No faith, no Jewish future

In my last column, I suggested a number of reasons for the rise of Orthodox Judaism and the decline in membership among non-Orthodox denominations. 

In this column, I would like to discuss one important reason that often goes unnoted.

That reason is faith — not only faith in God, but specifically faith that the Torah represents the word of God. 

“Represents the word of God” does not necessarily mean that God dictated every word to Moses. Nor does it necessarily imply any specific form of divine communication. How the Torah came to be is an entirely different question from whether it ultimately comes from God. 

Having taught the Torah much of my life, I am well aware that there are challenging, even difficult, parts of the Torah. However, in almost every case, with intellectual honesty coupled with a belief in the divinity of the Torah, those difficulties can be surmounted. 

Take the often-cited example of the law demanding that a son who will not listen to either his father or mother and who is “a stubborn and rebellious glutton and drunk” be stoned.

As it turns out, this law was one of the most morally elevating laws in mankind’s history. By stipulating that the son must be taken to a court and that only the court can execute him, and that the son had to revile both his mother and father, the law permanently took away the right of a father to kill his child. 

This was likely a first in human history. Throughout the world, as in the Code of Hammurabi, children were the property of their father — who was, therefore, allowed to kill his child. The Torah law ended that. Moreover, it is unlikely that one son in Jewish history was ever stoned by a Jewish court. On the contrary, thanks to the Torah, Jewish family life was the most peaceful in every society in which Jews lived. Would that those who in believe in “honor killings” today had inherited such a law in their holy works.

Whatever the difficulties moderns may have with believing that the Torah is divine, the difficulties with believing that the Torah is just a creation of men are far greater.

Of course, many Jews who don’t believe in the divinity of the Torah — or even in the God of the Torah — feel Jewish and some are deeply devoted to the Jewish people. Indeed, it was secular Jews, not Orthodox Jews, who founded Israel. But over the course of a few generations, without belief in the God of the Torah and in the Torah coming from God, most Jews will gradually leave Judaism and eventually the Jewish people.

Take Shabbat observance as an example. There are excellent rational, non-God-based  reasons to observe the Shabbat. But the reason the vast majority of Jews who do not work on Shabbat (or on the Torah’s other holy days) refrain from work is that we believe God commanded us to. Over a few generations, those who believe that men wrote the commandment to observe the Shabbat will eventually abandon it. But those who believe that God gave the commandment will not.

Similarly, if one does not believe that the Jews were slaves in Egypt, let alone that God took the Jews out of Egypt, one can be a committed Jew and even celebrate Passover. But over time it strains credulity to believe that generation after generation of Jews will celebrate an event they don’t believe ever happened. They may celebrate family time together at a seder, but not Judaism.

The centrality of belief in a God-given Torah obviously challenges most non-Orthodox Jews. But it should also challenge many Orthodox Jews. 

Many Orthodox Jews think that observance of halachah, more than faith, is what ensures Jewish survival. Every yeshiva student is taught the famous line from the Midrash: “It would be better that the Jews abandoned Me [God] but kept my commandments.”

But Conservative Judaism provides a nearly perfect refutation of this idea. Many Conservative rabbis in the past, and many today, have led thoroughly halachic lives, virtually indistinguishable from many modern Orthodox rabbis. If halachah is what keeps Jews alive, the Conservative movement should not be in decline — and it should certainly attract more Jews than Reform, the least halachic of the major denominations. 

Furthermore, if halachah is the single most important thing to the Orthodox, why has Orthodoxy been so opposed to Conservative Judaism and to Conservative rabbis who have been scrupulously halachic? The answer is that the Conservative movement dropped belief in a God-given Torah. (Jewish Theological Seminary Web site: “The Torah is the foundation text of Judaism … not because it is divine, but because it is sacred, that is, adopted by the Jewish people as its spiritual font.”) And it is that, not lesser observance of halachah, that is the primary reason for Conservative Judaism’s decline. 

Judaism cannot just be a commitment to the Jewish people, love of Israel or even just ritual observance. As important as each is, none will ensure Jewish survival as much as belief — belief in the God of the Torah and in the Torah of God.

Dennis Prager is a nationally syndicated radio talk-show host (AM 870 in Los Angeles) and founder of His latest book is the New York Times best seller “Still the Best Hope: Why the World Needs American Values to Triumph” (HarperCollins, 2012).

