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Beyond chicken soup: what’s the jewish boiling point?

Eytan Kobre

Tuesday, October 08, 2013

The ironies abound in a major new survey of Jewish America released this past week, beginning with the name of the well-regarded polling organization that’s behind it — Pew — because one of the study’s primary takeaways is that there are ever less Jews in synagogue pews these days. And, tragically, ever more of them can be found in church pews, whether to attend their child’s intermarriage or, years later, a grandchild’s baptism.

There isn’t all that much in the Pew report’s 200 data-packed pages to surprise those with in-depth knowledge of the American Jewish scene. Some might even question whether frum Jews ought to be interested in its dismal, indeed ominous, portrait of a non-Orthodox community in the throes of a religious death spiral, which is so removed from the much brighter current — and hopefully future state — of Orthodoxy.

As a window into the Orthodox world, however, the Pew survey, with its narrow focus on numbers and responses to a set of one-dimensional questions, fails miserably at conveying to the world beyond ours even a glimmer of the vibrancy of Orthodoxy, the sheer robustness of our lived reality.  

But wait: These are our brothers and sisters they’re talking about. Even if we feel largely helpless in averting their impending implosion, isn’t the very least we can do is to stop and take notice of their plight?


Who’s a Jew to Pew?

The pollsters interviewed people in four categories:

  • Jews by religion: Those who say their religion is Judaism
  • Jews of no religion: Those who professes no religion but have a Jewish parent or were raised Jewish and still consider themselves Jewish in some way
  • Non-Jewish people of Jewish background: Those who have a Jewish parent or were raised Jewish but either have another religion or don’t consider themselves Jewish
  • Non-Jewish people with a Jewish affinity: People who identify with another religion or no religion, neither have a Jewish parent nor were raised Jewish, but consider themselves Jewish in some way, e.g., “because [the man worshipped by Christians] was Jewish … or because they have Jewish friends”

The report notes that the total number of American Jews will depend on which of these categories is included in the count. Thus, Category 1 above yields 4.2 million Jews, while Category 2 adds another 1.2 million. “Alternatively,” the authors continue, “one could define Jewish more expansively,” to include Category 3, and the total Jewish population would stand at 7.8 million. Finally, if “one were to adopt an even broader definition … and include all Americans who say they consider themselves Jewish for any reason,” the number of Jews would rise to an even 9 million.

This is ostensibly a serious, scientific study executed by serious social scientists. So I wonder: Is there another group association in all of society, even one that doesn’t come with Judaism’s set of rights and responsibilities, that one can think one’s way into or out of, without a single other tangible requirement of admittance other than that he “considers” himself a member? Being black, or Chinese? The U.S. Army? The local Chamber of Commerce? The local bird-watchers club? Anything? I guess we Jews are even more unique than I thought.

But there’s another question that’s surely bothering our astute readers: Isn’t there another definition of “Jewish” the Pew folks missed? But have no fear, for indeed, after discussing these various definitions, the report adds:

One other common definition should be mentioned, though it is not shown in the accompanying tables: In traditional Jewish law (halakha), Jewish identity is passed down through matrilineal descent, and the survey finds that about 90% of Jews by religion and 64% of Jews of no religion — a total of about 4.4 million U.S. adults — say they have a Jewish mother. Additionally, about 1.3 million people who are not classified as Jews in this report (49% of non-Jews of Jewish background) say they have a Jewish mother.

And thus is G-d’s own favored definition of a Jew, the one enshrined in Jewish law for millennia, consigned to an afterthought. So marginal and insignificant was this definition considered that it wasn’t even deemed worthy of inclusion in the report’s accompanying charts. Then again, maybe they were just trying to keep printing costs down.

In any event, if the report’s authors are to be believed, there are upwards of 5.7 million real Jews out there (which number, of course, assumes the Jewish mother these Jews claim to have herself had a Jewish mother …) But a full 1.3 million of these people don’t consider themselves Jewish, which raises an interesting question.

People in kiruv are all-too-familiar with variations of this recurrent scenario: Two fellows, a Jew and his gentile friend, are backpacking around the world and somehow end up at a baal teshuvah yeshivah in Jerusalem. After an introductory class, McLaughlin exclaims, “hey, this is fascinating stuff, let’s check this out for a week,” while Cohen — a mix of fear, guilt and misconceptions roiling him within — can’t wait to break out of there and head for Eilat. So, query: Ought kiruv workers to be focusing more on identifying and reaching out to this large cohort of people who are actually Jews but who, because they don’t know they’re actually Jewish, don’t have a lot of the “baggage” of self-identifying Jews, i.e., the defense mechanisms and past negative associations to Judaism that can make kiruv so difficult?  


