The American Jewish community is flooded with a steady stream of numbers. Surveys abound delivering data on the growth and shrinkage of various segments of the Jewish community. Population trends that were once shocking—whether resulting from birthrates of Chareidim or intermarriage rates among the non-Orthodox—are now expected. And while we may not yet have the master strategy to address the issues they have exposed, the numbers have effectively framed and illuminated many of the challenges.
But those same numbers have masked a critical challenge that we face within the Orthodox community—the challenge of attrition.
The dramatic birthrates show a robust community, which, baruch Hashem, is true in the aggregate. But that growth hides a level of attrition, which is the subject of much concern and is visible in studies of all US Jews including the Pew Research Center’s 2020 survey,1 and the more focused Avi Chai school censuses.2
How bad and where is the attrition? Are we seeing unusually high failure rates or must we accept that no system has ever produced nor will produce perfect results? Is “one is too many” the ideal we should strive for or is that an impractical goal? Is attrition an issue of the nominally Orthodox who have never received a strong Jewish education or of the Chassidic or Chareidi communities that provide little secular education? Is the defection an at-risk behavior threatening personal health and safety or is it solely an abandonment of religious observance? Does it predominate amongst those struggling with poverty or those blessed with extreme wealth? Is it a symptom of family dysfunction or of vacuous materialism? Is it a product of the permissive college campus or the overly restrictive Bais Yaakov? Are those who tend to leave children of ba’alei teshuvah or of uninspired frum-from-birth? Is the solution a reduced focus on Talmud study in yeshivot or an increased engagement in yeshivah study for those of college age?
There is no shortage of theories, each of which comes with its own matching set of anecdotes. But the true story would be told by real data that demonstrates where we are failing and where we are succeeding. That data is not known. If we want to make meaningful positive change, then we need to uncover that data, take a hard look in the mirror and commit to act based on what we see.
Some points to consider:
1. Eye on the Prize: The Goal of Jewish Education
Addressing attrition is at the core of our individual and communal mission. Why do we devote such considerable resources to sending our kids to Jewish schools? We certainly value Jewish literacy and consider Torah knowledge paramount; v’talmud Torah k’negged kulam.3 But the real driver of investment in Jewish education is the desire of assuring Jewish identity, engagement and continuity. This is the reason for our increased communal commitment to formal education amongst both men—where it continues as a standard for many more years than it had in the past—and for women, where universal formal textual education is altogether a relatively modern phenomenon. Thus, Rav Moshe Feinstein, zt”l, in a responsum4 regarding the question of whether tuition payments may be paid from charitable dollars, ma’ot ma’aser, wrote the following:
In our country there is a legal obligation to enroll children in schools. With God’s kindness to the Jewish people we have been permitted by the government to educate in schools led by sincere and God-fearing Jews. Were we to choose not to educate our children in a Jewish school they would need to enroll in a public school environment without Torah or emunah. As such, we must enroll our children in a Jewish educational framework as the way to fulfill our obligation—even at significant personal expense—to ensure our children grow to be virtuous believers in God and His Torah and faithful to mitzvah observance.
While the goals of Jewish education for both boys and girls vary widely by community, institution, family and individual student, the ultimate objective shared by all is providing an education that serves to enhance Jewish identity, engagement and continuity. Our goal at the minimum is to see our children and students remain engaged and observant Jews—“virtuous believers in God and His Torah and faithful to mitzvah observance”—who go on to raise their own children as engaged and observant Jews. That is why understanding and reducing attrition is a core responsibility.
2. What Kind of Attrition?
There are those whose defections present as an expression of profound personal upheaval, leaving the individual at-risk lost not only from Torah observance but from derech eretz, the normal and healthy social functioning that must serve as the foundation for a Torah life. That kind of upheaval can result from psychosocial issues, unresolved educational challenges, familial dysfunction, a feeling of estrangement from the community or trauma and/or substance abuse. On the opposite extreme are those who live healthy and productive personal and professional lives but reject religious observance entirely or maintain a significantly reduced level of Torah observance. While defection that is expressed in at-risk behavior would universally be seen as tragic, the latter would depend on the community of origin. For families and communities whose identity is completely bound up in their faith and community, a decline in level of observance would be considered tragic, which might not be the case in familial or communal frameworks that are more continuous to the surrounding culture and whose value system prioritizes success in other areas in addition to religious engagement. Each of these categories may be a universe unto itself requiring its own analysis and interventions.
