By Martin Nachimson
There was much hand-wringing when the Pew Research Center’s “A Portrait of Jewish Americans” was first released in October 2013. We all bemoaned the devastating intermarriage rates among the non-Orthodox (at 71.5 percent), and the slow but steady erosion of American Jewish life.
On the positive side, the Pew report affirmed what many of us already knew: American Orthodoxy has experienced a remarkable resurgence. With our high birthrate and very low intermarriage rate, our community is vibrant, strong and growing.
And yet, the report also made it very clear that we have our own problems to contend with. While our retention rate is impressive at 83 percent, it means that nearly 20 percent are dropping out of religious life.
We invest an average of $300,000 to educate a child Jewishly (including camps, the gap year in Israel, et cetera). With such an extraordinarily high investment, a loss of close to 20 percent is nothing short of alarming. What are we doing wrong?
This, in fact, relates to a question we at the OU face all the time. Should we invest our limited dollars in keeping Orthodox youth committed or in reaching those who know little or nothing about their heritage? Do we focus on kids who resent the restrictions of Shabbat or do we focus on those who have never experienced a Shabbat at all? Whose needs are more pressing? Which is a better investment yielding better returns?
Obviously, we cannot evaluate the sacred work of saving neshamot on a spreadsheet. We cannot put a price tag on keeping our young people in the fold, on ensuring we produce committed Torah leaders, on working to build a strong and vibrant future for Torah Judaism.
And yet, we must make decisions. At NCSY, the world’s most successful Jewish youth organization, we have historically recognized the need for both in-reach and outreach. Indeed, as one NCSY leader recently told me: “There are very few kids on any religious level who don’t need NCSY.”
Why do yeshivah kids need NCSY? As Rabbi Micah Greenland, international director of NCSY, puts it, there is the “magic of NCSY.”
Every summer, we bring more than 1,000 kids to Israel on summer programs. More than 600 of them are, in fact, yeshivah kids who attend NCSY Kollel (where my grandson is planning to go this summer), Michlelet, GIVE and other such programs tailored to their specific needs. Recently, in fact, we have begun exploring more ways to transport the “magic” of our wildly successful summer programs for yeshivah kids into year-round programming. We are also expanding our single-gender programs. Just recently, 4G, an all-girls’ program in the Midwest, hosted NCSY’s first-ever all-girls’ Shabbaton.
But making inroads in reducing the drop-out rate means we must continue to follow NCSYers as they graduate high school and reach young adulthood. Each year, roughly 2,500 students graduate from Modern Orthodox high schools across North America. Between seventy and eighty percent of them end up attending secular college campuses. In the uber-questioning, uber-liberal atmosphere of the college campus, religious students are exceptionally vulnerable to grappling with, and yes, even losing, their faith.
We help NCSYers transition into college life by connecting them to Jewish life on campus. Our regional offices around the country keep in close contact with twelfth graders, helping them with their choices and guiding them to Jewish resources on campus. One such resource is a program I am particularly proud of: the Heshe and Harriet Seif Jewish Learning Initiative on Campus (JLIC), currently found on twenty-two campuses throughout North America. JLIC places rabbinic couples on campus to help students navigate the various challenges of campus life. Due to the enormous need for such a program, JLIC is growing. Reaching a lot more than just NCSY alumni, JLIC programs and community leadership involve nearly 4,000 Jewish students each year. Through our JLIC programs, run with the invaluable assistance of our national partner, Hillel, the Foundation for Jewish Campus Life, Orthodox kids have Torah role models who not only organize Chanukah parties and Megillah readings on campus, but also serve as confidants at a particularly sensitive time in their lives.
Do our in-reach programs work? When I hear that a yeshivah kid who was about to give it all up is now a leader in an NCSY region, or when I hear that a beit midrash on a secular college campus is full with students studying Torah each night, I think, “Yes, it is working.”
But until the drop-out rate in our community is at zero percent, we cannot afford to sit back and relax. Until then, we have much work to do.