Sneaking Away?

The report contains a number of simply outlandish findings that tend to undermine one’s confidence in its accuracy. Example: Did you know that only 76% of “ultra-Orthodox” Jews “avoid handling money on the Sabbath”?

To be fair, however, this isn’t so much evidence for the pollsters’ incompetence as for their complete lack of cross-cultural smarts. Any shtiebel yid worthy of the name could’ve told the Pew folks that asking a question about handling gelt on Shabbos would yield an easy 24% responding in the affirmative. Indeed that number probably goes as high as 50% or more on the back tables of certain batei medrash, where the bein gavra l’gavra chatter could probably teach even Crain’s Business editors a thing or two (prefaced, it goes without saying, by ‘nisht oif Shabbos geredt’).

Fair enough, but how to explain the finding that 1% of “ultra-Orthodox” Jews had a X-mas tree last year? Whoever you are with the evergreen tree in shtib, if you’re reading this, please contact me confidentially; there may be a “Ten Questions” segment in your future, or at least a speaking gig with Gateways.

Another shocking stat from Pew: the phantom 15% of “ultra-Orthodox” Jews who, we are told, sneak off to “attend non-Jewish religious services at least a few times a year.” Now, it’s true that when my family lived out-of-town in the ’60s, the big Reform temple in town, Rodef Sholom, was known fondly as St. Rodef’s; even so, I just don’t see a lot of frum foot traffic on Shabbos in the vicinity of our local temple, not even on the part of late risers who missed the 9:30 at Spinka but would be right on time for the 11 am service at Temple Beth Am. So color me skeptical.  


Good News and Bad News

The good news: 96% of Jews married to other Jews are raising their child as Jewish by religion.

The bad news: Since 2000, 71% of non-Orthodox Jews have married a non-Jew (and only 20% of such couples are raising their child as Jews).

The good news: 80% say “being Jewish” is very or at least somewhat important in their lives.

The bad news: When asked which of nine attributes and activities are essential to “being Jewish,” 73% of all Jews listed “remembering the Holocaust” and 42% said “having a sense of humor,” while only 19% and 28% respectively chose “observing Jewish law” and “being part of Jewish community.”

But before you laugh, or cry (or both), note that a full 60% of “ultra-Orthodox” Jews listed “eating Jewish foods” as essential to Jewishness (far higher than any other group) and 42% also chose “having a sense of humor.” So do a big mitzvah today: attend a Rabbi Dovid Orlofsky lecture, preferably while enjoying a piping hot piece of kugel.

The good news: 94% of all Jews say they are proud to be Jewish.

The bad news: 34% of all Jews responded that a person can be Jewish even if even believes the man worshipped by Christians was the messiah. But it get’s weirder, because more “ultra-Orthodox” Jews (35%) are reported to hold this view than Reform ones (25%). A possible explanation is that these 35% of frum respondents had in mind Chazal’s axiom of Yisroel af al pi she’chata Yisroel hu, i.e., once a Jew, always a Jew, albeit an apostate. In any event, the next time one hears Orthodox Jews being accused of delegitimizing other Jews, the accuser ought to be directed to this section of the report.


Leaning on Lakewood

Reaction to the Pew report has been swift in coming from commentators across the Jewish spectrum. Two of these responses, however, are particularly striking.

The first is an op-ed by one Noah Feldman. The name may ring a bell for some readers, because it was just over six years ago that Feldman, a Harvard law professor and public intellectual of some renown, created a huge firestorm of controversy with an article in the New York Times Magazine that was harshly critical of the Modern Orthodox world in which he had been raised.

But two days after Pew was released, Feldman wrote a Bloomberg View column entitled Where Jewish Life Thrives in America. Some excerpts:

Forget the teeth-gnashing already occasioned by a new study on Jewish identity in the U.S. by the Pew Research Religion & Public Life Project. The only thing every generation of Jews has in common is the conviction that it will be the last. What matters for the continuity of Jewish life is quality, not quantity. And in today’s America, Jewish intellectual, cultural, spiritual and religious life is flourishing. Case in point: Beth Medrash Govoha of Lakewood, New Jersey, known as BMG or simply “Lakewood” -- one of the two biggest yeshivas, or Talmudic colleges, in the history of the world….


Inevitably, BMG represents a limited slice of Jewish life….Its rigorous and restricted life-world will never be right for the vast majority of American Jews, any more than it was for their European predecessors. But the yeshiva shows that one kind of authentically Jewish experience is flourishing in America-- and that it is autonomous and independent. Its identity isn’t focused on the Holocaust or on Israel, but on intellectual engagement with the Talmud….


