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Don’t write off non-Orthodox movements
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Don’t write off non-Orthodox movements

In a recent op-ed in NJJN (“How to expand shrinking Jewish middle,” Nov. 13), Steven M. Cohen and Jack Wertheimer “reanalyzed” the Pew study to imply that American Jewry is neatly divided into “Orthodox” (10 percent) and “non-Orthodox” (90 percent). They allege that the former are all thriving equally as Jews, while the latter are uniformly disaffected. 

In a recent article for Mosaic magazine, a more nuanced view is offered. In short, it confirms what many in the Conservative movement have been saying for years: Not only is the center “holding,” but non-Orthodox denominations continue to play an essential role in perpetuating Jewish engagement. 

The authors reassess the simplistic Orthodox vs. non-Orthodox dichotomy. Instead, they write, “a ‘denominational gradient’ holds true: Those raised Orthodox tend to be the most engaged, followed by those raised Conservative, followed by those raised Reform, followed by those raised with no denomination.”

Even within “Orthodox” Judaism, noticeable differences are evident among the 7 percent of American Jews who identify as “non-Modern” Orthodox. As Wertheimer has written previously, these are members of Orthodox groups who “self-consciously insulate themselves to one degree or another from Western culture or explicitly reject the assumptions of modernity.” They characteristically do not send their children away to secular universities. They encourage very early marriage and extremely large family size. This group retains most, although not all, of their offspring.

In contrast, “Modern” Orthodox Jews (3 percent of American Jewry) demand that their yeshivot provide high standards for both Judaic and secular studies. The goal is to send their children to America’s best campuses and then on to potentially successful careers. They are responding to escalating costs of the Modern Orthodox life-style (yeshiva tuition, summer camp, private college). The children marry at a later age than the “non-Modern” Orthodox. Family size is smaller. The challenges posed by college, career, and the outer society result in a significant, albeit modest, rate of disaffection. 

Cohen and Wertheimer also point to “a denominational gradient” among “non-Orthodox” Jews. While they note a “striking decline in Jewish activity or commitment” among those under age 50, they also refute the notion that “a convergence is taking place that will erase the differences between, for example, Conservative and Reform Judaism.” Pew confirms that the most intensively Jewish engaged “non-Orthodox” are self-identified Conservative Jews. According to Pew and the 2000 National Jewish Population Survey, approximately 1.2 million individuals self-identify as Conservative Jews. Stability in overall numbers does not represent growth but neither does it represent demise. The Pew Survey indicates that 29 percent of current American synagogue members are Conservative Jews, down from 33 percent in 2000. While this does reflect modest decline, it certainly is not a time for panic. 

According to Pew, 98 percent of self-identifying Conservative Jews are “proud” to be Jewish, 93 percent feel that “being Jewish” is “important” to their lives, and 90 percent regard Israel as “an important part of being Jewish.” Thirty percent of eligible children from Conservative homes currently are enrolled in day school. Four out of 10 self-identifying Conservative Jews attend religious services at least once a month. Fifty percent of these Jews are synagogue members, and 29 percent currently belong to a Jewish organization.

Cohen and Wertheimer note that Conservative Jews score higher than those raised Reform when it comes to all these levels of attachment. “Jews select and remain in a particular denomination because its ethos conforms to their own self-understanding and style of Jewish living,” they write. “If anything, that tendency has grown over time.”

Similarly large gaps can be seen between Reform Jews and Jews with no denominational identification whatsoever. Reform thus provides a religious affiliation for those Jews otherwise prone to disaffect entirely from Judaism. As the authors note, “Jews who identify themselves with the Jewish religion are far more engaged with all aspects of Jewish life than are Jews lacking such an identification.” That finding, they write, challenges the “widely touted” notion that post- or nondenominational affiliation is the leading edge of a new American Judaism. 

In sum, given the “gradient” in Jewish engagement, we see an American-Jewish world in which the far right (non-Modern Orthodoxy) is thriving Jewishly, and the far left (unaffiliated) is disaffected. Cohen and Wertheimer astutely recommend that the Jewish communal world concentrate upon strengthening “the Jewish Middle” — e.g., Modern Orthodoxy, Conservative, Reform, as well as Reconstructionist Judaism, along with their networks of Jewish day schools, camps, youth groups, campus and young adult venues, and JCCs and federations.

As the authors’ longer article concludes, “If the overall picture is of a community weakened and unhealthy, a closer examination yields instructive examples of subgroups that are either positively thriving or doing a relatively good job of supporting communal life and transmitting a strong sense of Jewish connection to the next generation.”

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