Monday, February 14, 2011

Hemorrhaging Orthodoxy

About a month ago, R' Gil at Hirhurim put up an interesting post entitled Orthodoxy in the Future, in which he concludes by asking:
Is Orthodoxy about to hemorrhage Jews?

After the session, I spoke with R. Steven Pruzansky and he thought I’m overly pessimistic. He remembers an Orthodoxy with a defection rate of 30%. Today, he estimates, it must be 15% or lower. While Orthodoxy will lose members, perhaps at a higher rate than in recent history, it will continue to grow at a quick pace and become a much larger proportion of the Jewish community.

What do the thoughtful commenters here think? Is Orthodoxy going to continue growing as a proportion of the community or begin shrinking?
The comments section there is rife with interesting discussion, including the recollection that in 1965, Orthodoxy was predicted to be on its way to death in the United States - only to end up far stronger as the decades passed. More recently, some may recall the signs that used to be posted all over predicting a huge wave of Orthodoxy as the higher birth rates and lower defection rates as compared to Reform and Conservative Judaism would allow Orthodoxy to become the strong wing in the Jewish community; yet at 5-6%, that seems to not quite be the case at this point.

I'm curious as to whether people think Orthodoxy will face a wave of attrition over the coming generation, and I wonder if technology - particularly social media - will add to that wave. Though more small scale, one feature I've noticed among people, particularly singles, is that if they are not very tied to the community in which they are living (and sometimes even if they are), they often drift away. This is not necessarily because they're no longer tied to a community with norms to which people can conform, but a bit more because of deindividuation, or "doing together what you would not do alone." People who might otherwise not cross certain lines are more likely to do so when they know others who cross those lines, and the advance of technologies such as social media make it much easier for people to see what others are doing and to slowly shift in those areas. (The Huffington Post has a piece that discusses young people and religion in a different vein -that technology makes the earth 'flatter', leading to less "brand loyalty"; hat tip XGH.)

I think that this could become especially prevalent as the Orthodox world struggles mightily with the economic structure it has created; teens and young adults who see their parents frustrated, if not distraught, over heavy tuition payments on top of high costs of living in Orthodox areas will be impacted the most. Some may be strengthened by the sacrifice, while others will wonder if it's worth it when other Orthodox (or "Orthodox") friends seem to be far less stressed by taking religion a bit lighter. Throw in an educational system in which teachers often are not fully prepared for students with access to questions and data with which they are unfamiliar, and are unprepared if not unqualified to discuss, and there's a recipe for serious disaster.

There certainly is another side of this: Orthodox Judaism's overall stability will be welcome in a constantly shifting world, and (to me, at least) its discussions have far more satisfying answers than can be found in most places. Some will be inspired by the sacrifices their families have made; communities are (finally) waking up to the economic realities and some are working to address those wisely; and there are numerous good, young (and old) teachers in the market who have 21st-century savvy, who are able to properly research and discuss difficult subjects with their students. Access to one another and each others' lives allows us to see everything, not merely the "fun", and to share inspiration, meaning, and encouragement far more easily than was ever possible in the past. Orthodoxy certainly is not without the ability to understand its positive alternatives, and do its best to make those into reality.

While it is impossible to know in what direction Orthodoxy is headed in the coming decades, it seems as if the transition will be incredibly fascinating to be a part of.