One of the most troubling findings to emerge from the 2020 Pew study as contributors to the previous symposium indicated, is that 33 percent of Jews raised as Orthodox do not continue to identify with Orthodoxy as adults. Even if, as some claim, Pew’s Orthodox sample was too small and therefore the percentage might in fact be lower, it is still a cause for concern. While the study does not identify who comprises the 33 percent, we asked various rabbis, educators and others involved in the world of Jewish education the following questions:
1. What do you see happening among day school and yeshivah graduates?
2. What are our schools doing well?
3. What could they be doing better?
4. Could we, as parents, grandparents and community members, be doing more to address the significant drop-out rate?
I look at what is happening to yeshivah graduates in much the same way that I look at their parents. A recent survey of the Modern Orthodox community found that 84 percent of men and 52 percent of women always or almost always attend shul on Shabbat morning. Yet only 42 percent of them fully agree that their tefillah experience is meaningful. There are far too many variables in the formation of religious identity to point to one cause or one solution, but it does seem safe to say that meaning-making is a key component of Jewish life that needs more attention.
I have often said that we’ve done an amazing job of teaching texts, but we haven’t always done such a great job of teaching students. By that I mean that we have not done enough to address their inner world. We encourage fidelity to halachah, we provide all of the accoutrements of a vibrant Jewish life—from niche schools to restaurants to amazing summer programs—and in the process, we build a commitment to a sense of community and belonging. But for many, including those who have adopted Modern Orthodoxy as a lifelong practice, there isn’t a lot of attention paid to such questions as: What is your relationship with Hakadosh Baruch Hu? How can you work on that relationship? How does that relationship shape your daily life, your interactions with others, the choices that you make and the kind of person you want to become? How do the texts we have been learning in such depth speak to those questions? These are questions only the learner can answer, but only if we ask him and are prepared to hear his thoughts.
We tend not to speak this language with our children and our students because we were not raised that way and because many of us are uncomfortable with it. There is also an assumption that students will just “get it” by virtue of the lifestyle and values we work hard to give them. But we live in a world in which there are a host of conflicting lifestyles and values, ones in which our youth (and we) are much more immersed than we ever were at their age. And as the Piaseczner Rebbe, Rabbi Kalonymus Kalman Shapira, noted almost a century ago, if we do not satisfy our children’s inner lives, they will surely fill that vacuum with the emotional and spiritual solutions of the larger world around them. Children and adolescents naturally crave spirituality and a sense of meaning and purpose. We ignore that fact at the risk of their neshamot and our communal lives. As parents and as educators, we need to not only acknowledge, but to proactively nurture our children’s inner lives.
Almost all social science research points to the fact that family is far and away the most important influence on the religious development of children and adolescents.
What does proactive religious parenting and education mean? First of all, know thyself. Almost all social science research points to the fact that family is far and away the most important influence on the religious development of children and adolescents. What kind of religious role model are you? Think back for a moment and ask yourself: who had the most positive influence on you religiously when you were growing up? Now ask yourself: how can you be that person for your child?
Second, know your child. In the same way that we maintain an awareness of our children’s cognitive, social and emotional development, so too must we be ever mindful of their religious development. Do you know what kind of soul your child is? What are his or her spiritual strengths and weaknesses? “Educate the child according to his way” (Mishlei 22:6) may mean not only cognitively, but religiously as well. Each of our children may need differentiated religious instruction, experiences and inspiration.
Third, whatever you do, do it with passion and consistency. I recall a student of mine who once told me that in her sports-minded home, the family goes to shul even in a snowstorm because the rule is “if you would go to a football game in this weather, then you go to shul too.” At the same time, we need to speak aloud with passion and consistency about our love for and commitment to Torah and Judaism. At every opportunity at home and at school, we need to mention our relationship with Hashem or our awareness of His role in our personal and communal lives. If children don’t hear about a personal God, how can they ever come to have their own relationship with Him? If they do not hear the language of faith from all the adults in their lives, how will they ever be able to speak it?
Finally, we need to talk about this more with one another because, frankly, we do not all have the answers. We consult with one another about our children’s schooling and summer plans—why not about their souls too? Like in other aspects of parenting and education, there is no guidebook to follow and no GPS to help us navigate. Many of us need guidance. It seems to me that this is an area where congregational rabbis can use the pulpit effectively or bring parents together to share their successes and struggles and to get direction from those who have some expertise. In the same vein, it is an area where parents and schools may need more bidirectional conversations. This is no time to be shy or evasive about the challenges we all face.
The same may be said for educators who are in need of training on how to make Torah learning not less rigorous but more meaningful for students, not more relevant in the sense of current, but in its potential to help students navigate the world after they leave the classroom on any given day. And we need to not preach it, but rather to show them how they might reach for it each in their own way and why it can be a rich and satisfying part of their lives that is worthy of their ongoing commitment.
