Wednesday, November 24, 2021

Orthodoxy is Growing but All is Not Well

Rabbi Dr. Jacob J. Schacter (Jewish Link)
One of the sad realities I have discussed here (many times) is the gloomy future for the vast majority of American Jewry. As Pew Research has shown, 72% of non Orthodox American Jews are intermarried. And there is every indication that this trend will continue if not increase. The other 28% do not exactly have a brighter future either. Pew has shown that many non Orthodox Jews care little (if at all) about their Judaism – even if they do not intermarry. 

Although there are some non Orthodox Jews that may care and strongly identify as Jewish, they will not necessarily pass that down to their children.  This – despite the efforts of heterodoxy to instill some form of Jewish identity into their constituencies. They have simply not succeeded in doing that to any significant number… as Pew sadly demonstrates. 

The number of Jews identifying as Conservative is at an all time low in its over 100 year history. And even though Reform Judaism claims to be increasing their numbers, that is mostly because they have broadened the definition of who is a Jew is to the point of making it almost meaningless.

Judaism will not, however, die. Orthodox Jewry is growing. But as Rabbi Jacob J. Schacter notes in Jewish Action, all is not well. It’s true that we are growing. But at the same time we are losing members too. The net result may be an increase. But that comes largely as a result of a very high birth rate. While that is not inherently bad and is in fact praiseworthy, it ignores the relatively high rate of young people (and many cases older people) going OTD.  From the article, here are some telling statistics about Jews that consider themselves Orthodox: 

– 14 percent do not report that religion is very important in their lives;

– 5 percent do not report that being Jewish is at least somewhat important to them;

– 25 percent do not report that their religious faith provides them with a great deal of meaning and fulfillment;

– 17 percent do not report that observing Jewish law is essential to being Jewish;

– 31 percent do not report that being part of a Jewish community is essential to being Jewish;

– 23 percent do not report that they often mark Shabbat in a way that is meaningful to them;

– 9 percent do not report that it is very important to them that any potential grandchildren are Jewish;

– 17 percent report that they attend synagogue a few times a year or less. 

Rabbi Schacter admits that he’s not sure how to interpret these numbers. He wonders what it means to ‘consider oneself Orthodox’. It’s quite possible for example that one can identify that way without any tangible Orthodox practices – by merely being member of an Orthodox Shul.

The most disturbing statistic is the following: 

33 percent of Jews raised as Orthodox do not continue to identify with Orthodoxy as adults. 

Some of that can be attributed to Jewish families that are nominally Orthodox but not observant to any significant degree. But it is also a product of an increasing OTD problem that cuts across all Hashkafic lines.

I have no clue what the percentage of the 33% come from observant homes. But I do know it is not a small number. Even if it is a third of that percentage, it would mean that over 10% of children raised in observant homes go OTD. Orthodoxy is simultaneously growing while losing members. That the growth is greater that the loss should be of no comfort to us. 

The question is why? 

There is no ‘one size fits all’ answer to that.  But if I had to pick one common feature that affects all segments of Orthodoxy it would be that as parents and teachers we are not inspiring our youth to love their Judaism. We are not making it meaningful to them. There is no sense of love of who we are and pride in how we live as observant Jews. We expect our youth to just follow suit in the family’s observant tradition. 

This may work for the majority of Orthodox families, but clearly not all.  Especilly those that fall through the cracks in our educational system. If a child does not do well in school, he will become bored very quickly. In many cases bored with observance itself. That can easily lead to finding things that do interest them - which have nothing to do with Judaism and in  some cases are anathema to it.  The ‘Fire and Brimstone’ approach will only go so far before a child will stop believing in it.

The question is, how do we inspire our youth to be observant? Rabbi Schacter makes reference to Kiruv organizations like NCSY, that have begun focusing some of their attention on young people in religious day schools. They have begun to realize that there is work to be done ‘at home’. Meaning among  disaffected youth from observant homes. 

It is a much harder task inspiring youth from observant homes on their way out than it is inspiring youth from non observant homes on their way in. Day school youth at risk think they already know what it means to be observant and they want out.  But even though it’s much harder it can be done. I witnessed one such case myself a few years ago. A disaffected youth from a very large Charedi family fell through the cracks of the school he attended. He was on his way out of observance having already abandoned much of Halachic observance 

It took some convincing but he was persuaded to give NCSY a try. There he found out that you don’t have to be Charedi to be fully observant. NCSY inspired him to return to this new (to him) form of observant Judaism. Today he is married and leading a fully observant life in Israel.

Let me hasten to add that there is more than one way to skin a cat. Charedim that go OTD do not necessarily have to become modern Orthodox. The main thing is to somehow inspire them - and then let them find their own niche. 

I agree with Rabbi Schacter.  We need to do more – a lot more to stop the flow of so many youth from observant homes out of Judaism. We may not be successful in all cases. But that should not stop us from trying. We will certainly be successful in some.