We would like to thank Rabbi David Eliezrie for describing the new Pew Research Center survey of U.S. Jews as “a treasure house of information” on contemporary trends in Jewish life.
Unfortunately, however, Eliezrie’s Opinion column also mischaracterized the survey’s results, including some findings that actually support the points he was trying to make about Orthodox Judaism in America.
For example, Eliezrie claims there is a contradiction between a recent UJA-Federation survey of Jews in New York that found substantial growth in the Orthodox community and the Pew Research survey, which found that roughly half (52 percent) of all U.S. adults who were raised as Orthodox Jews say they are no longer Orthodox today. But these two findings are not at all contradictory, as the principal author of the New York study – Professor Steven M. Cohen, who was also an adviser on the Pew Research study – can attest. A religious group can grow in size despite losing members through religious switching, because switching is just one factor in demographic change. In the case of the Orthodox, our survey shows they are much younger, on average, and tend to have much larger families than other Jews. “This suggests that their share of the Jewish population will grow,” our report says. It notes that in the past, high fertility in the Orthodox community has been “at least partially offset by a low retention rate.”
But the report immediately adds that “the falloff from Orthodoxy appears to be declining and is significantly lower among 18-to-29-year-olds (17 percent) than among older people.”
‘The findings show that the Orthodox, on the whole, are highly observant,
highly engaged in the Jewish community and deeply attached to Israel.’
It seems to us that this latter point is, essentially, what Eliezrie is trying to explain when he contends that the definition of Orthodoxy has changed over the last several decades. “Years ago more Jews belonged to Orthodox synagogues but few were really observant,” he writes. So, in his view, many of the people who say they have left Orthodoxy were never truly Orthodox to begin with. That’s his opinion; he’s entitled to it, and we have no opinion on the matter. What the new survey shows, empirically, is that only 22 percent of Americans age 65 and older who say they were raised as Orthodox Jews describe themselves as Orthodox Jews today. By contrast, 83 percent of adults under the age of 30 who say they were raised as Orthodox Jews still describe themselves as Orthodox. Eliezrie is suggesting a possible explanation for this large difference. There could be other explanations, but there is no contradiction between the survey’s results and Eliezrie’s sense of what has happened in the Orthodox community. On the contrary, the survey potentially underscores his point.
At the same time, Eliezrie also speculates – without any evidence whatsoever – that the survey may have undercounted Orthodox Jews because they “cluster in specific neighborhoods.” The clustering of the Orthodox is well known, and no areas of the country where Orthodox Jews are known to reside were excluded from the survey. We encourage readers to consult the methodological appendix of our report to read the details of our sampling plan. The Pew Research Center went to considerable lengths to obtain a representative sample of Orthodox Jews, including extra interviews in communities where Orthodox Jews are concentrated. In addition, no calls were made on Jewish holidays or on the Sabbath, when observant Jews generally will not pick up a telephone. All together, the survey included more than 500 Orthodox Jewish respondents, and the findings show that the Orthodox, on the whole, are highly observant, highly engaged in the Jewish community and deeply attached to Israel. (See our recent post on Pew Research Center’s Fact Tank blog, “Eight facts about Orthodox Jews from the Pew Research survey.”)
Eliezrie, who serves as Chabad’s national liaison to the Jewish Federations of North America, criticizes the survey for not demonstrating the growth of what he calls “the largest Jewish organization in the world,” the Chabad-Lubavitch movement. Actually, the survey included two questions about identification with streams or movements within Judaism, giving respondents multiple opportunities to describe themselves. In total, more than 150 respondents to the survey said they are Hasidic Jews, including a few who specifically identified with Chabad. The number who described themselves as Chabad or Lubavitch was too small to analyze separately, but that does not mean they were not included in the survey. It means only that there were not enough to constitute a separate category for reliable statistical analysis, and that one must look instead at somewhat broader categories, such as Hasidic Jews or all Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) Jews, as described in our report.
Multiplying his own rough estimates of the number of Chabad centers and other Orthodox synagogues in the United States by the number of Jews he thinks may be associated with each, Eliezrie says that a “remarkable figure” emerges: “20 percent of American Jewry is engaged in some form of Orthodoxy.” The figure is indeed remarkable, not only for its size but for how well it matches the findings of the Pew Research survey on synagogue membership. As our report says, though the Orthodox make up 10% of adult Jews overall, they account for fully 22 percent of all synagogue members.
We hope this response helps to clear up any confusion that may have resulted from Eliezrie’s column. We at the Pew Research Center take great care in designing and implementing our surveys, and it is our wish that our survey of American Jews will continue to serve as a useful source of information for those interested in the characteristics, attitudes and experiences of the American Jewish population.
Alan Cooperman is deputy director at the Pew Research Center’s Religion & Public Life Project; Greg Smith is director of U.S. Religion Surveys at Pew.