Even so, there are no guarantees, and the number of variables at play may, God forbid, work against us. But we will at least have been much more proactive about addressing the challenges of embracing modernity. Our community and our children’s souls deserve no less.
Rabbi Dr. Jay Goldmintz is a veteran day school educator and administrator who currently teaches at Ma’ayanot Yeshiva High School in New Jersey and has published widely on curriculum, tefillah education and religious development. He is the author of the Koren Ani Tefilla Siddur series, winner of the National Jewish Book Award, and writes the “Soul of Parenting” column on the OU website.
American Jews have until recently been living in what can certainly be regarded as a “Golden Age,” a time of unprecedented success in the “Goldene Medina.” However, the recent rise of both virulent anti-Semitism and unbridled assimilation seems to mark the end of this remarkable era.
For the past few decades, the Orthodox Jewish community watched from afar as its own community “shteiged” (flourished), while the non-Orthodox community seemed to be unraveling at the seams (with 70 percent intermarriage rates!). We used to say about the general Jewish community in America that our grandparents prayed for a “melting pot” and what they got instead was a “meltdown.” Unfortunately, this now appears to apply to parts of the Orthodox Jewish community as well.
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.
Corroborating the Pew study is The Hertog Study: Chabad on Campus, issued in 2016 by Brandeis University. The study found that 45 percent of Modern Orthodox students who attended Chabad programs on campus regularly for four years were no longer religious three years after they graduated. This is not a reflection on the extraordinary efforts of Chabad, but rather underscores the impact of the inimical campus environment and confirms that the blandishments of secular life in America (where 80 percent of contemporary entertainment contains portrayals of either promiscuity or violence) are simply overwhelming Orthodox life.
As one who has spent his entire career reaching out to the so-called non-committed Jews, I have long warned that the number-one issue facing American Jewish life is keeping the already committed Jews committed.
Essentially, what we are seeing in the Orthodox Jewish community is somewhat similar to what happened in the ba’al teshuvah movement. In the last twenty years, it has become apparent that most young Jews from non-Orthodox homes no longer have any real connection to Jewish life as the previous generations did. These Jews have not gone to Hebrew school, have not had a bar or bat mitzvah and probably have never been at a Shabbat meal. They therefore rarely respond to any efforts to engage them Jewishly. Ironically, with all the wonderful developments in Orthodox Jewish communal life, clearly, a sizable number of frum Jewish parents have failed to transmit to the next generation the beauty and the passion of living Jewishly.
A good part of the fault lies with Orthodox Jewish fathers, a significant number of whom have in effect been “missing in action” when it comes to inspiring their children. Contemporary frum fathers seem to have a host of excuses. After all, they have demanding jobs, they are expected to attend services morning and evening, they have to do the Daf Yomi, and the innumerable charity and community obligations seem endless. (Let us not forget the “kiddush club” obligations.)
Our Torah boldly states “veshinantam l’vanecha,” that we must teach our children. So, for instance, a parent who studies Daf Yomi one hour a day should at least devote an hour a day to study with his children or grandchildren . . . or even just ten minutes a day. We must not use the excuse that we are too busy.
Furthermore, it is absolutely unconscionable that the wealthiest Jewish community in all of Jewish history—and the wealthiest Orthodox Jewish community—has not created a mega endowment fund to help defray the extraordinary costs of Jewish education. The burden is just too great for many parents.
As someone on the front lines of fighting assimilation, it pains me desperately to acknowledge that we have come to the unbelievable point in Jewish life where parents of children who were raised Orthodox and have gone off the derech have to hope and pray that their child will meet the right non-Jewish person who is prepared to convert and perhaps their future children will be brought back to observance.
We need to focus on the frum-from-birth, especially on the vulnerable young people, before they drop out, and give them positive, joyous Jewish experiences. In light of the above, there are several effective programs that need to be supported and strengthened. Among them are the avos ubanim programs, where fathers learn together with their children every Saturday night.
NCSY’s efforts to reach yeshivah and day school students are also noteworthy, as are the efforts of Partners in Torah, which mobilizes significant numbers of frum mentors to learn with non-frum partners.
Of course, having non-religious guests at the Shabbat table can have a mutually meritorious impact on both hosts and guests. As the Psalmist (34:9) so beautifully declares, “Ta’amu ure’u”—taste and see how good [Torah learning] is!
Rabbi Ephraim Buchwald is the founder and director of NJOP/National Jewish Outreach Program (njop.org).
Steve Lipman is a frequent contributor to Jewish Action.
The Pew study is not a surprise.
One of the first to document the trend of people leaving Orthodoxy was Faranak Margolese in Off the Derech: Why Observant Jews Leave (Jerusalem; New York, 2005). In her book, she claims that 40 percent of Modern Orthodox Jews go “off the derech.”