Goy until proven Jewish

“Who is a Jew?” is a uniquely Jewish question. It is a question that epitomizes the Jewish people and culture. It is a philosophical question that embodies the history of Jewish debate. It is a question of belonging that symbolizes Jews as a minority. It seems like a theoretical question, until your Judaism is in doubt. The question “Are you a Jew?” is a much more personal question and it is a question that many more Jews are being asked. In Israel, American Jews who made Aliyah or are living in Israel are finding that the burden of proof for proving Jewishness is getting increasingly heavy.

When it came time for Julia to get married, she was prepared to fight to prove her Jewish identity. She had moved to Israel three years prior, from the East Coast of the United States, and had gotten used to things always being harder in Israel. But she was not prepared for what she would face.

As someone who keeps a kosher home, doesn’t drive on Shabbat, and considers herself religious, it was important to Julia to have an Orthodox wedding with the Israeli Rabbinate. She is proud of her Jewish heritage, which she can trace back to her great, great grandfather who was an Orthodox Rabbi. However, she knew that her heritage would be hard to prove because of a gap in documents. The gap is a result of her great grandmother and great grandfather being institutionalized, which was the regrettable practice at the time for people born deaf. Being institutionalized, her great grandparents did not form a connection with Judaism, which meant that they did not leave a paper trail, such as a Ketuba or tombstone, for Julia to prove her Jewishness decades later.

Knowing that as an American Jew the Rabbinate would scrutinize her files, she went to the Rabbinate armed with pictures of her great, great grandparents’ tombstones, her parent’s Ketuba from a Reform Rabbi, her Bat Mitzvah certificate, letters testifying to her Jewish identity from two people in her community, and a letter from her Rabbi from the Conservative movement. However, all of this proof was not enough for the Rabbinate and she was refused approval of her Jewish identity.

Speaking of the letter from her Conservative Rabbi, Julia said, “The Rabbi who knows me the most is from a Conservative synagogue. So, I thought it was better to get a letter from someone who really knew me, which was obviously a mistake. It is better for (the Rabbinate) to get a letter from a Rabbi who they know but doesn’t know me whatsoever,” Julia said, still distraught about the treatment she received.

The refusal by the Israeli Rabbinate to accept a letter from a conservative rabbi doesn’t only hurt Julia, but it impacts the entire Conservative movement. Conservative Rabbi Menachem Creditor of Congregation Netivot Shalom in Berkeley, California and co-founder of ShefaNetwork and KeshetRabbis said, “For me as a Rabbi to be so marginalized by the religious authorities of my own sacred home demonstrates that the Jewish exile hasn’t ended yet and that the perpetrators of Jewish exile today are largely Jews. The State has only begun to acknowledge the corrupt form of Judaism that has reigned in the State of Israel and that it is going to take a lot more work to end the exile being perpetrated by Jews at Jews. Secular politicians have an obligation to the global Jewish people that they are beginning to acknowledge.”

After a long and painful process, and only about three weeks before the wedding, Julia finally did receive approval to get married in Israel. However, the process has left her with a deep scar. “It was equally frustrating and offensive to my identity. My whole family is Jewish. I have never once in my life doubted my Jewish identity. It was so shameful. It really made me feel ashamed. This is so not Jewish.”

Julia probably does not take any solace in the fact that she is not alone in this struggle. There is a systematic and epidemic distrust from the Israeli Rabbinate towards American Jews and Rabbis from non-Orthodox streams of Judaism.

Morgan, just like Julia, is a Jewish American immigrant to Israel who got engaged to an Israeli. While Morgan was opening up her marriage file at the New York Rabbinate so she could get married in Israel, her fiancé simultaneously went to his local Rabbinate in Northern Israel. They both faced obstacles related to Morgan being able to prove that she is Jewish.

In New York, Morgan was dealing with a variety of obstacles – from the Israeli Rabbis not understanding that religion isn’t listed on a driver’s license to them not appreciating the fact that Morgan’s mother, who grew up in the projects of New York had faced a lot of anti-Semitism growing up and was more focused on surviving than finding a kosher grocer. While Morgan and her extended family members were being interrogated by the Beit Din in New York, a Rabbi in Israel explained to her fiancé that Morgan’s parents are the equivalent of goyim because they were married by a Reform Rabbi in Los Angeles and affiliate with the Reform Jewish movement.

