Observations on Orthodox Jews in the Pew
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Observations on Orthodox Jews in the Pew

The Pew Research Center just released a major 200 page study of American Jewry. The study – which the foundation undertook because the Jewish community neither could afford it nor agree on it – looks at both demography and affiliation.

Here are some statistics that interested me:

Pew estimates that there are 6.7 million American Jews overall; of that number, 5.3 million are adults.

The percentage of Jews in the United States is smaller than it used to be, because so many Hispanics have come to this country recently, and so few of them are Jewish. On the other hand, there have been two major waves of Jewish immigrants from the former Soviet Union in recent decades. As a result, 14 percent of Jewish adults today are foreign born; that is only slightly below the rate for all Americans.

The biggest news is that since 2000, 71% of non-Orthodox Jews who married chose to wed non-Jews. How the entire community handles the reality will determine the future of American Jewry.

Despite the changes in Jewish identity in America, 94 percent of U.S. Jews say they are proud to be Jewish. Three-quarters of U.S. Jews also say they have “a strong sense of belonging to the Jewish people.”

Most Jews (73%) said that remembering the Holocaust was essential to being Jewish. Overall 42% of Jews thought a sense of humor was important for their Jewishness, which should be compared to the only 43% of Jews who feel Israel is important for their Jewishness.

The survey marks the end of the Orthodox community’s triumphalist sense of growth; the community’s losses are several times larger than its gains. The survey finds that approximately one-quarter of people who were raised Orthodox since have become Conservative or Reform Jews. Just 7 percent of Jews raised in the Reform movement have become Conservative or Orthodox, and just 4 percent of those raised in Conservative homes have become Orthodox.

Seventeen percent of 20-somethings have left Orthodoxy so far, but a whopping 43 percent of millennials and Gen Xers are gone and these younger generations were raised after the triumphal rise of a more committed Orthodoxy. This has happened despite the millions spent on an army of kiruv workers during those years. The old news was that 59 percent of the baby boomers who were raised Orthodox have left that world – but that was a different era when many were non-observant Orthodox to start..

The statistics about Orthodox retention are striking enough to include.

Orthodox retention, showing, by age, the affiliation of people raised as Orthodox Jews:

One in 10 Jews identify with Orthodox Judaism. That includes 6 percent who belong to charedi groups and 3 percent who are modern Orthodox. This would yield 670,000 Orthodox Jews, with 202, 000 of them modern Orthodox and 403,000 charedim. (From other studies, we see that of the charedim, over 75 percent are are chasidim and less than 25 percent yeshivish, maybe as low as 16 percent. The yeshiva world makes much noise for its size.) We have 101,000 other Jews who identify as Orthodox, but neither as modern nor charedi. That group includes Sfardim, Edot Hamizrah, Israelis, and immigrants from Latin America and the former Soviet Union.

Here is a shocker. People were asked if it is possible to be Jewish and not believe in God. Many said yes, it is possible. In fact, 50 percent of charedim, 70 percent of the modern Orthodox, 56 percent of Conservative Jews, and 66 percent of Reform Jews agreed that belief is not necessary. And notice that modern Orthodoxy has the least concern for God. Hashem Yirachem!

When asked about their own belief in God – could they say yes, somewhat unsure, or no – 19 percent of the modern Orthodox are unsure and 3 percent are out-and-out nonbelievers.

These are the numbers, ranging from yes, to somewhat unsure, to no, in the rest of the Jewish world:

Ultra-Orthodox 96 , 2, 1,

Conservative 41, 46, 9

Reform 29, 47, 20

Here is a counterintuitive little tidbit the survey serves up – only 76 percent of charedim avoid handling money on Shabbat.

Another good tidbit – also hard to make sense of – when they were asked whether they attend a non-Jewish religious service at least a few times a year, 15 percent of both modern Orthodox and charedim say they do. There is a note, though, pointing that the rate of members of those groups attending non-Jewish services is negligible in high-density areas, such as Brooklyn. That means that the rate must be much higher than 15 percent in small towns.

Should homosexuality be accepted? Twenty percent of charedim say yes, and so do 50 percent of the modern Orthodox. On one hand, this is a divide between the two groups – but on the other hand it is a dividing point in the modern camp.

What percentage has been to college? (Note that not everyone is old enough to have gone.) Charedi 25 percent, Modern Orthodox 65 percent, Conservative 62 percent, Reform 61 percent. Modern Orthodoxy is the highest, but in line with the other denominations.

But the biggest and most significant question was whether the household’s income is $150,000+, which would place it in the top 8 percent. 24 percent of charedim, 37 percent of modern Orthodox, 23 percent of Conservative, and 29 percent of Reform Jews said yes. That means that modern Orthodoxy is the wealthiest group, far wealthier than its closest competitor, Reform, and its members are living in a bubble.

The charedi birthrate is 4.1; if you remove those who leave Orthodoxy and those who die childless, then we have a rough statistic showing that a statistically average couple would produce only three charedi offspring. This is a far cry from the highly inflated numbers in the kiruv literature.

Finally, the Reform movement is growing and the Conservative movement is shrinking rapidly.

But the Forward, which also wrote about the survey, received a wise email about it from Jonathan Sarna, the highly respected professor of Jewish studies at Brandeis University. Sarna also advised the Pew study, and he found some light in the grim statistics confronting Conservative Jews. Comparing the movement’s situation to the one in which the Reform movement found itself in the 1930s, and then Orthodox movement faced in the 1950s – both turned out to be relative lulls preceding major growth – Sarna said that the apparent collapse could force the movement into creative reinvention. It would be “wise to hedge all predictions.”

To read the whole study online or to download it, google Pew Portrait of Jewish Americans.

Rabbi Dr. Alan Brill of Teaneck is the Cooperman/Ross Endowed Professor in honor of Sister Rose Thering in the Graduate Department of Jewish-Christian Studies at Seton Hall University. He is currently writing a book, Varieties of Modern Orthodoxy 1780-2000, based on a course he taught at Yeshiva University.

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