 9:17) tells us ‘Mayim Genuvim Yimtaku’ - stolen waters, are sweeter. The more forbidden something is - the more desirable it becomes. 

Smartphones are everywhere and are easy to hide. An as anyone who owns one knows, they are the fastest and easiest way to get information.  Questions that a young Charedi student wouldn’t dare ask a parent, let alone a Rebbe in a Yeshiva or Beis Yaakov can easily be researched online – on your phone. 

You want to know about the origins of the  universe? Just ask Siri. (…an I-Phone application that has a name and responds verbally to your questions - or searches the web for answers.) Very few of those answers will  say God created it. Add to this the ubiquitous pornography that shows up on your screen often unsolicited because of the way you searched for something... and all the temptations of the world suddenly become very accessible.

The Charedim interviewed in this article seem to be conceding that isolationism is not working and express fears that this trend will only get worse. Although there is still a lot of denial about this by rabbinic leaders - just as there is about the fact that there are so many dropouts.

For those of us that use the internet responsibly and allow our children controlled access with proper filters, the dangers are considerably reduced, albeit not eliminated. I doubt that moderate Charedim, Centrists, and even the far left are dropping out of observance because of that kind of exposure to the internet. (Although I’m sure it does happen.)  Nor does it mean that they are spared from huge dropout numbers. But to whatever extent it exists it probably won’t be because of stealthy use of internet devices.

There is another interesting statistic quoted. One that is more surprising than the one quoted above. According to some estimates, 1 in 4 Dati Leumi  (National Religious) Jews drop out of observance! It seems to me that – by far - they have a much bigger problem.

I have no clue why that percentage is so high. But if I had to guess it might be the fact that there are a lot of DL-Lite families whose commitment to observance is tenuous at best. When their children enter army service many will end up just going with the flow of an army that is populated with a majority of recruits whose lifestyles are a lot more hedonistic.

I doubt that this percentage applies to the many DLs that are committed to their Judaism and serve in the army with distinction while being fully committed to observance. Nor does it include those DLs that are in Hesder Yeshivas that combine their army service with Torah study. These young people are the cream of the Israel crop. I doubt that too many of them leave religious life. If anything their religious commitment is probably strengthened by it.

One thing seems certain, however. The inevitable exponential growth of observant Jews in Israel does not seem so inevitable anymore. And by observant I include all Orthodox Jews. Not just Charedim.

I don’t know what to do about the 25% DLs that are leaving the fold (if that is indeed the percentage). But I think I do know what can help the Charedi world prevent more of their people from leaving. It would be to reconsider their insular ways and allow a little bit of the outside world in. Not only by allowing controlled intent use. But by allowing them to get an education in addition to Torah study that will enable them achieve financial security without reliance on charity. It won’t hurt them. It will instead help them  thrive well into the future.