Dead Serious| January 18, 2022
Thirty-three percent of Jews raised Orthodox do not continue to identify with Orthodoxy as adults
Most of us would probably not be shocked by a recent article in Tablet entitled “The Challenges Facing Us: The Horrendous State of the American Jewish Community,” in which, based on a Pew Research Center study called “Jewish Americans in 2020,” American Jewish historian Jack Wertheimer describes a secular American Jewry in religious freefall and a communal leadership that’s doing nothing about it.
But in fact, another article could have been written, this one about Pew’s findings in that same report about the Orthodox community, and it too could well have been titled in much the same way. And it, too, could have bemoaned the fact that the Pew report hasn’t stimulated greater discussion and galvanized action within the Orthodox community. To its credit, however, the current issue of OU’s Jewish Action magazine does devote significant attention to these findings.
The most troubling of Pew’s Orthodox-related findings is that 33 percent of Jews raised Orthodox do not continue to identify with Orthodoxy as adults. As Rabbi Ephraim Buchwald, who has spent his entire adult life working to introduce nonreligious Jews to Torah, observed in Jewish Action:
I wish we had better news, but unfortunately the Orthodox Jewish community has a crisis on its hands that hasn’t really been seriously acknowledged. The recent Pew study, “Jewish Americans in 2020,” reports that about 30 percent of young Jews who said they grew up Orthodox are no longer Orthodox. It seems obvious that the fall-out rate of Modern Orthodox Jews is higher than the losses of the chareidi/yeshivish communities, but even those losses are not insignificant… the number-one issue facing American Jewish life is keeping the already committed Jews committed.
It’s worth noting that according to OU researcher Michelle Shain, the shocking 33 percent attrition rate is really “an imprecise estimate based on a probability sample.” Moreover, she writes, “it seems that Millennials (born between 1981–1996) and Gen Z-ers (born between 1977-2012) are far less likely to leave Orthodoxy.” Indeed, in Pew’s 2013 study, 83 percent of Jews under 30 who were raised Orthodox still identified as such.
These caveats, however, give cold comfort. Is a 17 percent fallaway rate acceptable? Should it not be deeply upsetting that a large percentage of Jews, even if not every third one, who went through the religious Jewish education system have walked away from Yiddishkeit? And what if the percentage of chareidi Jews reflected in Pew’s finding is “only” 10 percent, or 5 percent? Can we now breathe a collective sigh of relief and resume our lives of Torah and avodas Hashem with our consciences thankfully undisturbed?
Another distressing aspect to this is what it might say about the rest of us. What is it that those who were once on the inside, but walked out into the cold, saw in Orthodox institutions and communities that told them this life wasn’t for them? Surely, the reasons people abandon a religious life are many and complex, and often those reasons are not related to what they see in their fellow frum Jews. But not always.
The Chofetz Chaim would say that when some people recite the brachah of ahavah rabbah each morning before Krias Shema, they’re like a pauper who approaches a wealthy man for a handout. The wealthy man balks, but after the poor man begs and pleads for help, he agrees to help him if he’ll come to his office that day at noon. But noontime comes and goes, with no sign of the poor man.
Over the next several days, the same thing repeats itself: The poor man’s entreaties, followed first by the rich man’s acquiescence and then by the supplicant’s failure to show up for his money. Until finally, one day, the wealthy man tells the poor one, “Sorry, buddy. You’re not a bad fellow — but you’re just not serious….”
Said the Chofetz Chaim: We ask pleadingly in ahavah rabbah: “Our Father, Merciful Father, the Merciful One, have mercy on us and give us the intelligence and insight needed to learn and understand Torah.” Hashem agrees, He’s ready to bestow it all upon us — and then we don’t even show up in the beis medrash for the handout, or at least not for long enough to truly receive it. And when this happens day after day, week after week, can we really say we’re serious?
That question — “Are we serious?” — might just be the most important question we can ask ourselves as a community. And it might explain why some Jews who are at the communal margins and won’t ever really make it into the “in” crowd anyway, walk away from a community that, from an outsider’s perspective, seems to be essentially unserious in its claim to be spiritually authentic and striving.
We say we want to be a tzibbur of growing Jews, but are we perhaps more so just a growing tzibbur of Jews? “No way!” we object. “We’re booming in every way imaginable. Our neighborhoods are bursting at the seams, our schools, shuls, and other mosdos are multiplying, building edifices, adding classes and staff, minyanim and shiurim, doing bigger and more sophisticated fundraising campaigns.”
Those are indeed strong indicators of population growth and newfound affluence and influence. They mean that there are many more frum Jews now, and that is an unqualified good. Kein yirbeh v’chein yifrotz. They also mean that frum Jews are wealthier, are consuming more, and are flexing their financial and political muscle.
But none of those indicators tell us whether our communities, our systems, are producing better Jews — deeper and holier, more honest and humble, more infused with Judaism’s eternal values and inoculated against non-Jewish society’s corrupt ones. The problem is that the nonstop building boom and the oversubscribed classes and all the rest might not only distract us from that essential inquiry, but even lull us into a mistaken belief that we must be advancing spiritually too.
BUT WHAT ABOUT THE BOOKS AND MUSIC that fill the bookstores; the fine dining, the mega-supermarkets, the array of products; the plethora of frum media, kosher vacation, and entertainment options? Of course, people need kosher outlets, and a community insulated from the surrounding alien culture needs one of its own. But ultimately, all of this is frum culture, not frum religion. And frum culture, so redolent of Yiddishkeit, so marinated in its themes, its personalities, its language, can be mistaken for Yiddishkeit itself.
And this frum culture has become so pervasive that it practically overwhelms frum religion, crowding out its influence. How could it be otherwise? Torah often says no, and teaches hard truths; culture always answers yes, and offers soft melodies. Torah speaks to the soul, while culture flatters the senses and soothes the ego.
But how, then, can we gauge whether we are in fact growing as Jews, or just growing? By studying subtle communal trend lines, specifically those related to that which defines the divide between Torah and all else — internality and depth versus externality and the superficial, or simply put, soul versus body.
There surely are a great many individuals among us on a spiritual ascent, but in order to see how our community is trending on the whole over time, we might ask questions like:
Are we being drawn inexorably and ever more deeply into leading lives focused on pleasure-seeking? Is our absorption of the ideal of tzniyus in every form getting better or worse? Is ever more of the secular world showing up in the trappings of contemporary frum lifestyle — transported there via a host of conveyor belts like technology, media, and consumerist fads such as “foodie” culture — after receiving a legitimizing frum makeover? Are where we choose to live, where we send our children to school, the shidduchim we pursue, and more, based on appearances or on authenticity and principle?
An attempt to answer those questions through a closer look at our communal realities might reveal, irrespective of what we tell ourselves or others, how serious about getting those spiritual “handouts” we really are.
(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 895. Eytan Kobre may be contacted directly at firstname.lastname@example.org)
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