I’m a ba’alas teshuvah. Although I grew up as a proud Conservative Jew, I was raised with a real dislike of Orthodox Jews. My understanding of the Orthodox community was based on negative media depictions. Once I became religious years later, I founded Jew in the City, a nonprofit organization dedicated to changing negative perceptions of Orthodox Jews. Our work now involves both outreach and inreach; our goal is to help people find Judaism relevant and meaningful and to give them a sense of Jewish pride.
Our experience with ex-Chareidi Jews shows that trauma (some sort of abuse from a religious figure) or the lack of a secure attachment figure are the main reasons people leave that community. For the most part, a child raised in a healthy, happy home does not have a desire to go elsewhere.
For the most part, a child raised in a healthy, happy home does not have a desire to go elsewhere.
Another reason young people are turned off from their religious community is hypocrisy. Inner conflict is created when kids learn about various religious practices or ideas in school and then see their parents not taking these things seriously at home. That makes it seem like none of it matters. Sometimes kids may see those around them being scrupulous about observing mitzvot that are bein adam la’Makom, between man and God, but careless about mitzvot that are bein adam la’chaveiro, between man and his fellow man; they don’t see people practicing “v’ahavta l’rei’acha kamocha,” loving your neighbor as yourself, in their own lives.
One of our members had been taught the concept of derech eretz kadmah laTorah (decency, i.e., kind behavior, should precede Torah learning) by a teacher who then proceeded to yell those very words at him when she grew frustrated with him for speaking out of turn. Ironically, she embarrassed him while screaming about kindness.
I have also seen how some young people relate to Judaism with complete terror as a result of the education they received. They believe that any abuse they suffered is for sins they committed, and punishment from God. They were taught a distorted Judaism.
We need to confront these systematic issues where they exist. Let’s stop the fear-based education and make sure we give frum kids a meaningful, warm, relevant Torah education.
We need to open channels of unconditional love for our Jewish brothers and sisters, no matter where they have gone. A young person who leaves religious life should know that he or she still has a place in our homes and hearts.
Allison Josephs is director of the nonprofit organization Jew in the City. Its media branch Keter addresses negative perceptions of religious Jews, its Makom branch embraces former and questioning Chareidi Jews, and its Tikun branch confronts communal issues.
By Matthew Williams
Many Orthodox readers of the Pew study were concerned to note that only 67 percent of American Jews raised Orthodox continue to identify with Orthodoxy as adults. For all the talk about Orthodox Jewry’s demographic growth, attrition looms as a different measure of communal success, one that does not necessarily point in a positive direction.
The 2013 Pew study, though, found something similar, with a vital caveat that still exists but remains unreported. At that time, Pew reported that among those 65 and older who were raised as Orthodox Jews, a mere 22 percent still identified as Orthodox. However, 83 percent of Jewish adults under 30 who were raised Orthodox were still Orthodox. The vast difference in the Orthodox retention rate between these two age groups can be explained in at least three ways.
Firstly, Orthodox Jews have grown in their commitment to Jewish educational institutions. In the 70s and 80s, it was not uncommon to find Orthodox shul goers who sent their children to or had themselves attended public schools. Nowadays, such a phenomenon appears increasingly rare. Orthodox institutions are assisting families in building a holistic community that offers compelling reasons to stay.
Secondly, “ultra-Orthodox” Jewish communities have grown dramatically in the last thirty years, so that proportionally they make up a larger segment of the under-45 Orthodox population, while Modern Orthodox Jews make up a larger proportion of the over-45 population. Leaving those communities is very different than leaving Modern Orthodox ones (as dozens of recent memoirs have noted); the costs incurred are higher socially, culturally and financially.
Finally, thirdly, sociologically we would not see attrition until later in a demographic cohort, i.e., fewer 20-year-olds leave than 40-year-olds. This was a theory, which in many ways appears to be inaccurate, offered in response to the 2013 findings; numerous studies have shown that religious attrition in the US actually affects the under-40 age group more so than the over-40 one.
Pew did not offer these findings this time around, and did not further analyze the Orthodox subgroups because the researchers lacked the statistical power to make such claims at Pew’s standards of reporting (they had fewer Orthodox Jews in the 2020 sample).
Matthew Williams is the founding director of the OU Center for Communal Research (CCR).
By Michelle Shain
Among American adults raised as Orthodox Jews, only two-thirds (67 percent) still identify as Orthodox.
In unpacking this finding from the Pew Research Center’s study Jewish Americans in 2020, it’s worth noting at the outset that the 67 percent figure is an imprecise estimate based on a probability sample. The uncertainty can be maddening, but it’s an unavoidable consequence of trying to learn about the Orthodox community from a study that was designed to describe all US Jews. The study simply doesn’t have the statistical power to answer the burning question:
Who leaves Orthodoxy?