Speaking about the refusal of the Israeli Rabbinate to accept Reform Judaism as a legitimate form of the religion, Reform Rabbi Steven Z. Leder, Senior Rabbi at Wilshire Boulevard Temple in Los Angeles, California and recently named among the “Top 50 Influential Rabbis in America” by Newsweek stated, “I have little doubt that the rabbinical authorities who impugn the status of Reform and Conservative Rabbis, their congregations, and those who convert to Judaism within them, have gladly accepted financial assistance offered to Israel by those very same Jews and given countless sermons about the importance of unity among the Jewish people.  This makes these Rabbis, in a word, hypocrites.”

The Rabbi who called Morgan’s family goyim explained to her fiancé that she would need to provide documents that show her Jewish heritage for the past three generations. When her fiancé asked this Rabbi how the Rabbinate knew that he was Jewish, since his father had been born on the way to Israel from Yemen without any documentation, the Rabbi refused to give a reason.

Morgan says that one of the toughest parts of this process was that the Rabbinate approached the issue from the “assumption that we aren’t Jewish. They were asking questions to try to trap us, which is so insulting. I was so disgusted. This whole process for the privilege to be married in Israel made me feel as if I didn’t even want to come here anymore. How dare you question my mother and me like we are not Jews! It is a scourge on Israel what they are doing to people, to olim (immigrants), to people who served in the army. It all just disgusts me.”

The entire process to prove that she was Jewish enough to get married in Israel took Morgan approximately a year. After eventually getting a letter through a connection, Morgan can now joke about the experience. “I was making a good six figures in New York, and I’m coming here. Who else but a Jew would do this?”

The Israeli Rabbinate’s refusal to accept letters testifying to an American Jewish immigrant’s Jewish identity from Reform, Conservative, and even some streams of Orthodox Rabbis as sufficient proof is a growing trend and one that is well-known among the immigrant community in Israel, but not well known among American Jews.

“I think Israel’s religious decisions are under the radar for most of the young American Jewish population because most of the young American Jewish population is already distanced from Israel for other reasons,” explained Rabbi Creditor. “We can’t afford to continue distancing these young Jews for both political and religious reasons. It probably is a good thing that young Jews don’t know about those things yet. But as soon as they find out it is an absolute barrier to any sense of connectivity with the State of Israel.”

In recent years, there has been more coverage related to isolated incidents of the Israeli Rabbinate denying Reform and Conservative converts the right to get married, but these are reported as issues that mainly impact converts and their descendents. However, these stories show that converts are simply the canary in the coal mine. When the Israeli Rabbinate refuses to recognize conversions of Reform, Conservative, or other streams of Judaism, it is not a directed offense against converts; it is an affront against American Judaism as a whole. It is an assault against the legitimacy of the leaders, the Rabbis, and the members of one of the strongest Jewish communities in the world.

It is an issue that impacts many, if not most American Jews. According to the 2000-2001National Jewish Population Survey, in the United States there are 1.3 million Jews in Conservative household and 1.7 million in Reform households. This means that, just like Julia and Morgan, more than three million American Jews could face obstacles proving their Jewish identity and potentially be denied the right to get married in Israel. But surprisingly, the American Jewish community, one of the strongest supporters of Israel, is not demanding that Israel reciprocate that support.

Rabbi Creditor explains that being critical of Israel can by synonymous with being a Zionist. “It is absolutely essential that American Jews be engaged in Israel’s safety and life. What makes anybody an authentic Zionist is that they love their Jewish people, they love their Jewish family. And we are free thinkers. We should continue to be free thinkers who love our family. I raise my voice loudly, to demand of my homeland that it treat me like family. And in return, I model that kind of respect and love through everything that I do. My commitment to Israel is what gives me the right to demand of Israel that it treats me with respect.”

Jessica Fishman moved to Israel from the US in 2003 and writes the Aliyah Survival Blog, an irreverent portrayal of life as an immigrant in Israel. Her new book, Chutzpah and High Heels: The Search for Love and Identity in the Holy Land, will be published soon.

The Pew survey: What’s missing from the conversation

The ink is barely dry on the latest Pew report on declining Jewish affiliation and concerned community leaders are quickly weighing in on what to do to attract the unaffiliated back under the tent.  Notwithstanding all the good ideas, something, from my experience, is missing from the conversation.

Ten years ago, I was one of the unaffiliated, the consummate once-a-year Jew, with little connection to our tradition.  Now I’m in shul every Shabbat morning — enjoying it, appreciating it and looking forward to it each week. 

What happened?  How did I find my way back?  It was not so simple. 

I knew I was Jewish, but I didn’t want to be too Jewish.  I was secular.  Religiosity, whatever that was, was for the Orthodox, whoever they were.  God was an interesting concept to talk about in college, but I certainly wasn’t going to believe in Him, whoever He was.

