Wednesday, June 27, 2018

Jewish Continuity in America: A Call to the Modern Orthodox

By: Rabbi Tully Harcsztark, Principal

We are all creatures of habit. And as such, we tend to develop routines, consistent expectations and steady patterns of behavior. But every so often, it is important to take a step back and reflect - on ourselves, our peers, the community within which we live. I would like us to take yet a further step back and take an even broader look. Something large, something that should affect our self understanding as a community, requires our attention.

Over the course of the past year, three academics, two of whom are part of the SAR family,1 have used the data from the famed 2013 Pew Research Center’s study of Jewish Americans to further project population trends of the American Jewish community in the coming decades. Their analysis was presented in a series of articles in the Forward in September 2017,2 recently revisited this past month in the same publication.3 Their projections suggest significant decline in the non Orthodox Jewish population in the United States and significant growth in the Orthodox population in the coming decades. Even if you are not excited by data and population trends, keep reading. I think there is something here that is very important for us to consider as we raise the next generation of Jews - many of whom, we hope, will make aliya but also undoubtedly many who will be living in the Diaspora. 

Here are some significant data points from their projections:
  • The numbers suggest overall decline in the number of Jews ages 30-69 in the coming decades.
  • In the Pew data, the number of nondenominational Jews aged 20-29 is much larger than those 30 and above. That number then gets much smaller for those below 20. That suggests that Jews are becoming unaffiliated and then not reproducing themselves.
  • The number of Conservative and Reform Jews ages 30-39 are about half of Conservative and Reform Jews ages 60-69. Together, that means that the Non-Orthodox community in America is going to decline precipitously in the coming decades. 
  • In contrast, Orthodox Judaism in America is growing very rapidly: as of the 2013 data, there were 40,000 Orthodox Jews in their 60’s, 120,000 Orthodox Jews in their 30’s and 230,000 between 0 and 9 years of age. That is enormous growth. 
  • There will be more Orthodox Jews in America than Reform and Conservative Jews combined in about 40 years, and more than all of non-Orthodox Jewry in almost 70 years.
The message to take from their analysis: 
  1. The overall number of Jews in America will decline over the coming decades.
  2. The number of Non-Orthodox Jews will decline dramatically. 
  3. The Orthodox population in America will increase significantly in the coming years. 
This sounds like good news for the Orthodox - and it certainly makes for a strong argument on behalf of endogamy (in-marrying) and shemirat hamitzvot. When Jews marry Jews and when Jews observe mitzvot, Jews and Judaism flourish. We, of course, are strong supporters of both endogamy and mitzvot - on theological and on practical grounds. But we should dig a little deeper. A major restructuring of the American Jewish community appears to be on the horizon. And while the numbers look positive for the Orthodox, there is the potential for a decline of hundreds of thousands of American Jews in the coming decades. That, on its own, must give us pause. I also believe that this data presents a specific challenge for our Modern Orthodox community, one which we should carefully consider.

When seen from a distance - from Israel, for example - these trends can tell the story in a particular way, one that splits the American Jewish community into two separate groups, a divide that can ultimately create distance between the Zionist, and especially the Religious Zionist, community in Israel and the Jewish community in America. I have heard this story told a number of times in recent years by different scholars. It goes something like this: the Jewish community in America is on the decline. Fifty years from now, there will be two Jewish communities, one that is largely halakhically-not-Jewish and one that is Haredi. In this narrative, non-denominational Jews are increasingly distanced from Judaism, as they do not practice Jewish ritual and they do not connect with the ethnically Jewish State, while Haredi Jews do not, at their core, identify with the Zionist mission. As such, we can expect the American Jewish community to be increasingly irrelevant to the future of the Jewish State and, by extension, the Jewish people. I worry about this narrative; it is not one that we can live with. Both the Israeli and the American Jewish community need to believe in the future of American Judaism. 

But it is not only about the connection between Israel and the Diaspora. It is also about the nature of the observant Jewish community in America. Both Zionism and Modern Orthodox Judaism - each in its own way - express belief in a Jewish People deeply engaged with the modern world, in building an ethical society, in bringing the spirit and value of Torah to the material world, in nurturing the Grand Conversation between Torah and the world. If our community bifurcates into a liberal, assimilated Jewish community and an insular Haredi community, then, following this narrative, in half a century, a vibrant, integrated Jewish option will exist only in Israel and not at all in the United States.