Graduates of institutions such as BMG won’t solve the demographic challenges to American Jewry highlighted by the Pew study….But BMG matters. It matters for the future of Jews inAmericaprecisely because it matters for the future of Judaism inAmerica. By privileging ideas and thought over identity, it proudly stakes out a position of genuine durability.

Feldman observes that only 30% ofLakewoodalumni become rabbis or educators; the rest “are engaged in study for its own sake. They will enter the workforce when they are done; armed with skills of logic, formal reasoning and a type of critical thinking, they largely succeed after training in a professional field or going directly into business.” The Pew report seems to support his assessment with its finding that while only 25% of “ultra-Orthodox” Jews are college graduates, 24% of them have household incomes of $150,000 or more; among Reform and Conservative Jews, whose college graduation rates are over 60%, the cohorts with that income level are 29% and 23%, respectively.



Contrast Feldman’s refreshingly honest appraisal of Orthodox vitality with a Forward article that is so misleading in its portrayal of the report that it approaches the scurrilous. Entitled Can Orthodox Buck Movement Toward More Liberal Branches of Jewish Faith?, it begins by introducing us to 71-year-old dentist Ron Rosenblatt, whose parents grew up Orthodox, while his own bar mitzvah was Conservative and he raised his children in a Reform temple. This trajectory, the writer tells us

is typical for an American Jew, the new [Pew Survey] reports. In fact, none of the major Jewish denominations can hold on to a majority of its members. Pew data shows that startlingly low retention rates among all three major Jewish denominations are leading to a demographic explosion among Jews who say they identify with no denomination at all. Most people who grew up Orthodox or Conservative are now either members of a more liberal denomination or don’t identify as religious at all.

To understand fully the degree of chicanery in which the writer is engaged, some background is necessary. The report includes a denominational breakdown showing that 35% of all Jews identify as Reform, 18% as Conservative and 10% as Orthodox. Among synagogue members, Orthodox constitutes 22%.

As an aside, these figures for the non-Orthodox movements must be put in perspective by reference to the findings by Pew that only 34% of Reform Jews (and only 50% of Conservatives) belong to a synagogue, and that fully 20% of “Jews of no religion” describe themselves as Reform Jews. This clearly indicates that which is already well-known anecdotally: Jews often use “Reform” as a synonym for “non-practicing,” with “very Reform” meaning “has no connection to religion whatsoever.”

In any event, every demographic indicator — birth rates, intermarriage rates, average age — indicates that Orthodoxy will grow, within decades, to be the largest group within religiously-identifying American Jewry. But what about rates of attrition? As the report states:

Though Orthodox Jews today make up 10% of the net Jewish population and 12% of current Jews by religion, larger numbers (14% of all Jews and 17% of Jews by religion) say they were raised as Orthodox. This reflects a high rate of attrition from Orthodox Judaism, especially among older cohorts. Among those 65 and older who were raised as Orthodox Jews, just 22% are still Orthodox Jews by religion. And among those ages 50-64 who were raised Orthodox, just 41% are still Orthodox Jews by religion. In stark contrast, 83% of Jewish adults under 30 who were raised Orthodox are still Orthodox.

To anyone with the barest minimum of knowledge of American Jewish history — and a modicum of intellectual honesty — it should be obvious that Ron Rosenblatt’s family history is no longer at all “typical for an American Jew”; it is almost entirely a thing of the past. There are clear historical and sociological reasons for this: early 20-century Orthodoxy was a tepid Orthopraxy of lax standards and low ideological conviction; the huge wave of second-generation Jews who fled city for suburb dropped the Shabbos observance that was impossible to maintain amidst suburban sprawl and in the face of their desire for upward social mobility, and joined the Conservative movement; the spread of the day school movement and yeshivos and kollelim raised standards of education and observance immeasurably. Case in point: only 13% of survey respondents reported attending a day school or yeshivah for more than five years.

The Pew report notes precisely this, writing that “[s]ome experts think this is not a result of accumulated departures as people get older (i.e., a life cycle effect) but rather could be a period effect in which people who came of age during the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s left Orthodoxy in large numbers.”

In a lengthy conversation I had with Alan Cooperman, the lead editor of the Pew survey, he agreed that it is highly likely that Orthodox retention has increased dramatically, portending great future growth; so does leading sociologist Steven M. Cohen, whose quotes are buried in the middle of the Forward article. But astonishingly, the Forward writer can’t even bring himself to cite the 83% retention rate for the 18-30 age group of Orthodox Jews. Is he afraid he’ll have to rewrite his lead?


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