Fortunately, there is a body of social science literature that hints at some answers. First and foremost, it seems that Millennials and Gen Z1 are far less likely to leave Orthodoxy than were previous generations. Thirty years ago, the Council of Jewish Federations (now called the Jewish Federations of North America, or JFNA) conducted the 1990 National Jewish Population Survey and found that only 22 percent of those who had been raised Orthodox still identified as Orthodox. In other words, American Orthodoxy’s overall retention rate jumped from 22 percent to 67 percent over the past thirty years.
The reason for this dramatic improvement seems to be generational change. Almost all of the respondents to the 1990 survey were born before 1970, whereas half of the respondents to Pew’s 2020 survey were born in 1970 or later. An incredible intensification of Jewish learning and practice occurred in the Orthodox community in the 1970s, accompanied and supported by institutional growth. This communal shift likely explains why the Millennials and Gen Z are so much more likely to remain Orthodox than Gen X, the Boomers and those born before World War II.
American Orthodoxy’s overall retention rate jumped from 22 percent to 67 percent over the past thirty years.
What about the Millennials and Gen Zers who did leave Orthodoxy? Who are they? We may get some clues from examining other conservative religious groups in the United States that have retention rates virtually identical to Orthodoxy: Evangelical Protestants (65 percent retention) and Latter-day Saints (64 percent retention).
Among Evangelical Protestants, those who switch to a Mainline Protestant tradition or leave religion entirely tend to be those who relocate far away from their families and encounter diverse social networks where other Evangelical Protestants are scarce. Evangelical Protestant groups have responded to this challenge by building intensive, identity-strengthening groups on university campuses. These groups seem to be effective in fostering faith and commitment among students from Evangelical families.
Latter-day Saints have a different challenge when it comes to retention: men leave their childhood faith in higher numbers than women. Some experts posit that the tremendous pressure on LDS boys to serve a mission—that is, to spend two years proselytizing in a location selected by the Church—can be overwhelming and alienating. Regardless of the reason, there are now five LDS women for every four LDS men. In his book Date-onomics: How Dating Became a Lopsided Numbers Game, journalist Jon Birger documents how the undersupply of men has affected the LDS marriage market, leaving men at a tremendous advantage and many faithful women without partners. Birger suggests a parallel to Orthodoxy’s so-called shidduch crisis. If young men leave Orthodoxy at higher rates than young women, that would cause a gender imbalance in the Orthodox Jewish “marriage market,” which might explain the difficulties faced by single Orthodox women.
Sadly, neither the Pew Research Center’s study Jewish Americans in 2020 nor any other existing study can tell us precisely who leaves Orthodoxy, when and why. To answer those questions, we would need a longitudinal research study—a study that follows the same individuals over time, taking measurements at regular intervals. A longitudinal study would allow us to determine whether particular personal characteristics and/or social environment causes change, or simply reflects processes that were already unfolding. Sadly, this type of study is complex and resource-intensive.
For now, our best guess is that Millennials and Gen Zers, women, those who live closer to home, and those whose social networks are dominated by Orthodox Jews are the most likely to remain Orthodox into adulthood.
1. Gen Z: those born between 1977-2012; Millennials: 1981-96; Gen X: 1965-80; Boomers: 1946-64.
Michelle Shain is the assistant director of the OU Center for Communal Research (CCR).
The Modern Orthodox day school world is wide-ranging, and each school is, in certain respects, its own universe. At the same time, upon reflection, some trends emerge across the spectrum, although in different degrees in the different yeshivot.
Where Modern Orthodox Day Schools Are Successful
Modern Orthodox day schools have evolved over the past twenty-five to fifty years. Whereas schools used to focus Jewish studies strictly on Torah content and Hebrew language, today they have recognized the need for experiential education to promote a joyous, participatory Judaism that students will want to continue with after high school. Most Modern Orthodox day schools have a student activities director who plans and implements opportunities for students to experience aspects of Judaism outside the formal classroom setting, such as Shabbatonim, trips and chesed activities, to name a few. In my exit interviews with seniors, they consistently refer to these activities as the most inspiring of their high school careers.
In contrast to a generation ago, Jewish educators today are better trained and more skilled, and having been born in this country, they tend to relate to their students better. In addition, many schools promote a “family” atmosphere, where students are inclined to remain connected to teachers long after they have left high school. At weddings, one often sees high school rebbeim standing alongside community rabbis in receiving honors, attesting to their close relationships with their students.
Unlike decades ago, the Modern Orthodox Jewish community today recognizes the crucial role that yeshivot play in formulating the Jewish identity and practices of the community, and therefore the community financially supports schools in a more dedicated and committed fashion than in the past. Our schools generally have the resources to provide a high-quality educational experience.
