The numbers in many demographic surveys concerning Orthodox affiliation and involvement have been misreported for years. (“Leading Demographer Questioning N.Y. Population Study,” July 27)
Using a simplistic method of “self-identifying,” surveys have never really reflected the shifts in affiliation and involvement on the ground. Some surveys have failed to take into consideration the fact that by taking a national sample they are underreporting more observant Jews who tend to cluster in high density in specific neighborhoods. Decades ago anyone affiliated with an Orthodox congregation, even though they were not Shabbat observant, tended to self-identify as Orthodox. Today it’s almost only the Shabbat observant who claim to be Orthodox. Some demographers claim there are less Orthodox Jews today than decades ago. They are comparing apples to oranges. In truth the trends are in the reverse, today more Jews are religiously observant than ever in the United States, as revealed in the recent New York survey.
Most surveys never dug a bit deeper to uncover the slow shift of many Jews to engagement with Orthodoxy, even though they may have not fully leaped across the theological divide. The biggest indicator of this is the remarkable growth in Chabad centers, in communities and on campus. Most of those involved are not Shabbat observant, but they are choosing to send their kids to the Chabad schools and camps, participate in programs and support them. Only a survey that would look beyond self-identification and probe if they are attending programs such as Chabad would document this major shift in modern Jewish life.
For many establishment Jewish groups, whose prime constituencies are the non-Orthodox, the temptation is to limit the extra effort to make the surveys more balanced and accurate that would reflect the growth of traditional Judaism. It’s for this reason that the UJA-Federation of New York and the authors of the new study should be commended for having the courage to look a little deeper and uncover the changing reality on the ground.
North County Chabad Center Yorba Linda, CA