3. The Blame Game: Whose Fault Is It? Who Should We Be Studying?
Educational outcomes are not the result of classroom methodologies alone, nor are they solely—or perhaps even primarily—the school’s responsibility. Decades of research have shown that the greatest predictor of success in education is a family environment that supports and reinforces the school’s educational and life goals.5 Family function or dysfunction is a critical contributing factor that requires more granular research. Broader family values tend to be more shared within communities, and in the free market framework in which many Jewish schools operate the institutional priorities are typically designed to be in sync with those of the parent body. And, of course, it takes a village to raise a child, and communal values play a significant role in educational outcomes. Choosing a school is choosing not only an educational methodology but a culture that includes its teachers, students, families and even its host community. “I have learned much from my teachers, but from my peers even more.”6
That leaves us with many possible directions to study—our communities and the values they prioritize; our schools and their educational philosophies and methodologies; and our families and their level of function and focus. It also raises the question as to whether studies should be conducted via schools, synagogues or other communal structures.
4. How Do We Assess the Quality of Our Systems?
Decades ago, when my wife and I visited a local yeshivah in which we were considering enrolling our oldest for preschool, the principal began our tour in the eighth-grade classroom. As he explained, we could focus on exploring either the program or the product. Bright classrooms staffed by educators employing cutting-edge techniques are inspiring to see, but what if the product of the school is a listless and disengaged teenager? And if we were to see a group of well-mannered and curious eighth graders demonstrating a vibrant engagement in Torah, tefillah and overall studies, should we be second-guessing the methods employed to get them there?
Recently, a twenty-year-old man shared how he and a friend had identified that of the fifty men with whom they had graduated eighth grade in their school, all but one were observant and enrolled in a yeshivah-type educational framework, results that matched the goals of their parents, school and community. That is profoundly impressive. Nevertheless, “hein b’kedoshav lo ya’amin,”7 and anecdotal evidence suggests that there may be significant drop-offs beginning in students’ mid-twenties. What would we learn by having that young man and his friend revisit that census ten years later to see the staying power of their education? As he demonstrated in his first phase of research, it may not be very difficult to conduct that study.8
5. What Applicable Data Already Exists?
Israel is far ahead of America in research on attrition from religious schools, with serious studies having been conducted by government ministries, school systems, NGOs and academics. Even given the differences between America and Israel, it would be most instructive to glean whatever we can from what has already been identified. For example, in an aggregation of studies of religious attrition commissioned by the religious public school system based on the work of Professor Ido Lieberman and others, relative attrition was clearly patterned after the community’s religious intensity. The findings ranged from a 50 percent attrition rate for children from Dati Liberali, liberal religious homes, to 31 percent from Dati, religious homes, to 21 percent from Dati Torani, more intensely religious homes, to an 8 percent rate from Chareidi homes.9 Other Israeli studies have identified significant factors that seem to precipitate Chareidi attrition, pointing to potential corrections on both social and educational levels.10 And finally, attrition from other American faith communities has been studied and may also offer us valuable insights.11
All this data is instructive, and yet, there is a limit to what we can learn from studying other communities. The OU founded its Center for Communal Research both for internal assessment of its programs and because the American Orthodox community needs its own data and information gathering to inform policy.
6. What Are We Prepared to Do Differently?
Do we already more or less know the areas where we can do better, making this simply a matter of committing the necessary resources to effect change? Or are the problems we are encountering the inevitable result of our priorities and values, and therefore not fundamentally subject to change?
Specifically: Seemingly, it is quite possible that attrition on the Chareidi side results from the intensity of and the lack of alternative pathways within the educational and social system. And it seems equally likely that the comfort with secular culture and environments on the Modern Orthodox side produces a level of attrition as well. Possibly, these results may be the price to pay for the greater goals accomplished by adopting each particular system. But is there a point where the calculus changes?
The principle of acceptable losses was articulated by Rav Eliyahu Dessler, zt”l,12 in a 1951 response to a query from Rav Shimon Schwab, zt”l, regarding his view of the relative merits of the Chareidi and the Torah Im Derech Eretz educational systems:
The approach of the yeshivos was to establish a single goal, that being the development of greats (gedolim) in both Torah and fear of Heaven. It is for this reason that they forbade their students to attend university, as they could not see a way to develop “gedolim” in Torah without focusing their students’ sights exclusively on Torah. However, one must not think that they did not recognize in advance that following this method would certainly alienate some who would be unable to subscribe to this more extreme position and would choose instead to leave the path of Torah. Nevertheless, this was the price they were ready to pay for the “gedolim” in Torah and fear of Heaven that would be raised in their yeshivos. Of course, they would work aggressively to do whatever possible to help those who would not remain bnai Torah, but not in a way that would draw others after them.