Furthermore, Modern Orthodox yeshivot have successfully promoted study of Torah and connecting to the Land of Israel for a year or more of post–high school study in Israel. This trend has been the single biggest accomplishment of the Modern Orthodox world in the past fifty years in ensuring that our young people lead lives of inspired Torah living.
Challenges to Students Remaining Affiliated in Modern Orthodox Day Schools
Due to the Internet and smartphones, as well as a general suspicion of authority, more students than ever are disconnected from their Judaism. The Internet has provided students with a vast world of entertainment and distraction, or worse, and religion is having a difficult time competing. Kids are on their phones during davening, during class, during class trips—and even sometimes on Shabbat.
Moreover, schools don’t speak about God enough. We need to make connecting to God and viewing Judaism as a relationship with God part of our students’ educational experience. When we teach Torah, it needs to be “Hashem’s Torah.” Students should be taught early and often that the goal of Torah study is to learn about Hashem and to connect to Him. Students should be trained to imagine that the Master of the Universe is right there listening to every word while they pray. This is one of the reasons why God gave us the power of imagination, although we tend to use it mostly for the wrong reasons.
Partly because we are scared of turning our kids off from Judaism and partly because of poor prioritization of values, we are afraid to push our kids to achieve high standards in Jewish studies in the same way that we push secular accomplishment. Parents and students often opt for honors general studies classes, but settle for easier Jewish studies classes. Many Jewish studies classes end up being watered-down “edutainment”—informal schmoozing or videos about Jewish topics, with little to no rigor or testing. We are doing a lot of teaching “about Torah,” but not enough teaching it, i.e., filling our classrooms with real, high-level Torah content.
After the gap-year experience in Israel, students often fall away during the college years, especially those on secular college campuses. While the challenges used to be limited to promiscuity, rampant drinking and drug use on campus, perhaps an even greater additional challenge today is the anti-Torah values espoused by “forward-thinking” college professors. Our community pushes secular college too much, and our schools glorify these choices. While perhaps appropriate for some, we are losing too many due to extreme anti-Torah views and values promoted in these venues. The OU should be commended for the great work of the Heshe and Harriet Seif Jewish Learning Initiative on Campus (OU-JLIC), but even this outstanding program reaches only the tip of the college-campus Jewish iceberg. If we continue to send to these schools, we need to figure out a way to have Jewish leaders and role models connect more directly with this segment of our community.
While, as mentioned above, schools are far better supported today than they were fifty years ago, it is still not possible to make a living wage as a rebbe or teacher in 90 percent of our Modern Orthodox high schools. Due to this as well as other factors, fewer and fewer of our best and brightest are entering the field of Jewish education. At our yeshivah, ten years ago we would get seventy candidates for one open position. This year we had four. We need to do a better job of paying those entrusted with securing the Jewish future so we can attract outstanding educators who will teach and inspire our children. Board chairs and fundraisers need to keep rebbeim in mind during fundraising campaigns and budget meetings.
Those of us who have the privilege of serving the Jewish educational community need to reflect on these and other issues to ensure the transmission of our Torah and Torah values to the next generation.
Rabbi Yisroel Kaminetsky is rosh yeshivah of Hebrew Academy of Long Beach in New York and menahel of the Davis Renov Stahler Yeshiva High School for Boys in Woodmere, New York.
The premise of the questions posed by the editors of Jewish Action is based on only one segment of the data. The very same study indicated that Orthodox Jews under age 30 now comprise 17 percent of all Jews in that age bracket, the highest percentage ever and 8 percent higher than the last survey in 2013. But overall, “among US Jews, both religious poles are growing, proportionally, among the young: the Orthodox and the Jews of no religion.”1 This means that non-Orthodox Jews are disappearing from Judaism at a much more rapid rate than those raised in Orthodox homes. Taken in this context, the need for outreach to unaffiliated Jews is more necessary than ever before.
Still, the need for “inreach” is just as vital. The data beg the question: “What are we doing wrong?” If we are losing a fifth to a third of our own children, who have attended twelve-plus years of yeshivah day school, what does that say about the six-figure investment each family makes into these schools? And, not to put the entire onus upon our schools, what does it say about the upbringing that we as Orthodox parents—who try to fill our homes with yirat Shamayim and Torah—are providing for our children? The objective here is not to assign blame but to see what needs to be fixed.
In all fairness to our schools and homes, the uphill battle against secularism is at a steeper incline than ever before in recent history. When my generation was growing up, the basic faith premises of God, Torah min haShamayim and Divine Providence were givens. But with the ubiquity of external media and the constant anti-religion and anti-God messages that pervade the Internet, there are no more givens, no matter how frum our homes and schools are. To their credit, many schools have identified this new reality and have introduced new curricula and methodologies in chinuch. In order to succeed, lessons in emunah need to start on the preschool level and must continue throughout. If there is any break in that continuity (as is often the case when curricula are confined to individual grades), this can destroy all the previous foundational work.
