The “Three Percenters”: Our Mandate, Our Mission

It is nine months since I have taken on the position of executive vice president of the Orthodox Union, a position that has given me a window into the incredible breadth and scope of the activities of this extraordinary organization. The past few months have also given me a unique perspective on our community and on what I believe the current state of American Jewry compels us to accomplish. Our community is a small minority, but with an impact on, and hence an obligation to, all of Klal Yisrael that fundamentally and profoundly dwarfs our numerical size.

According to the most recent survey data, there are approximately 6.7 million Jews in the United States. Ten percent of American Jewry identify as Orthodox. Three percent of American Jews today are considered Modern Orthodox—that’s about 200,000 people. But if our numbers are small, our influence is enormous. And both our numbers and our influence are growing exponentially. I write this not out of a sense of misplaced triumphalism. To the contrary, our growing size, status and influence impose on us an enormous responsibility to our brethren. And history will judge whether we rise to this challenge.

 

In a few generations, Orthodoxy will, absent material changes in the landscape, be the dominant segment of the Jewish world. And we need to plan today for the opportunities this demographic inevitability will present, and for the challenges it will pose. This is the mission of the OU.

The birthrate for Jews in the United States is 1.9 children per family—less than the national average of 2.2 children in the general public and less than the replacement birthrate necessary to keep the population from declining. In contrast, at 4.1 children, the Orthodox birthrate is more than twice the overall Jewish average.

Twenty-seven percent of all Jewish children under age seventeen reside in Orthodox households. Thirty-five percent of all Jewish children under age four reside in Orthodox households. In the New York area, 60 percent of Jewish children reside in Orthodox homes. In contrast, the non-Orthodox not only have far fewer children, but they marry at a much later age, or not at all. Fewer than a third of non-Orthodox Jewish males between the ages of twenty-five and thirty-nine are married—fewer than a third.

At the same time that the Orthodox population is growing, the ravages of intermarriage and assimilation are decimating the ranks of the remainder of American Jewry.

Almost 1 in 4 Jews now identify as Jews of no religion—their connection to Judaism has nothing whatsoever to do with religion or practice, but is based exclusively on ancestry, ethnicity or culture. Two-thirds of these Jews of no religion report that they are not raising their children Jewishly in any way, shape or form.

Intermarriage rates are skyrocketing, compared even to a decade ago. Six-in-ten Jews who have married since 2000 have a non-Jewish spouse. And the simple fact is that the large majority of intermarried families are loosely, ambivalently or not at all connected to Jewish life. This process of disintegration is as pernicious as it is relentless. To project into the future, only 8 percent of the grandchildren of the intermarried are likely to marry another Jew. Decades ago, the sociologist Milton Himmelfarb made the point succinctly when he was asked what the grandchild of an intermarried Jew should be called. “A Christian,” he answered.

The math is inexorable. Orthodoxy is growing, and the rest of the Jewish world is shrinking.

We are witnessing a churban of the non-Orthodox Jewish community on a scale unparalleled in American Jewish history. And in response, most of the American Jewish leadership desperately seeks to just be left alone; their solution is to ignore the problem in the hope that it will just go away. It will not. What’s worse, the Jewish organizational world continues to lavish endless funds on proposed solutions that are limited in their impact because they are not anchored in our text and tradition, in the Torah, which has kept our people alive and vibrant for the past four millennia.

And so the task falls to us—the “three percenters.” Why us? Because we have the means—the education, the openness, the self-confidence, the access and the credibility to reach out to our brethren in ways that few others can.

Consider the following: We have the education. Sixty-five percent of Modern Orthodox Jews are college graduates compared to 29 percent in the US general public.

We have the means. Thirty-seven percent of Modern Orthodox Jews have household incomes of $150,000 annually or more; in percentage terms, over 5 times the national average, and higher than any other Jewish denomination.

Thank God, our community is blessed. It has never been stronger. It has never been more dynamic. There is no milestone that is not within our reach, not a profession or industry we cannot comfortably enter and in which we cannot excel. There is no school that will not gladly accept our children. When I graduated high school, I was told that for a day school graduate to apply to Princeton would be a waste of the application fee. Today, our campus education program, the Heshe and Harriet Seif Jewish Learning Initiative on Campus, at Princeton is filled with day school graduates learning Torah on a regular basis.

We live in a society where a candidate for vice president of the United States writes a book about the importance of Shabbat and where the secretary of the Treasury is a regular shul-goer. Hashem oz l’amo yitein. And yet the affluence, education and world of limitless opportunity place a burden on us “three percenters” to carry the torch of Torah to those who are less privileged than we are.

The question is, how do we use these manifold blessings to turn the tide? And do we truly feel the obligation to do so?

Our faith, our areivut, our communal obligation, compel this profound responsibility to our fellow Jews—not just to respond to the decimation around us, but to affirmatively and vigorously seek to prevent it, with all the means at our disposal. This obligation lies at the core of the OU’s mission.

