The most recent Pew Study on American Jewish life reveals a treasure house of information about modern Jewish trends. The rising numbers of intermarriage amongst the non-Orthodox are a foreboding sign for the future vitality of American Jewish life. It seems that when it comes to measuring the Orthodox Jewish community the study falls short. Its methodology of denominational self-identification, effective decades ago when Jews fit in to neat categories of Orthodox Conservative and Reform, fails to reveal the real trends in a complex post denominational era.
There are three areas where it seems that the Pew study falls short.
Pew claims that significant numbers of Jews have left orthodoxy. A recent survey by UJA-Federation in New York that dug a bit deeper discovered the opposite, a major growth in the numbers of Orthodox Jews. Pew’s assertions are at odds with the reality on the ground; thirty years ago in Los Angeles there were two small kosher restaurants, neither with memorable cuisine, today there are over a hundred. Simply put, kosher pizza shops don’t lie.
The reason for this is that study does not take in account the fact that the very definition of orthodox has changed.
Decades ago traditional immigrant Jews who were not Sabbath observant self-identified as Orthodox. That was the only Judaism they knew. They attended orthodox synagogues but they were not fully observant. Few sent their kids to yeshivas or day schools. As that generation moved to the suburbs they shifted their affiliation to Conservative and some to Reform. When you ask a Jew today if he is orthodox, only those who are observant and keep Shabbat self-identify as orthodox. The Pew study is comparing apples to oranges. Years ago more Jews belonged to Orthodox synagogues but few were really observant. Today the reverse is true.
Coupled with this, is the serious question if Pew undercounted the Orthodox. The Pew report states that they weighed the study to offset the fact that Orthodox Jews are focused in specific counties in major metropolitan areas. However, Orthodox Jews don’t just concentrate in counties, they cluster in specific neighborhoods. In Miami Beach and North Miami Beach there are heavy concentrations of Orthodox Jews, but few live in South Dade. If the study did not focus on those specific zip codes than there is a significant chance they undercounted.
The study does not create inquires to measure the growth of the largest Jewish organization in the world, and the fastest growing movement in the U.S., Chabad-Lubavitch. With 959 Chabad centers in the United States and Canada, a number that exceeds the amount of Reform Temples. While other segments of the Jewish community are merging and closing synagogues, Chabad centers are popping up like Starbucks outlets.
Hundreds of thousands attend the programs offered by these centers. The vast majority are Jews who do not self-identity as Orthodox. In my community of Orange County California, with just 100 Sabbath observant families, some 5,000 Jews, went to one of the 15 Chabad centers scattered throughout the county for High Holiday services. Twenty years ago that number of those attending Chabad did not even reach 1,000 in our community. Many Jews who attend Chabad adult education classes and send their children to Chabad camps and schools retain membership in non-orthodox synagogues.
Clearly a major change is underway. Historian Dr. Jack Wertheimer stated recently in Commentary that the phenomenon of Reform and Conservative members attending Chabad Centers is having a major impact in their movements. The neat denominational lines of decades ago are blurring.
Jews don’t affiliate as they used to. They may not even self-affiliate within a specific movement, yet be deeply engaged with it and impacted by it. If you crunch the numbers the results point to significant trends that Pew ignored. According to their survey there are a million Reform Jews. Those Jews are affiliated with 848 congregations in the US, an average of 1,179 per temple. Chabad Centers and orthodox shuls tend to serve smaller demographics.
So if you lower the figure by as much as two thirds, and estimate that 400 Jews are involved in each Chabad Center and add to that 1,400 Orthodox non-Chabad synagogues in the U.S. with the same average membership, a remarkable figure emerges. Some 1,000,000 Jews, 20 percent of American Jewry is engaged in some form of Orthodoxy — and that may be a conservative figure.
For decades Jews were moving away from tradition. Today hundreds of thousands of Jews are getting on the train that is heading towards tradition. More and more Jews are voting with their feet to explore a Judaism that at its center believes that the Torah is a Divine Imperative given at Sinai over 3,000 years ago. True, most are not becoming fully observant, but they are allowing Jewish tradition and belief to have a stronger voice in their lives.
No question, vast numbers of Jews tragically are moving farther from tradition with high rates of intermarriage and assimilation. With a different series of questions the Pew study would have uncovered a significant trend in the opposite direction, that substantial numbers are rediscovering the heritage of their ancestors, something the Pew Study failed to discover.
Rabbi David Eliezrie is president of the Rabbinical Council of Orange County. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org