And while I knew that we Jews have had notable success in the world, I also figured that we’re a provincial bunch — a small community with an ancient religion, an obscure language, an old text filled with anachronistic stories, with religious men with long beards in black coats and black hats — amidst a big world of non-Jews.

Then, several years ago, things began to change.  At the recommendation of friends, my wife and I visited Ohr HaTorah, and we decided to join.  The temple has one requirement for parents with kids in religious school.  We needed to attend Shabbat services every Saturday morning.  Were they joking?  That was my day to be out and about having fun.  But, off to temple I went, every Saturday morning, reacquainting myself with Judaism — pretty strange stuff for a secular Jew.

I kept showing up and I kept learning.  Over time, unexpectedly, I came to realize something.  My entire view of Judaism was totally inaccurate.  Throughout my life, I had been inundated with many pervasive secular ideas – secular myths actually — that held me back from any serious interest in the Jewish tradition.  Overcoming these secular myths has been, for me, quite a journey.

What are these secular myths?  First, I had thought that, to be Jewish in any meaningful way, one had to believe in some archaic theology with God perched high up in the sky overseeing everything.  After all, the Hebrew prayers are subsumed with God’s name in all His glory – “Lord our God, King of the Universe.”

In thinking about God, however, I’ve found that it’s helpful to begin not with theology but rather with the soul.  Do we not have souls?  Do our souls not experience a common transcendent reality?  Do our souls not yearn for universal and enduring values like love and goodness, and truth and justice?  Are these values not divine in some sense?

The introduction to one of the Bibles that I study is entitled “Textbook of the Soul.”  I now recognize that there is a window into Judaism and into the idea of God that does not require the indoctrination of specific theological propositions.

Second, I had thought that traditional Judaism, like any religion, is inevitably dogmatic – incompatible with the modern era, with the free exchange of ideas, with the pursuit of knowledge, scientific and otherwise.

But I’ve learned that the Jewish tradition is anything but dogmatic.  It is grounded in the free inquiry of ideas, in the constant yearning and struggle for what’s true — no more exemplified than the ancient rabbis’ discussions and disagreements recorded in voluminous detail in the Talmud.  The Shabbat service implores us to seek truth.  As is said in the morning prayers, “One should always … acknowledge the truth, and be truthful in one’s innermost thoughts.”  Judaism as dogmatic?  How wrong I was!

Third, I had thought that Judaism, like other religions, inevitably gravitates toward theocratic government.  After all, history is replete with theocracies run by religious leaders.

However, I’ve now learned that religiosity does not necessitate a theocratic perspective.   Actually, modern conceptions of republican forms of government can be traced back to the Jewish religion, as Harvard University professor Eric Nelson writes in his book The Hebrew Republic: Jewish Sources and the Transformation of European Political Thought

In the late 17th century, John Milton opposed theocracies, as well as monarchies, based in large part on his readings of Jewish texts, and he became one of the leading supporters of republican forms of government.  One hundred years later, in arguing for republican government in the United States, Thomas Paine, not exactly the most religious figure, referenced the same Jewish sources in his 1776 pamphlet Common Sense.  It’s not surprising that Michael Novak’s book On Two Wings: Humble Faith and Common Sense at the American Founding begins with a chapter entitled “Jewish Metaphysics at the Founding.”  No theocracy here.

Fourth, I was under the impression that the Bible was not to be taken seriously.  After all, I presumed that it’s an obscure text filled with ancient stories, absurd commandments, a wrathful God, verses of brutality — all based on someone’s strange interpretation of what they thought was the word of God thousands of years ago.

I’ve now learned that Biblical stories are anything but anachronistic.  They are about the human condition – about slavery and freedom, exile and redemption, justice and injustice, morality and immorality, good and evil, life and death.  The concept of equality – equal justice under the law — comes from the Bible, as Joshua Berman explains in Created Equal: How the Bible Broke with Ancient Political Thought.  Not take the Bible seriously?  Its stories and interpretations continue to provide invaluable moral insight and wisdom.

Fifth, I had thought that a religion that’s based in part on revelation — the revealed word of God at Mount Sinai – was in conflict with reason.  Isn’t any such revelation just theological speculation?

I’ve since learned that revelation does not obviate the need for reason, nor does reason negate the possibility of transcendent experiences.  Revealed truths need not entail fantastical ideas.  On the contrary, they can reflect something enduring and endemic in the human condition. 