NCSY, the OU’s youth movement, touches the lives of more than 15,000 teens each year from day schools and public schools all across the country—all yearning for inspiration and for a deeper relationship with the Borei Olam. One of our most successful and impactful NCSY programs is The Anne Samson Jerusalem Journey (TJJ), which takes 500 public school teens to Israel each summer. TJJ literally transforms the lives of hundreds of young people every year.

A recent independent study we commissioned proves that TJJ has spurred quantum leaps in the Jewish identification of an overwhelming number of trip participants. (See the article on page 88.) Over 60 percent of TJJ alumni report that they participate in Jewish learning at least weekly; 93 percent say it is important to date only Jews; 83 percent say it is very important to raise their children as Jews.

Some weeks ago, I attended the annual NCSY Yarchei Kallah, a five-day-long event where public school kids give up part of their winter break to spend time learning Torah. This year, in honor of NCSY’s 60th Anniversary, 300 students, many of whom have never opened a Jewish text until this year, participated in a siyum on kol haTorah kulah—all of Tanach, Mishnah and Shas. It was an extraordinary sight.

Kiruv works. Chizuk works.

If you ask me, “What is the OU’s vision?,” I would say it is to double the scope of NCSY and multiply its impact to change the face of American Jewry.

Then there are our own kids, and their parents, who struggle daily under the weight of a crushing tuition burden. Cost cutting, private philanthropy and creative financing are all important. But the real solution to the tuition crisis lies in using our political power and advocacy efforts to increase state and local government funding for yeshivot and day schools. This too is fundamental to the OU’s mission.

There are over 250,000 Jewish day school students in 861 day schools and yeshivot in the United States—more students than the entire public school populations of eleven different states. Over 87 percent of these students are Orthodox. And they all share a common denominator: their tuition bills are a burden on families and communities that have reached their breaking point. Small schools teeter on the brink, because tuition revenue cannot sustain the overhead. Thousands of parents have opted out of a yeshivah education for their children because the costs are simply unbearable. And yet we know that a yeshivah education is the single-most important foundation for Jewish survival.

Advocacy for increased state and local government assistance to yeshivot and day schools is therefore at the top of the OU agenda. Over the past three years, we have substantially ramped up our advocacy efforts in this arena—in New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Maryland and Florida. These five states account for 82 percent of our country’s yeshivah and day school population and we now have ten staff members working full time on this effort. Additional staff will be added in the coming months. We estimate that we have helped bring over $90 million of new government funding to yeshivot and day schools over the last two years in mandated services, special education, transportation, technology assistance, energy efficiency and school safety. It is only the beginning, and it is not nearly enough.

We are about to embark upon the most ambitious advocacy program ever undertaken by the OU—a multi-year, multi-million-dollar campaign in New York, home to 40 percent of the yeshivah and day school students in the United States. We have already retained one of the leading political strategists in New York to guide us in this new effort. And I want to acknowledge the extraordinary support we have received from yeshivot across New York, from the Sephardi community, which has been a pioneer in this effort, and from our partners in other faith communities across New York.

Our goal is to transform the tuition landscape—to generate sufficient government funding for yeshivot and day schools to lower tuition costs in a meaningful way. This is our goal; nothing less.

There is one last subject I want to address, and that is the role of women within the OU—in our professional ranks and within the ranks of our lay leadership. Lots of ink has been spilled on this subject, but to me it’s really very simple: talent is at a premium within the communal world, and if we want to be true to our bold ambitions, we need to fully include the female half of our communal talent pool at the highest levels. Gender diversity within the professional ranks of the OU—particularly at the senior levels—is one of my major priorities. We have taken some major steps forward this past year. We have started a women’s affinity group to assist us in these efforts, increased our professional development and mentoring activities and included a significant segment on gender diversity in our recent senior leadership retreat.

And, at the lay level, we will now have five outstanding women serving as OU officers in the new administration.

Our recent convention featured a panel discussion on how to bring Orthodox Jewish women to the leadership table. (See the article on pages 82-83.) This is about finding and using outstanding talent, rather than excluding it; about mirroring in our professional management and in our lay leadership the broad diversity of our community and the equally broad skills and backgrounds that it includes. This too is part of the OU’s mission.

We are a remarkable community. We have been blessed by Hakadosh Baruch Hu with the bounty of His Providence—with the finest Torah institutions and extraordinary mechanchim, with abundant resources, with success and access and with remarkable passion. The challenge for Orthodoxy and for the OU as its communal voice is how we effectively use these blessings. It is time for all of us to recognize our community’s strength, to leverage its faith and dedication to Torah values, to learn from the successes of the past but also to boldly confront the challenges that lie ahead. It is time to plan better, to strategize more effectively, to speak out more loudly and forcefully on the issues we care deeply about and, above all, to dream bigger, to think more broadly and intensely about the impact that our three percent can and must have on the Jewish future.

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This article was featured in the Spring 2015 issue of Jewish Action.
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