41 percent of 18 to 29 year olds describe themselves as unaffiliated with any particular branch of Judaism.
Furthermore, while I don’t have hard data to support this (the Pew study did not differentiate by gender), my own observation indicates that young men are dropping out of Orthodoxy at a faster rate than young women. This may be due in part to our girls receiving more hashkafah/machshevet Yisrael education—the “whys” of being Jewish— than our boys, who are being inculcated with heavy doses of Mishnah, Gemara and halachah—the “whats” of being Jewish and skills that will enable them to develop into bnei Torah and religious balabatim. The precipitous drop-out rate may be a heavy price to pay for this imbalance. In some yeshivot, there is even an implied suppression of hashkafah, with the subliminal message that all that “fluff” is for the non-serious guys who can’t hack a “geshmak” Tosafot and mefarshim. In fact, however, it is much easier to master halachic and Talmudic topics than it is to gain and impart clarity on theological issues.
But many of our sons are attending yeshivot that do emphasize hashkafah, and they still end up leaving the fold, so this cannot be the sole issue. Undoubtedly, young men and women differ in the way they see the world and process information. As the Maharal stated (Derush al HaTorah) in the sixteenth century, women tend to be more attuned to the spiritual and metaphysical, while men tend to focus more on the tangible and physical. It is thus inherently more difficult to inspire young men, especially when the manifest world around us is largely oppositional to religion (this may be the underlying cause for the disproportionate number of young women versus young men in the shidduch pool of frum young adults, but this is a different topic for discussion).
If the trajectory indicated by the latest data continues, North American Jewry will become predominantly Orthodox in its external appearance over the next several decades. But this kind of Judaism, an “Orthopraxy” devoid of a deep-seated traditional and thoughtful theology, will only repel the next generation further, when our youth easily detect the spiritual vacuousness of this parroted form of religion. We can only hope that a great spiritual hunger will return to our society at large, as was the case in the 1960s and 1970s. If and when that happens, our community needs to be ready with an antidote.
Finally, let’s remember that Modern Orthodoxy—despite its challenges—is best equipped to address these issues of reconciling emunah with our modern world head-on. We have the ability to be a bridge to our brethren both on the right and on the left, who are suffering from the same plight of drop outs. By working together and for each other, we will have a better chance of instilling the necessary passion and love for Yiddishkeit and Torah to the next generation.
Rabbi Daniel Korobkin is mara d’atra of Beth Avraham Yoseph of Toronto Congregation (BAYT) in Toronto, Canada, and president of the Rabbinical Council of America.
A Word on Growth
By Matthew Williams
The growth of the Orthodox community presents several policy-oriented challenges that the community has to mull as it considers the reality that in the next several years, Orthodox Jewry will be a million-person-strong American community.
The first is that we likely need a greater level of investment in our educational institutions. Classrooms tailored to the present simply won’t have the necessary number of seats in the next decade or so. Perhaps most importantly, our teacher-training institutes and programs need to increase their output so the community will not have to sacrifice quality instruction to meet oncoming demand.
The second is that as any population grows, it naturally diversifies—geographically, culturally and ideologically. In Orthodox Jewry’s current trajectory, a sub-culture of 500 families could very well grow into a culture of 5,000 (if it hasn’t already). How the community thinks about, accounts for, tolerates and respects such diversity might very well be a deciding factor in the not-so-distant future of Orthodox Jewry.
The third outcome of growth we need to consider is the fact that anti-Semitism, focused as it is on those who are visibly Jewish, is quickly becoming more of an Orthodox problem. For a community that has traditionally eschewed involvement in large, established Jewish “defense” organizations, it is worth considering what kind of investments, capacities and people are necessary to counter anti-
Semitism in the US.
As we study the contemporary Orthodox Jewish community, I often reflect on how the 1990 National Jewish Population Study is now further away than a hypothetical 2050 National Jewish Population Survey. Orthodoxy today is far larger, more robust and religious, wealthier and growing more than any other time in American history. Finding the appropriate analogies to help us think through the moment are more difficult to come by, making past experience less instructive than we might like it to be.
While the recent Pew study revealed some positive trends, including the continued growth and vibrancy of the Orthodox community, the study also confirmed a tragic reality we are all too aware of: we are losing our brothers and sisters due to escalating rates of intermarriage and assimilation. We asked those in the world of outreach the following questions:
Are current kiruv models successful?
Can we do more?
What can we do differently?
Along with the negative intermarriage trend, there is another concerning development as well. Historically, outreach efforts have been most effective with those Jews who already have some religious connection, either through the Reform or Conservative movements. This is chiefly because those movements commonly include exposure to some traditional practices, as well as at least basic familiarity with Hebrew, both of which help Orthodox practice resonate as comfortable and authentic to those Jews.
