A Look in the Mirror

   When the findings of the National Jewish Population Survey (2000-2001) were released, it unleashed a torrent of controversy, clamor, and the customary competing conclusions. Some of the basic and tragic information assembled has already been widely disseminated: the shrinking Jewish population in the United States (estimated at 5.2 million self-proclaimed Jews, with the real Jewish population probably closer to 4 million), the rise in intermarriage (today 47% of Jews who marry actually marry a non-Jew), and the steady erosion of Jewish commitment to Torah, mitzvot, and support of Israel. 

     The above was duly publicized, if also somewhat sugar-coated in its distribution (e.g., “a smaller rate of increase in intermarriage”was held to be good news). What was not widely disseminated were the specific findings relating to Orthodox Jews in America. The results are fascinating, eye-opening, exhilarating, and depressing at the same time. In short: Orthodox Jews are thriving, the Jewish people generally are suffering – and so Orthodox Jews are suffering too.

     A note about methodology: A wag once said “figures lie, and liars can figure”. One can take any set of statistics and interpret them any which way. I have always maintained that these surveys grossly undercount the number of Orthodox Jews, because we are concentrated in a very small geographical area. More American Jews today live in the southern and western parts of America, but 2/3 of Orthodox Jews live in the Northeast – hence the plethora of kosher pizza stores nearby. Certainly drawing conclusions about the habits and beliefs of millions of people from a sample of 4500 respondents is a daunting task, but spreading those questionnaires across the country will of necessity diminish the Orthodox population – thousands of whom can reside in one apartment building in Brooklyn.

     And – perhaps the most subtle flaw – the responses were all voluntary and reflect the self-definition of the respondents. I.e., those who are Jews are those who say they are Jews, like those who are Orthodox are those who say they are Orthodox. Thus, these anomalies were generated: 22% of self-proclaimed Orthodox Jews said they carry or spend money on Shabbat, and 16% of self-proclaimed Orthodox Jews – according to the survey – claimed they do not keep kosher even at home. One wonders by what definition they construe themselves as Orthodox.

     Nonetheless, accepting the statistics as given, the results are still rather noteworthy. Approximately 10% of American Jews are Orthodox (their count), but – contrary to the  Hollywood stereotype of the Orthodox as the “old pious man with a white beard” – we are in fact the youngest of the ‘denominations’. We have the lowest percentage of elderly (over 65), and the highest percentage of youth (until age 17). We are so youthful, that fully 40% of all Jewish children are Orthodox. While the general Jewish population has fallen below reproduction rates (1.89 children per family), the Orthodox ranks are swelling.

     This is surely no surprise to us, as we have witnessed the growing need for new yeshivot, shuls, and mikvaot. It also bodes well for the future of Torah, notwithstanding the impossibility of predicting political or social trends in America.

     What does not surprise is our secret: a passionate commitment to living a Jewish life – including Torah study, mitzva observance, synagogue attendance, and, of course, Jewish education. More than 95% of Orthodox youth today receive a Torah education – perhaps the highest rate in Jewish history. Relative to the other ‘denominations’, we have the highest percentage of synagogue membership and attendance, fulfillment of basic commandments, and maintenance of Jewish institutions. For those who still maintain that the “Israel connection” will per se secure Jewish identity, the results are also sobering: roughly 75% of Orthodox Jews have visited Israel, whereas only 30% of non-Orthodox Jews have visited Israel. Apparently, commitment to Torah is the foundation on which an intense identification with Israel is forged – not vice versa.

     Even the 47% intermarriage rate for Jews is somewhat misleading. The numbers are that low only because of the low rate of Orthodox intermarriage (currently 6-7%). If we factor out the Orthodox population, we come to the very sad conclusion that the intermarriage rate far exceeds 60% – meaning that most non-Orthodox Jews, when they marry, will marry non-Jews.

     Factoring out the Orthodox population elsewhere in the survey exposes some dire findings. For example, 21% of all Jews keep kosher at home, but without the Orthodox, that percentage probably falls to only 15%. That means that, numerically, more Muslims in America keep kosher than Jews. Or, only 52% of all Jews “regard being Jewish as very important”; without the Orthodox population, that percentage falls well below 50% – meaning that, to our sorrow, most American Jews do not consider being Jewish very important at all. A few more decades along these lines and we will not need surveys to tell us the fate of American Jewry.

     What conclusions do we draw from all this ? Certainly, gloating over our successes is as unseemly as self-flagellation is unwarranted. We need not apologize for our achievements, earned through the sacrifices made by our parents and grandparents in an America much less friendly to Torah observance. And we are all hurt when Klal Yisrael is in a free fall, our numbers dwindle to record low levels, and Jewish ignorance soars to record heights. The greatest enemies of American Jews today are apathy and indifference, not Arabs, Muslims, Christians or neo-Nazis with spray paint. And we cannot impose commitment and responsibility on those who are unaffiliated and uninterested in Judaism. But we can and should always project the beauty of the Torah life, so those with open minds can look at us and perhaps realize “how fortunate is our lot, and how pleasant is our destiny”. We can redeem souls on an individual basis, one by one.

     We also should not trivialize the contributions of any Jew – whether in the realm of Torah study, support for Israel, Jewish philanthropy, or any expression of identification with the Jewish people, however marginal or slight. Great oak trees grow from small acorns, and every Jew is ultimately judged only by the Judge of Judges, and not by his fellow Jews.

     So where are we ten years later, anticipating the next such survey ? Likely, the Orthodox community has grown, the affiliated community has shrunk, the number of “Jews according to halacha” has fallen with many non-halachic Jews counted as Jews and integrated into the non-affiliated community, andwith the rate of intermarriage stagnant or in slight decline. (It is difficult to consider the marriage of two Jews – both children of non-Jewish mothers – an intermarriage, even if both can be recorded as Jews.) Support for Israel will have declined correspondingly, and Orthodox Jews will naturally have assumed a greater leadership role in general Jewish organizational life. So what do we gain from these surveys ?

      Surely the paramount message is something we have known since the dawn of our history: Torah works ! Rav Saadiah Gaon stated almost 11 centuries ago that “our people is a people only by virtue of the Torah”. There are no guarantees in life, but we do come close to one verity: those who wish to have Jewish children and grandchildren, those for whom Jewish life has meaning and the existence of a Jewish people has value, and those who seek to be part of the great destiny of the Jewish people must embrace and cherish the Torah, its ideals, practices and values.

      Those who do will overwhelmingly be in the vanguard of the Army of Hashem as we wage the struggles ahead to return Jews to our faith, vanquish the forces of hatred arrayed against us, and enjoy the spiritual pleasures of the coming redemption, speedily and in our days.

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