|Why Orthodox Jews succeed where other fail: Education
There is more evidence of Jewish population decline among non Orthodox Jews. A 2013 Pew Research study has shown that there is a high rate of attrition from heterodox movements. More Jews than ever identify as unaffiliated. Conservative Judaism - the once dominant movement in Judaism has dropped to second place and slipping down that scale with a bullet.
Intermarriage is at an all time high – affecting mostly non Orthodox denominations. Where ‘marrying in’ was once considered the sine non qua of one’s Judaism by Jews of virtually all denominations, it has become so commonplace that there are an increasing number of Conservative rabbis performing them. Which means that if the mother is the non Jewish partner, their children are not Halalchicly Jewish.
There is yet another reason for the demise. One that seems to be accelerating it. From the Jewish Press:
A study published by the Jewish People Policy Institute (JPPI) this week shows that the non-Orthodox American Jews including atheists, Conservative and Reform, who in years past were the foundation of American Jewry, have been in significant decline in recent decades. That’s not news to most of us, but the rate of decline, according to JPPI, is alarming.
The study, conducted by Sylvia Barack Fishman of Brandeis University and Steven M. Cohen of Hebrew Union College and Stanford University, analyzes the data in the landmark 2013 Pew Research Institute survey of American Jewry.
The analysis shows that more than 65 percent of Jewish children 18 or younger are raised Orthodox, mainly ultra-Orthodox. Also, more than 27% of Jewish children today are Orthodox – while only 12% of US Jewry, at most, is Orthodox. Obviously, the discrepancy here is the result of the much higher birthrates in Orthodox families, which means that this trend is bound to increase in a decade.
Otherwise, according to the study, “considerable disturbing evidence points to deeply challenging trends in America’s Jewish families — late marriage, intermarriage, reduced child-bearing and non-Jewish child-rearing.”
I don’t care how you couch this analysis. The lifestyles of non observant Jews contribute to their demise while the lifestyles of Orthodox Jews who are by definition observant insure that in the vast majority of cases, their children will continue that heritage. And their increased birthrate will insure that the population will increase exponentially. All while the lifestyles of the non Orthodox tend towards the general cultural values of marrying late (if at all) and having less children (if any) later in life. Children that in many cases will not be educated to be committed Jews –ending up with secular humanistic values rather than Jewish ones.
I’ve discussed the responses to this crisis (and yes, it’s a crisis) by the Reform and Conservative movements – the 2 dominant Jewish denominations in America.
Breifly, Reform’s answer is to simply change the rules of what defines a Jew. Thereby adding to their numbers by making Jews out people that Halacha does not consider Jewish. The Conservative Movement has done a variety of things to make Conservative Judaism more attractive and user friendly. And both denominations have tried to make inroads to secular Israelis in Israel – pinning their hopes on the fact that at least in Israel – being a Jew means something even if you are secular. (While in America, that is increasingly becoming less the case.) That will not help them in the long run – even of helps them in the short run. Which at best is questionable.
The authors of this study have it right. As do some of the Conservative Movement’s brighter lights like Professor Jack Wertheimer and Rabbi Daniel Gordis. It isn’t about making your denomination more attractive – or user friendly – or easier to observe. Orthodox Jew are not observant because Orthodoxy makes practicing Judaism easier. Adherence to Halacha makes it harder. And yet we are growing exponentially while other denominations are shrinking . And fast according to this latest analysis.
One might be perplexed at this phenomenon. It is counter intuitive at first blush. The harder something is to do, the less likely people will do it - one might think. But that is clearly not the case with Orthodox Jewry. We are observant - difficult though that may be. And we perpetuate our ideals generationally. We have been doing what these pollsters and the above-mentioned Conservative rabbis advocate for their own denomination. We educate our children Jewishly – mostly through our educational system and by practicing what we preach. Our children are not only taught how to observe, but they see it in action in their homes by their parents. And generally speaking there is no better role model for a child than a parent.
As I often say about this subject when I talk about it, I take no joy in reporting these statistics or commenting on them. They are just the facts as laid out by professional pollsters and sociologists. Facts which I take note of and consider a serious problem not only for heterodox denominations but for all of Jewry. Losing Jews to assimilation and because of a low birth rate is not anything to celebrate. It is something to lament.
Outreach is one way we can deal with this problem. But it is a drop in the bucket. If current statistics tell us anything, the trend is that there will increasingly be more Jews dropping out of any semblance of Judaism than there are those dropping in. This should make us redouble our Kiruv efforts. But it will still not be enough to address the problem. I have no answers. Just reporting the sad facts.
A word of caution to our own Orthodox members. Along with our increasing numbers; larger families; and the trend away from educating our children in secular subjects - comes increasing numbers of our own dropouts (OTDs). While the majority of our children will remain loyal to our traditions and practices, the increasing number of those that don’t should alarm us.
The only way to at least reduce this trend among our own is to practice the ancient educational ideal that is as valid today as it was when it was recorded in Proverbs: Chanoch L’Naar Al Pi Darko. We ought to rethink the ‘cookie cutter’ approach to Jewish education that dominates the Charedi world and educate each child according to his or her own talents and abilities. We need to reevaluate how subjects other than Torah study are treated. That will surely have a beneficial impact on us all and hopefully reduce the OTD rate significantly.