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.


  1. I think attrition will be higher in the future because increasing connectivity and communication means that (1) the Orthodox community won't be able to shelter their kids from either non-Orthodox people or non-Orthodox ideas as well as they have in the past and (2) their kids will see that going OTD is a plausible option.

    Give more people an option, especially before they get "locked-in" by marrying and having children (at which point they are too often given the de facto choice of their family or going OTD but not both) and people will take that option.

    The Orthodox birthrate is high though, and they add to their numbers via kiruv, so I doubt that the overall number will decline. Only a minority care more about the truth or gay or women's rights than they do about staying comfortable, having a simple life narrative, and having a close-knit community.

  2. I should add that if the "New Atheist" movement continues to grow, there is some greater-than-zero possibility that America as a whole becomes much less religious, and if that happens, I can't see it not affecting Orthodoxy. The MOs will get less MO and the hareidim will continue to get more hareidi.

  3. JA - That's basically what I said, though as you're aware I disagree on aspects. As for Orthodoxy being affected, it's always held stronger than other groups (like the post-college study you cited in the past).

    G - That guy.

  4. Commenting as an outsider looking in, I can't help remembering a post several years ago on the blog of a never-married Orthodox woman in her mid-thirties. She said that she'd recently become lax about turning lights on and off on Shabbat because, after all, without a husband to care about such things and/or children for whom to set a good example, it didn't seem to make much difference--Who would know, anyway? Do you foresee any fall-off in observance, or any likelihood of an increase in OTD rates, among never-married Orthodox Jews in their thirties or older?

  5. Shira - I don't know that that issue will change; it's always been an issue, as mentioned in the post. If they're not attached to the community, there's an increasing likelihood they will turn away.

  6. Great post. Overall I'm pessimistic about the (near) future of Orthodox Judaism in America. (Orthodoxy in Israel is a wholly different matter that requires separate consideration.)

  7. Thanks SQ. I agree - Israel is a completely different situation.

  8. I think that those associating with orthodoxy will continue to grow, although they may not be halachic in their private life. I was once discussing with my dad about dating in the 50'2 (all roads lead to shidduchim) and he said that if you knew the girl was SS/SK, it was good enough. In today's orthodox society, it doesn't mean as much to be SS/SK because giving it up requires a tremendous commitment to the "OTD" lifestyle. One can easily live an outward appearance of orthodoxy without any shred of mesiras nefesh.

    I think though that there will be a trend of those who are really religious because it means something to them. That being religious is not something that is taken advantage of.

    So I think that R" Student is wrong in the outward manifestation of the phenomena. We will hemorrhage Jews but to a lifestyle which is without life, warmth, or true Torah/G-dly values.

  9. My roommate was commenting yesterday, that his mom is a High School BY teacher who realized that some of her students didnt know basic halachos of shabbos. Liek that using a cellphone for texting or internet may be Assur. These girls of course believe themselves to be orthodox/yeshivish, but have no clue what that entails

  10. If some problem seems to loom, prediction is not necessary; an effort at prevention is. Who knows enough to extrapolate the shape of events around us anyway?

    By the way, to a Jew, atheism in any form is a problem and not a solution.

  11. Harry-er - I'm not sure I follow what you're trying to say; certainly the latter comment is sadly true, though. I have been very surprised to realize that people who have been frum their entire lives have such poor reading and comprehension skills when it comes to Judaic study.

  12. Bob - Only partially agree; without an understanding as to why people may go off, it's hard to prevent; and without something that shows the serious threat, it's hard to get people to take it seriously.

  13. Obviously, some understanding and analysis of apparent trends is necessary, but pretensions of crystal-ball-like knowledge are not.

  14. "he said that if you knew the girl was SS/SK, it was good enough. In today's orthodox society, it doesn't mean as much to be SS/SK because giving it up requires a tremendous commitment to the "OTD" lifestyle. One can easily live an outward appearance of orthodoxy without any shred of mesiras nefesh."

    That's a really interesting observation, though it's worth noting that it may not remain true: American culture could shift, for example, making SS difficult again.

    BTW, I'm amazed (even incredulous) that BY HS don't know that cell phone use is assur on shabbos. Hard to believe.

  15. Bob - I don't think there is any of that; most of this post and R' Gil's focus on wondering how it might go.

    SQ - I recall that when another shul in Cleveland was doing construction when I was younger, they davened in the same building as our Young Israel. Its members were/are for the most part Chassidish/very Yeshivish, and some happened by the morning shiur of a YI member on their way in, liked what they heard, and started coming to it on occasion. Others at the shiur marveled at just how surprising it was to find how little basis these very frum people actually had educationally - they could barely read a chumash in some cases.

    The sad twist is that others later discouraged them from attending such a shiur (since it was given by someone who is not yeshivish).