There are those who will celebrate this and say, “of course that is so!”. The future of the Jewish people is in Israel - and we now have data to prove it! But we must be more careful. Let’s take our own community as an example. I am proud to say that in our short history, about 85 SAR High School graduates have made aliya. I wish we could triple that number - and I hope that happens. But even should that happen, the large majority of graduates will still be living in the US in twenty five years. We must ensure that the American Jewish community continues to thrive in the coming years. By the end of the 21st century, there will still be over 4 million Jews in America! That being so, our Jewish community in America must continue to nurture a dynamic and vibrant, modern and observant, religiously distinct and culturally engaged Jewish community. That is vital for the future of the Jewish People in the United States. And it is central to ensuring a thriving relationship between the Jewish community in Israel and the Jewish community in the United States. 

We know all too well that projections and trends do not accurately predict the course of Jewish history. Were this so, there would be no State of Israel - and Orthodoxy in America would have suffered its demise long ago. Jews pay attention to the projections and predictions - and then work as hard as we can to defy them. Half a century ago, our parents and grandparents gave all of themselves to building a network of schools and shuls and camps; they worked as hard as they could to ensure the continuity and growth of the American Jewish community. They, miraculously, defied the odds. They took note of the projections and chose to act. I believe that our time has come. It is now our turn to pay it forward.

Which brings us to our modern, halakhically observant community. We currently comprise only three percent of the American Jewish community. But we have an extremely important role to play to keep the Jewish community strong. Two of our communal tendencies work against our assuming this role in a full-throated way: 1) our Zionism directs our religious idealism to the State of Israel and 2) our assimilation anxiety makes us insular, pushes us to direct our energies inward, and this for good reason. But it cannot allow us to ignore the significant restructuring that is happening around us. We need to think more, to care more about the broader Jewish community. And we have what to share - and what to learn. The Modern observant community does not have its version of a kiruv movement, an effort to reach out to get to know and understand different types of Jews; to make connections and build bridges; to share the beauty of our way of life with other Jews - with confidence, passion and love. 

We must begin to see ourselves - our small three percent - as an anchor and a bridge, connecting to American Jews on either side of us and working to bring the Israeli and American Jewish communities closer together. We should be an anchoring community that is both rooted and integrated, able to bring Torah and society together in a most inspiring way; and a bridge, bringing liberal and Haredi Jews together, arguing, through our presence and our practice that we are committed to and care about the entire Jewish community and will do what we can to keep it strong. 

For some of us, that might mean redoubling our efforts to maintain and even strengthen our commitment to halakhic practice; for others among us, it might mean opening ourselves up to better understand the diversity of the Jewish community, to do what we can to strengthen Jewish education and practice across the community. For schools, that might mean learning about and getting to meet more Haredi and less observant Jews; for our shuls, it might mean taking on serious outreach programs, developing ways for Jews to respectfully and openly get to know each other. As a modern, observant community, we need to be more mission-driven and goal oriented - not simply focused on maintaining our own communities and providing for our own needs. 

The Modern Orthodox community in America has an important role to play in ensuring the vitality of the Jewish community in America and the strength of its relationship with Medinat Yisrael. It requires broad vision and a long term strategy. I certainly do not have the answers; but I think we have to try.


1 Professor Steven M. Cohen is Research Professor of Jewish Social Policy at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, grandfather of Yair Wall, class of 2021. Professor Eidieal Pinker is a professor of Operations Research and Deputy Dean at the Yale School of Management. He is also the father of of Zev Pinker, SAR HS class of 2021. Dr. Mickey Gussow z”l served at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory.
2 https://forward.com/opinion/382564/does-orthodox-explosion-signal-doom-for-conservative-and-reform/?attribution=author-article-listing-2-headline; https://forward.com/opinion/382962/how-the-non-orthodox-can-boost-jewish-demographics/?attribution=author-article-listing-1-headline
3 https://forward.com/news/402663/orthodox-will-dominate-american-jewry-in-coming-decades-as-population/?attribution=author-article-listing-1-headline

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