The system designed to produce gedolim has had an impact extending far beyond the production of the rare gedolim. The intense and immersive atmosphere of the yeshivah—suffused with striving for Torah greatness and an intense commitment to piety—generates a level of commitment to the centrality of Torah study and yirat Shamayim that continues to inspire huge numbers of those who pass through its doors, and that has had a profound effect on the broader observant Jewish community as well. At the same time, the rigidity and intensity of that system has certainly resulted in substantial losses.
Ironically and importantly, the same willingness to risk losses in order to achieve an ideal can be found in the non-Chareidi position. Rav Dr. Joseph Breuer, zt”l, champion of the Torah Im Derech Eretz, wrote frequently of “the victims” who would be claimed by that approach given its choice to engage with the professions and the business world.13 And Rav Aharon Lichtenstein, zt”l, wrote of his disappointment in his “batting average” of producing students that could share “the intensity, the sweep, and the scope” [of Torah study] found among some in the Chareidi world. “I would have liked to build a larger community of people who are genuinely, passionately moved by a Mishna in Avot or a gloss of Rav Akiva Eiger.”14 And further, to the essential argument of openness:
Our Rightist critics would contend that I am, in effect, trying to square the circle. At least insofar as the masses are concerned, the lack of either passion or spirituality is no accident, but the inevitable result of interest in the cultural and political orders. To an extent, I agree. Almost inevitably, diffusion does entail some measure of dilution. The pure Torah component within a Torah Im Derech Eretz approach is indeed likely to command less single-minded loyalty than the unitary goal pursued by the advocates of shemen zayit zach (Torah only). But are we to start dismissing and rejecting mishnayot in Avot simply because they produce what someone has described as inferior results?15
Would there be attrition numbers that would represent an objectively inferior—or devastating—result that would change the calculus and make the price of principle not worth paying? What level of religious attrition would motivate parents to relocate to a community or school system where Orthodox retention is higher, or to guide their children away from a secular college campus towards a more religious educational environment? Is there a level of risk at which our principle of either producing gedolim or seeking active engagement with the broader world is rendered impractical or even irresponsible?
If we truly want to make meaningful positive change regarding American Orthodox Jewish attrition, our community will need to pursue the data that will inform that change and commit to act based on what we find. There are many levels—local and national—where those numbers can be gathered, and there is much to be gleaned from existing research. If we would only look in the mirror . . .
1. According to Pew, of all Americans raised as Orthodox Jews, only 67 percent still identify as Orthodox as adults. See pewforum.org/2021/05/11/jewish-americans-in-2020/, p. 44.
2. Although total day school enrollment increased steadily from 1999 to 2019, the large number of incoming four- and five-year-olds masks the loss of older students from the day school system each year that can be identified in a careful reading of the Avi Chai numbers.
3. Mishnah Pei’ah 1:1; daily prayers.
4. Iggerot Moshe, YD II:113.
5. See, for example, Joan E. Grusec and Paul David Hastings, Handbook of Socialization, Second Edition: Theory and Research (New York, 2014).
7. Iyov 15:15; See Rashi, Bereishit 28:13.
8. In that same vein: Many schools market their programs by highlighting the yeshivot, seminaries or universities their graduates attend, and those institutions in turn advertise the positions and graduate programs that have accepted their alumni. While this information is helpful in demonstrating both the options available to graduates of the program as well as the aspirations of the institution, it would be far more helpful to know where all the graduates of the program have gone on to, rather than just the select individuals the program has chosen to include in their marketing materials.
9. Pew’s study of Israeli Jews reveals a 94 percent retention among Chareidim and 54 percent among Dati’im; (pewforum.org/2016/03/08/israels-religiously-divided-society/, see p. 70.)
11. See, e.g., Adam R. Fisher, “A Review and Conceptual Model of the Research on Doubt, Disaffiliation, and Related Religious Changes,” Psychology of Religion and Spirituality 9, no. 4 (November 2017): 358–67.
12. Michtav MeEliyahu,vol. 3, p. 355.
13. A Unique Perspective: Rav Breuer’s Essays 1914-1973 (New York , 2010), pp. 507, 537.
14. Elka Weber (Editor), Joel B. Wolowelsky (Editor), A Life Steady and Whole: Recollections and Appreciations of Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein, zt”l (New Jersey, 2018), pp. 15-16.
15. “Centrist Orthodoxy: A Spiritual Accounting,” by Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein in Rabbi Reuven Ziegler, By His Light: Character and Values in the Service of God (New Jersey, 2003). All the essays in the book are based on addresses by Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein.
Rabbi Moshe Hauer is executive vice president of the Orthodox Union.