Without exception, surveys of American Jewry indicate that the number who were born Orthodox and are no longer observant exceeds the number who were raised non-Orthodox and have become Orthodox and by a wide margin. I use the term “indicate” rather than the more definitive “show” because serious methodological issues undermine the reliability of our population studies. There are reasons to believe that there is an overcounting of those who have abandoned Orthodoxy and an undercounting of American Jews who have become observant.
The overcounting of those who are no longer religious results from the inclusion in population studies of persons who were only nominally Orthodox, Jews who because of family ties or other circumstances were affiliated with an Orthodox synagogue but who in practice were not Orthodox as they deviated significantly from halachic requirements. For decades, these nominal or marginal Orthodox constituted a substantial part of American Orthodoxy and although they no longer do, they have had a major impact on the statistics of Orthodox abandonment.
The undercounting of returnees to Judaism arises primarily from the number that has settled in Israel, so that neither they nor their families appear in our population surveys.
Still, those who have left outnumber the returnees and perhaps by a wide margin. Some of us doubtlessly question this claim and regard it as counterintuitive and contrary to what they see or have experienced. We all have stories to tell about the beneficial fruit of kiruv activity. In fact, those who have become observant are on our radar screen. Those who have walked away from religious life often are not, except when those who have left Judaism are relatives or others to whom we have been close.
It remains that we are losing more than we are gaining. This is terribly disturbing, especially at a time when Orthodox life is flourishing and has so much to offer, a time when Torah study has expanded and when being religious is comfortable behavior, while within our community religious abandonment can be like a sore thumb sticking out. Certainly, the economic and ideological factors to which religious abandonment has been attributed in the past are no longer the potent factors that they once were.
How can we be losing more in the present period than we are gaining? There is no simple or ready explanation. To an extent, the subject is a mystery. Explanations are offered and they may provide clues. Yet, we are often in the dark about a complex phenomenon that can happen in a blink of the eye, leaving those who thought that they knew well someone who stopped being religious perplexed as to why so profound a behavioral and attitudinal change has taken place.
In some instances, it seems that a combination of factors contributed to the change. In others, it just happened. We can prepare a roster of possible explanations encompassing the home situation, what happened in school, economic circumstances, friendship patterns, a traumatic experience and much else. More often than not, we are still left with a mystery.
I believe that the single most compelling circumstance is modernity and especially American society and the choices and mobility that it offers. There are opportunities to change one’s lifestyle, there is an extraordinary degree of geographic mobility and even social mobility and all of this is abetted by the American ethos of tolerance and choice. As we hear often enough, this is a free country and people are free to choose how they identify themselves. In a sense, religious identity is a membership experience, something that people can sign up for or resign from. There is an abundance of opportunities for most of us to wander outside of our religious sphere.
We are, in a word, influenced by the American environment which in behavior and attitude has an impact on nearly all of the Orthodox. Some take all of the bait and are lost.
Although the lion’s share of religious abandonment is attributable to the world around us and not to the inner circumstances of our religious life, that doesn’t get our community entirely off the hook. To an extent that cannot be measured or even estimated, we are responsible for the bad statistics. We have become expert in talking about kiruv rechokim, as if conventions and speeches are surrogates for activity. Along the way, we have embraced the operational concepts of what I referred to as far back as twenty years ago as richuk kerovim, the alienation of those who are close.
We talk a good game about at-risk children, without doing much to address the problem, even as the at-risk phenomenon grows. This is also our mode of operation regarding the tuition crisis and other troubling issues facing our community. Talk serves as a substitute for activity and, in a way, as a barrier to doing anything concrete about difficult problems because after the speeches and talk we convince ourselves that we have actually done something. Those who believe that convention speeches or kiruv conferences in luxury hotels meaningfully affect what happens in our community are engaged in self-delusion and in deluding others. It may be that the starting point for meaningful activity is to stop having conventions. In what the Bikur Cholims do or what Hatzalah does and much else that we can be proud of as religious Jews, talk has not served as a substitute for action. People of vision and courage have taken steps. It is only in chinuch and kiruv where talk is mistaken for addressing a problem.
As I have said frequently in this newsletter and elsewhere, we are comfortable with admission and retention policies at yeshivas and day schools that add to the at-risk phenomenon. Our strategy for those who do not fit in as perfectly as we would like them to is to cast them out.
Even when our schools do not act in a purposeful and wrongful fashion to reject students, showing patience towards those who are below the expected norm, the heightened emphasis on and intensity of limudei kodesh or religious studies in yeshivas serve to make it difficult for some students to remain. The hours devoted to religious studies have been increased, a process that is continuing in many schools, and this is a problem for students who are not strong in limudei kodesh and/or cannot concentrate on religious texts for hours on end. Our schools now expect more of students. In the past, those who were weaker could still have a comfort zone within the yeshiva. This is far less the case today. This adds up to self-esteem issues and the collateral issue faced by parents of whether they should continue to enroll their children in the school that they attend.
Yeshivas and also their parents and students are accordingly caught on the horns of a dilemma as our schools seek to attain the admirable goal of improving limudei kodesh standards and achievements.
It may be of note that the at-risk phenomenon and drop-out from Judaism rate are greater problems in Israel than here and this may arise from the significantly greater limudei kodesh intensity in Israeli yeshivas than in ours. In a recent article, Jonathan Rosenblum wrote that the perception that the at-risk and drop-out phenomenon among charedim or the fervently Orthodox is more pronounced in places like Betar and Kiryat Sefer which are homogeneous fervently Orthodox communities than in localities that have heterogeneous populations has been confirmed by recent research. The obvious explanation is that in the latter places, religious youngsters have more slack and feel less pressure if they do not excel or do not fit in perfectly than they do in the localities where the norm is for success in Torah study and complete adherence to behavioral standards.
As our schools have become more risk averse, fearing the possible harmful influence of those who do not fit in as well as we would like them to, they have also declined as instrumentalities for kiruv. This is a major change from what once was in the yeshiva/day school world. In view of the powerful outside conditions that impel too many away from religious commitment, we may not be able to do very much to stem the tide of loss. But we can do much more, particularly in North America, to attract Jews who are not observant to religious life. We have much to offer in our religious life, in the sanctity of our homes and the nobility of our obligations. There is no justification for the de-linking of kiruv and chinuch, for the dangerous attitude and practice that somehow the former can be successfully conducted even as we neglect the latter.
I believe that the yeshiva world contributes directly to the disparity between those whom we lose and those whom we gain by neglecting the powerful lesson taught in an earlier period of yeshiva/day school development, the lesson that there is no better way to attract families to Judaism than through providing children with a meaningful Torah education.
Not long ago, day schools and yeshivas were recognized as the primary instrumentalities of kiruv. The transformation of American Orthodoxy into a vibrant and more confident community is largely attributed to this role which was nurtured and encouraged by Torah leaders. What exists today is a pale shadow of what once was and the consequences of this abandonment are evident in the declining achievements of kiruv.
The situation in Israel is different. Although the losses from Judaic abandonment are substantial, kiruv activities are far more successful than they are here. Much of the explanation is in the significant efforts to recruit children to religiously oriented elementary schools and high schools. These efforts receive major backing from American sources, including yeshiva deans and lay leaders. This dwarfs what is attempted on these shores and that is why we are not gaining many who could be brought closer to Judaism.