Jewish Week Column

I am acceding to the request that I post this week’s column which deals with the claim by Jack Ukeles that 75% of Orthodox households are Modern Orthodox. If there are comments, they should be emailed to me at mschick@mindspring.com.

More Fiction Posing as Fact

When novelists create stereotypical figures that distort Orthodox life, they claim that, after all, they’re novelists who can write as they please. Academics and others who purport to describe the real religious Jewish world do not have this fig leaf to shield them when they are criticized because what they write is off the mark. It is hard to imagine any greater distortion of Orthodox reality than the pseudo-scholarship palmed off by Jacob Ukeles at the annual gathering of Edah, the ultra-Modern Orthodox fringe group.

Jewish survey research is in a sorry state. We have been presented dubious findings regarding Jews in the Former Soviet Union, American Jewish poverty and the impact of Israel experiences on Jewish identity. A top Jewish demographer told me that he once distorted data in order to achieve a desired result. We are increasingly subjected to numbers games impelled by ideology or some other pre-selected goal, in much the same way that pharmaceutical companies advertise that so many doctors prefer their product.

Ukeles’ assertion that three-quarters of Orthodox households in the New York Federation service area are Modern Orthodox is based on seriously flawed methodology and is wrong. He isn’t even close. In arriving at his absurd figure, Ukeles obliterates the Centrist Orthodox subcategory that is meaningful to many, including Rabbi Norman Lamm in his description of Yeshiva University and especially its highly regarded Rabbinical Seminary. He also departs from basic rules regarding the establishment of identity.

In determining political or religious affiliation or other categories of personal identity via quantitative research, the key determinant always is how people identify themselves. This inevitably results in some distortion, as when persons who violate Sabbath obligations identify themselves as Orthodox because of their synagogue affiliation. The National Jewish Population Surveys and the more sophisticated Guttman studies on the religious practices and beliefs of Israeli Jews rely on self-identity. In Guttman, this led to “mapping sentences” or typologies encompassing a range of behavior and attitudes.

Ukeles did not ask Orthodox respondents which subcategory they identified with, an easy enough task. Had he done so, the findings would have been far more accurate and light years away from the erroneous data that is now posing as fact. He utilized a single issue – attitude toward college – as a litmus test and this produced bogus statistics. In Brooklyn, where last year 55,000 out of 67,000 dayschoolers were enrolled in charedi or fervently Orthodox schools, Ukeles claims that 55% of the Orthodox are in the Modern category. Dream on.

Whatever his reasons for abandoning self-identity, Ukeles should have constructed a typology encompassing a number of variables, including dress, education, associations, attitudes and much else. His reliance on a single factor severely distorts the results. He also doesn’t understand how yeshiva-world Orthodox view higher education. Many attend Touro or other non-coeducational programs and otherwise tailored to their specifications. Few go to conventional undergraduate colleges such as those in the CUNY system. Many more utilize their seminary degrees to go directly to graduate or professional schools. In charedi circles, secular higher education is regarded as career-preparation.

Had Ukeles understood the place of college in the yeshiva world – but not in the Chassidic sector – he could have made the useful point that many of these Orthodox are to an extent affected by modernity, a development that I have underscored, most recently in a column on Internet use among charedim.

The suggestion to use attitude toward college as the litmus test came from Samuel Heilman, another Edah speaker and a man who has misrepresented Orthodox life. At Edah, as elsewhere, he deplored the “haredization” of the Orthodox, as if the fervently Orthodox are unsavory folks deserving of condemnation.

His overly pessimistic view of the Modern Orthodox is not supported by available evidence, including the seminary established by Avi Weiss, the vigorous role of Edah, indications that under Richard Joel Yeshiva University is moving away from the center and my day school census which shows a significant rise in enrollment at Modern Orthodox schools.

Heilman reprised at Edah an article published last year in the Jerusalem Post which managed to be both offensive and ignorant. Why do too many Modern Orthodox defect altogether? Because they are rebelling against pressure from the right and not, as scholars have noted, because this is an open society teeming with secular attractions. Why do some embrace greater religiosity? Not because they see the glory and valor of a more religious life but because of a charedi conspiracy. There is, in his words, a “complete handover” by Modern Orthodox families of educational responsibility to yeshivas and day schools whose Judaic faculty are charedi and these teachers are “agents provocateurs.”

This is nonsense and offensive. Our Judaic teachers don’t set the curriculum, nor do they determine school ambiance. Most are badly underpaid and most work with super-dedication. They deserve praise, not designation as agents provocateurs. If students are influenced by them, it is because of their piety and example. Heilman is also wrong about the involvement of parents. As veteran day school principals know, one of the sea changes in our schools is the expanding extent to which parents are actively involved in what their kids are doing in school.

It doesn’t take courage to be modern and Orthodox and there is too much evidence that it doesn’t take courage to traduce those who are Orthodox but are not modern. There is growing revulsion among the more than seventy-five percent of the Orthodox who do not identify themselves as Modern, including the Centrists, against the way these Jews are depicted in the media by fiction writers and by some who pose as scholars. No one is advocating that the Orthodox be immune from criticism. We are advocating truth in scholarship.

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