With a growing amount of young Jews (41 percent of 18 to 29 year olds) describing themselves as unaffiliated with any particular branch of Judaism, the number of Jews who have the strongest likelihood of being attracted to observance is dwindling. Corroborating this data is the older age profile for Conservative and Reform Jews, with a median age of 62 for Conservative Jews and 53 for Reform. This makes engagement with young non-Orthodox Jews all the more important—at the same time that it has become more challenging.
Many kiruv movements have begun effectively adjusting to these trends, but almost all would benefit from at least three continued modifications to previous models. I’ll describe these changes as population, partnership
Population. Often, focusing on second-generation American citizens in a targeted way can be more effective than the traditional focus on those whose ancestors emigrated from Eastern Europe in the early twentieth century. All eight of my own great-grandparents immigrated to the United States from Eastern Europe in the 1910s, making my children and their cousins fifth-generation Americans. As is common among their generation, nearly all of my children and their cousins fit into one of two categories: Orthodox or unaffiliated. By contrast, among more recent immigrants, especially those from Iran, the FSU and Israel, there seems to be a greater desire to connect to Jewish tradition. NCSY runs programs specifically geared toward the children of Persian immigrants in Great Neck, New York, and others specifically focused on the teenage children of Israelis in multiple cities, often staffed by educators with the same background as the participants, with positive results. According to the Pew study, roughly 31 percent of Jewish adults today are first- or second-generation immigrants. Those outreach organizations that gear their engagement toward those populations will have greater success.
Partnership. Many successful organizations maintain a specialty focus on a unique demographic group, including NCSY, which focuses on teenagers, and Momentum, previously known as the Jewish Women’s Renaissance Project, which focuses on women. Still, by working together in partnership, the efforts of each can be amplified. Most of Momentum’s women have teenage children, and most of NCSY’s teens have moms. The efforts of both organizations have been enhanced by working together, which creates an environment in which both a mom and her teenager each support the Jewish growth of the other. Finding similar opportunities for synergy and partnership is critical to future success.
Placement. It is imperative that outreach organizations meet their prospective participants in their own environments, rather than expecting prospects to seek out the organizations. NCSY’s Jewish Student Union (JSU) program facilitates after-school Jewish clubs in hundreds of public high schools across North America, offering teens the opportunity to engage with Jewish role models, with virtually no barriers to entry. Other organizations seeking
to reach meaningful numbers of
unaffiliated Jews would do well to emulate the “meet-them-on-their-turf” model, however that translates best based on their targeted age or demographic group.
As challenging as the current outlook is for the less-observant segments of the American Jewish community, it is possible to connect with and inspire these Jews by fostering personal and meaningful individual relationships. Through continual innovation and dedication via the above approaches and others, our efforts will yield a vastly stronger Jewish community.
Rabbi Micah Greenland is the international director of NCSY.
Pew and other studies tell us the shocking news. Not only did the kiruv movement fail to move the needle on intermarriage, but it failed to stabilize the intermarriage rate, which got worse and worse over time. If it has now leveled off, I am not sure if that was because of our efforts. It has simply reached rock bottom. And certainly an intermarriage rate where over 70 percent of Jews intermarry represents a massive hemorrhaging of our people—a problem on a gigantic scale.
Does that mean that the ba’al teshuvah movement was a failure? For those who set reversing the intermarriage rate as the goal of kiruv, the answer would be yes. They might comfort themselves with all the other achievements—and there are many—but bottom-line, the goal was not achieved. Not even nearly.
The Goal Never Was Reversing Intermarriage
Personally, I never thought that reversing intermarriage was the goal, or even one of the goals of the teshuvah movement. In fact, I have never seen a single plan by any kiruv organization in the past fifty years that laid out how to do this. It is true that Aish HaTorah UK once commissioned a study showing that it had reduced intermarriage in England by 2 percent, but that was a while ago and it does not appear that this result was sustained.
So what are reasonable goals for the kiruv movement or, put differently, how do we define success in kiruv?
There are three legitimate goals
The person becomes observant.
The person becomes close enough to Judaism that he or she will want to establish a traditional home, send his or her kids to Jewish day school, and encourage them—with some success—to become observant. Otherwise, we have to begin our efforts all over again with the next generation. This means that saving a person from intermarriage, while a great achievement, is not a success. It is simply a holding action to buy more time to get to the individual or his children.
A community with a core that is observant gets built.
The Goal Is the Individual
There is no way from a Torah point of view to determine objectively how many souls is a “successful” number in points 1 and 2 above. This figure is determined by experience and integrity. Would I personally dedicate my life to facilitating the return of one person? No. Because I think I could be the keli (conduit) for more. But it might be that were I to go to a gadol at the end of my life and tell him that I was a failure because I was only mekarev one Jew, he would tell me that I am totally wrong.
