Heterodoxy, by the Numbers

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So, as mentioned earlier, Ori Pomerantz sent in a sharp question a few weeks back.

Imagine that tonight there was a miracle, and tomorrow morning all the rabbis and chazzanim of the heterodox movements were to wake up orthodox… The lay heterodox Jews would have two choices:

1. Turn orthodox. Move to within walking distance of the synagogue if necessary, make kasher the kitchens, get a divorce if intermarried, start observing Shabbat, start observing Niddah, etc.

2. Give up on Judaism completely. Just as Irish-Americans are not very Irish, and Italian-Americans are not very Italian, decide that Judaism must have been good for their grandparents – but they are not sure why.

How many of them do you think would become Ba’aley Tshuva and choose option 1? How many would choose option 2?

First of all, like Toby Katz and others, I think it’s a false dichotomy. Option 3 is to continue attending synagogue, just now it’s an Orthodox one. And there might even be a fourth option somewhere between attendance and full observance.

But let’s say, for the sake of argument, that the vast majority of people would choose option #2. That’s not unlike the situation in Israel, where most of the early Zionists rejected Judaism entirely.

Most people, I imagine, would conclude immediately that this is a bad thing. We think about individual religious expression, and if the “vast majority” — say nine out of 10 — dropped their religious affiliation, we think it’s pretty obvious that the Jewish people have lost out.

History, however, demands that we take a longer view.

Assimilation in this country is not a new phenomenon. I remember that in the 1990s (and I imagine they still do this today), Aish HaTorah’s “Discovery” seminars would take a room full of non-Orthodox American college students and ask them this question: in the 1880s there were about 200 synagogues in the United States, and somewhere around 250,000 Jews. Do you think the majority were Orthodox or Reform? And every time, most of the room would say the Orthodox were the majority.

Now that’s not just wrong, the numbers aren’t even close. Of those 200 synagogues, barely a handful chose not to affiliate with Isaac Mayer Wise’s Union of American Hebrew Congregations, which only in the last few years changed its name to the Union for Reform Judaism. Wise didn’t choose the name out of chutzpah (brazenness); he honestly believed that all “American Hebrew Congregations” would unite under the Reform banner, and at that time he wasn’t far off.

Why do the college students always get it wrong? Very simple: with few exceptions, their own great-grandparents were Orthodox. According to demographers, 250,000 Jews then ought to have over 1.5 million descendents today. And they probably do. You just won’t find them in a room full of American Jewish college students, or American Jewish anything, for that matter.

Most Reform and Conservative (and Reconstructionist) Jews that I have met — including Rabbis — are sincere and dedicated to the Jewish future. Their Rabbis, in particular, share a commitment to Jewish education and Jewish growth. I have absolutely nothing against them — but I don’t see, in any of these groups, a model than can stand the test of time any better than that of Rabbi IM Wise himself.

About 10 years ago, Antony Gordon and Richard Horowitz did a study. They took the numbers from the 1990 National Jewish Population Survey for secular, Reform and Conservative, but then they surveyed day schools to determine the actual population growth and intermarriage rates among Modern and “charedi” Orthodox Jews.

So let’s say, again, for the sake of argument, that the vast majority would leave Judaism entirely, while only about one in 10 would turn Orthodox. Well, according to their numbers, ten Modern Orthodox Jews will have about the same number of Jewish grandchildren, and far more Jewish great-grandchildren, then 90 Reform Jews. Ten Charedi Jews will have nearly 3 times as many Jewish grandchildren as 90 Conservative Jews.

Those are their numbers. As far as I know, no one has found any reason to question them. Gordon told me that a prominent Conservative Rabbi pointed out to them that the numbers are significantly better among Solomon Schechter students than among Conservative Jews overall; Gordon responded that if the Rabbi could show that any group was self-perpetuating, he would list them as a separate population block. Unfortunately — as Jack Wertheimer wrote in the October issue of Commentary, to much gnashing of teeth — zero population growth plus intermarriage is a lethal combination, and the two of them together are decimating the non-Orthodox Jewish population every few years. The 2000 NJPS showed that the US Jewish population had, if anything, shrunk over the previous decade, despite an influx of over a half-million Jews from Eastern Europe.

Are the numbers wrong? Can anything be done?

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3 Responses

  1. Ori Pomerantz says:

    Thank you for your answer. It was intelligent, well reasoned, and required me to think my own assumptions through – exactly what I had grown to expect. Sorry it took me so long to reply – I needed to think it through, and my kids were sick.

    Are the numbers wrong? Can anything be done?

    There are several issues here:

    1. The value of Judaism to individual Jews.
    2. The choice of spouse and number of children.
    3. The ability to transmit Judaism to the next generation.

    The heterodox movements are doing a fair job of #1. If they hadn’t, we (heterodox Jews like myself) would not be going there. Education resources like torah.org also help – I wonder what precent of your donors are non Orthodox.

    I doubt #2 can be changed. When you tell somebody: “you should not marry that man/woman you love unless they convert, and then you need to have at least n children, regardless of what you want”, that person would tend to hear: “I see you first and foremost as a tool for the sake of our group. Your individual happiness is secondary to me”.

    #3 is the free variable. You once told me torah.org used to have a teenager program – what happened with it?

  2. Charles B. Hall says:

    ‘most of the early Zionists rejected Judaism entirely’

    I don’t agree with this statement. Had they really rejected Judaism entirely, they would not have made aliyah to Eretz Yisrael but would have stayed in Europe and assmiliated, or moved to America and assimilated, or maybe moved to Uganda! By choosing Eretz Yisrael they expressed their love of the Land HaShem gave us even though they may have done it in a way that we Orthodox folks might not have done. That was an expression of a Jewish spirit, the collective inspiration of many Jewish souls: something that does not die even in the most apparently assimilated Jew! We must remember that even in our times with levels of assimilation unmatched since Roman times, not a single one of our Jewish brothers or sisters is truly lost for good, for as long as they are alive they have the potential to return.

    ‘Are the numbers wrong?’

    They might well be. The 2000 NJPS oversampled areas believed to have large Jewish populations, and undersampled other areas. This makes the estimates of the overall Jewish population less reliable while making the characterization of those Jews who live in areas believed a priori to have large Jewish populations more reliable. It is quite believable that many Jews who live in areas with small Jewish populations might have been missed by the survey. If that is true, the survey would likely have under-estimated the total Jewish population while over-estimating the proportion of Jews who are religious.

  3. dochesed says:

    We need to be careful with our rhetoric in these discussions. Jewish continuity is a means to an end–true belief and practice (living “Torah true lives”). But, you write: “Their Rabbis, in particular, share a commitment to Jewish education and Jewish growth. I have absolutely nothing against them…” Of course we have something “against them”. They are eductation their members with falsehood; they are teaching kefira; and they are sanctioning or even encourging behaviors that are are assur, assur doraisa, and chayav kares. How can we have nothing against such people?