Orthodox ascendancy and its implications

Orthodox ascendancy and its implications

Orthodox Jews represent the fastest-growing constituency within the American-Jewish community. In general, their views on Israel, U.S. politics, and a range of international and domestic public-affairs issues significantly diverge from those of non-Orthodox Jews. This reality may pose challenges to those organizations that strive to represent a broad communal consensus.

First the data: The landmark 2013 Pew Research Center’s study on Jewish-Americans revealed that, at only 10 percent of the community’s size overall, Orthodox Jews constituted the smallest of the three major religious denominations. At the same time, the study’s researchers observed, the number of Orthodox Jews was increasing significantly faster than non-Orthodox Jews because they tend to have large families. In the past, this high fertility rate was offset by relatively large numbers of people drifting away from Orthodoxy. However, the study also found that, among the younger generation of Orthodox Jews, the falloff is less significant than it had been. 

In a recent column in The Forward, Steven M. Cohen, research professor of Jewish social policy at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, and two colleagues used the Pew data to stress the age disparity between those identifying as Orthodox compared to those identifying as non-Orthodox. Among Conservative and Reform Jews, for example, they found that the number of people between the ages of 30 and 39 amounted to only about half the number of people between 60-69. The situation in the Orthodox community is reversed. There are only 40,000 in their 60s, but 120,000 in their 30s and a robust 230,000 between the ages of 0 and 9. 

“The American Jewish community is entering a transitional period,” the researchers predicted, and “the Conservative and Reform movements are facing a rocky few decades that will have implications for many of the major Jewish communal institutions.”

That’s the demography. What about the political views of American Jews? The 2017 American Jewish Committee (AJC) survey of Jewish opinion shows a high degree of political polarization between Orthodox and non-Orthodox Jews. Orthodox Jews are more conservative, more likely to identify as Republicans, and are pro-President Donald Trump. 

In August, when the AJC conducted the survey, 71 percent of the Orthodox respondents expressed a favorable view of Trump’s presidential performance, in sharp contrast to the 73 percent of Conservative Jews and 88 percent of Reform Jews who regarded the president’s performance negatively. 

This dichotomy also plays out with respect to specific policy issues. Orthodox Jews, generally, are opposed to the establishment of a Palestinian state, and are comfortable with Israel granting Orthodoxy as the only form of Judaism to receive official recognition in Israel. Most Conservative and Reform Jews, on the other hand, support a Palestinian state and religious pluralism in Israel. 

Vast differences also appear on domestic issues. Orthodox Jews generally support Trump’s policies on immigration and race relations; Conservative and Reform Jews generally oppose them. 

It is important to note that neither the Pew study nor AJC’s differentiated between Modern Orthodox Jews and charedim, which, presumably, would have yielded interesting insights about political differences. In fact, Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest’s Executive Vice President/ CEO Dov Ben-Shimon stressed that it would be a serious error to see Orthodox Jews in monolithic terms. His community, he pointed out to me, has been in the forefront of efforts to achieve religious pluralism in Israel, with the active support of some prominent Orthodox leaders. 

“We provide $310,000 a year for this vital cause because we love Israel and our values as American Jews are also a reflection of this priority,” he said. 

Rabbi David Levy, director of the New Jersey region of the AJC, said, “The great lesson that our institutions can take from these studies is not that we should alter our core values and central missions, but that we should be reaching out in dialogue to members of every stream of the Jewish community to seek areas of concord and shared understanding.”

Today, the public affairs positions advanced by those bodies often referred to as the Jewish establishment are in alignment with the views of most non-Orthodox American-Jews. Two big umbrella groups that represent a broad cross-section of national and local Jewish agencies, The Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA) and the Jewish Council for Public Affairs (JCPA), as well as AIPAC, have endorsed the two-state vision for Israeli-Palestinian peace. The JFNA, JCPA, AJC, and the ADL have sharply criticized Trump’s positions on race relations and immigration, such as the president’s repeal of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA). 

Being able to achieve consensus is an asset. It enables us to convey to American and Israeli policymakers where most Jews and Jewish organizations stand on the issues of the day. If we are deeply divided, it is easier to ignore us as a factor in their policymaking process. 

A growing and active Orthodox constituency does not mean that the existing progressive consensus on Israel-related and domestic concerns — which I personally believe best serves the interests of Israel and the diaspora community — is about to collapse anytime soon. The demographic shift, along with changing political attitudes associated with it, will gradually play out over decades. 

To be clear, I strongly believe greater participation of Orthodox Jews in community-wide affairs is a healthy development. Yet, it is also reasonable to assume that as a more conservative Orthodox constituency grows both in numbers and influence, the public affairs consensus-making process may eventually become more complicated.     

Of course, one response to the changing demographics would be for the Conservative and Reform movements to continue searching for effective ways to attract more people to their ranks and encourage their adherents to marry and raise Jewish children. Such an effort shouldn’t be undertaken, tactically, as a counter measure to the growth of the Orthodox community or to smooth the edges of our consensus-making process. Reversing the trend of the dwindling number of Reform and Conservative Jews is crucial for reasons that exceed the Jewish community’s need for a unified voice on political matters. Bolstering the non-Orthodox movements would help ensure a vital and more pluralistic Jewish future.

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