Among the first group of the great outreach personalities were three viewpoints:
– Rabbi Noach Weinberg (Aish HaTorah): Cast a wide net. Prevent intermarriage. Because if you don’t, there will be no one left to bring back. This is akin to stabilizing the patient before treating him.
– Rabbi Mendel Weinbach (Ohr Somayach): Encourage maximum growth in individuals. Invest utmost efforts to help someone go all the way—to graduate into a mainstream yeshivah, for example. Rabbi Moshe Shapiro, who shared this view, said that this is required by “v’ahavta l’rei’acha kamocha,” loving your neighbor as yourself. Just as I want to be able to become a ben Torah who has learned in a mainstream yeshivah, so too I should want that for those Jews I have brought closer to Yiddishkeit.
– Rabbi Yaakov Rosenberg (Machon Shlomo): If the individual did not become frum, you have achieved nothing. By this he meant that when one doesn’t become frum, his or her children invariably move much further away from Yiddishkeit. Less than frum is not even a holding action.
Measure But Don’t Measure All in One
Hakadosh Baruch Hu created Man as a single individual so that we would appreciate the utter and total specialness of each neshamah. He doesn’t want any Jew to become a statistic. He doesn’t want us to think, “Oh, I made five students frum this year.” He wants us to give them names. To tune into their lives. To realize the awesomeness of each and every one who starts to keep mitzvos.
The third goal mentioned above, that of building a community, has recently received less attention than it once did, which is very unfortunate. The teshuvah movement has been remarkably successful in this arena, building Houston, Dallas, Atlanta, Cincinnati and many other thriving Torah communities that started out virtually from scratch. Around the globe, there are tens and tens of such cities, comprising tens of thousands of Jews. In many of these communities, everything—the manpower, the ideas and the funding—initially had to be imported. Outsiders took responsibility for everything. But with time, locals took over and the community expanded with new shuls, Jewish day schools and other infrastructure. Such growth ensures the future of these communities for as long as we are in galus. That is no mean achievement.
What is the future of the kiruv movement? It is unclear. The Jewish people have been dealing with Jews leaving Orthodoxy in massive numbers ever since Napoleon opened the ghetto gates over 220 years ago. Impressive efforts were made to stabilize existing communities in the face of Emancipation, and to prevent those who were leaving Judaism from doing so. But until the 1960s, no efforts were made to actively reach out to Jews who had already left. The kiruv movement has been a bold, imaginative effort whose resources were always pitiful compared with the scope of the problem. Intermarriage and assimilation were never made the international Jewish emergencies that they should have been. The Jewish people never dedicated the type of effort and commitment that the situation required. Under such circumstances, outreach professionals and their supporters were left to fight a war on behalf of us all. That they achieved so much with so little is truly remarkable.
Where to from here? The teshuvah movement fell from the sky—literally min haShamayim. And it is difficult to predict—as with anything concerning the Jewish people apart from its radical Messianic vision—where it will end.
There are lots of ideas—new programs, trips, methods of recruitment—regarding how we can do better. But are there any innovations that would radically change the scope of what we are doing and dramatically change our results? I think there are. The potential for online outreach has been vastly underexploited, and it is now possible to get significant support from the Israeli government for such efforts.
But this kind of Judaism, an “Orthopraxy” devoid of a deep-seated traditional and thoughtful theology, will only repel the next generation further, when our youth easily detect the spiritual vacuousness of this parroted form of religion.
But there’s a caveat. Every organizational effort relies on three things: ideas, funding and quality of manpower. Opportunities for ideas and funding I cited above. But unless we can significantly increase the number of high-quality couples who are committed to and passionate about kiruv, we will be missing the primary ingredient. A massive outreach effort involving roshei yeshivah, posekim, community rabbis, school principals and community activists is required to encourage, support and enthuse our best to dedicate their lives to this highest of callings. This is an eis la’asos laHashem—a national emergency that requires different priorities than “normal” periods in our history. In fact, never before was such scant attention given to a crisis of such dramatic proportions. This is to our shame.
I suffer proudly from terminal optimism. It is, after all, the eternal people we are talking about. We have God on our side. Faith-based optimism is the precondition for us to move forward. If we don’t believe that we can make game-changing breakthroughs in kiruv, we won’t even try. If we don’t try, we are only giving lip service to the purity of every soul waiting to emerge through the layers. We won’t always get it right and that is okay. Sometimes God says no. But we need to declare an emergency, set up a war room, and feel in our very bones the absolute crisis that requires our urgent attention.
Rabbi Avraham Edelstein is the educational director of Neve Yerushalayim College for Women and the executive mentor of Olami. He is the author of The Laws of Outreach (Beit Shemesh; New York, 2019) and The Human Challenge— Being Jewish in the 21st Century (Beit Shemesh; New York, 2021).