Yoram Hazony, in his seminal book The Philosophy of Hebrew Scripture, goes even further in arguing that the distinction between reason and revelation is actually alien to the Hebrew Scriptures.  While the Greeks conceived of revelation as an “inpouring” from another realm, Hebrew Scripture defines knowledge and truth in terms of only one realm, implying that there’s been a false dichotomy between reason and revelation.  I now realize that the Jewish religion is anything but unreasonable.

Sixth, I had thought that I could not be both assimilated and Jewish.  I certainly was not about to don Chasidic garb.  But more than that, I was not even comfortable with a religious identity that’s uniquely Jewish.  How parochial!  How exclusivist!

I now understand that the concept of total assimilation within the context of a free society is unrealistic.  We inevitably live within communities — from the family on out.  Moreover, the idea of total assimilation is untenable.  Free and open societies are premised on differences – differences in identity, culture, ethnicity, race, religion.  The title of Natan Sharansky’s important book on the subject says it all — Defending Identity: Its Indispensable Role in Protecting Democracy.

So, for most of my life, I had been living under a myth — actually several secular myths – which kept me away from Judaism.  Overcoming these myths is what it took for me to find my way back under the tent.  This is what it may take for many of the unaffiliated today to reconnect with our community and our tradition.

Engagement trends are negative, but Jewish funders see validation in Pew study

If you’re pouring hundreds of millions of dollars into Jewish identity building, what do you do when a survey comes along showing that the number of U.S. Jews engaging with Jewish life and religion is plummeting?

That’s the question facing major funders of American Jewish life following the release last week of the Pew Research Center’s survey on U.S. Jews.

The study — the first comprehensive portrait of American Jewry in more than a decade — showed that nearly one-third of Jews under age 32 do not identify as Jewish by religion, that American Jews are intermarrying at a rate of 58 percent (71 percent if the Orthodox are excluded) and that most intermarried Jews are not raising their kids as Jews.

For many of the Jewish world’s biggest funders, the answer to this question is clear: Stay the course.

“We’ve known about these issues and many of us have been working in our own ways to address them,” said Sandy Cardin, president of the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation, which with more than $2 billion in assets is one of the Jewish world’s largest foundations focused on bolstering Jewish identity and community among young people.

“We haven’t done it yet, and by no means is success assured, but I do think as a community we have identified significant ways to address these challenges,” he told JTA. “It’s too soon, I think, to see the immediate impact of what many of us in the community have been doing over the past five to 10 years.”

The logic to this approach is relatively straightforward: The findings in the Pew survey mostly upheld the assumptions upon which major givers in Jewish life already have been operating. In their view, the survey validates their own philanthropic priorities — even if they disagree about what to prioritize.

“This new study reinforces the idea that we need an energizing nucleus which is literate in Hebrew, and which is engaged in intensive and immersive education and committed to Jewish life and Jewish institutions,” said Yossi Prager, executive director in North America of Avi Chai, a major investor in Jewish education.

Andres Spokoiny, CEO of the Jewish Funders Network, drew a different conclusion: “Those that were investing heavily in Jewish culture and alternative venues for Jewish identity were right,” he said.

“Given that a lot of Jews define themselves as secular or atheist, it’s critically important that while investing in traditional venues in Jewish life, it’s important to explore and find and foster venues for encouraging Jewish identity through non-traditional ways — through culture, through arts,” Spokoiny said. “I think that’s a key message.”

Mark Charendoff, president of the Maimonides Fund, said the study demonstrates a remarkable failure to achieve many of the central goals adopted by the Jewish community in the wake of the 1990 National Jewish Population Survey, which showed what many considered alarmingly high assimilation rates.

“As a community, we made a decision a couple of decades ago to focus on Jewish continuity and Jewish identity, and we don’t seem to have moved the needle by even one degree,” Charendoff told JTA. “I would love to tell you I think it’s a wakeup call, but I don’t think anyone’s waking up.”

Jewish foundations need to get on the same page to develop a comprehensive strategy to begin to reverse the negative trends, he said.

“Donors by and large are focused on particular efforts and not focused on the field as a whole,” Charendoff said. “There needs to be more coordination, more resources. We’re only going to have that impact if there’s alignment and not 10,000 people doing God’s work but without regard to what their neighbors are doing.”

Whether the Pew study will prompt a systemic response, or even an attempt at one by Jewish funders, remains to be seen.

Next month, the Jewish Federations of North America will convene its annual General Assembly, which draws fundraisers and leaders from federations throughout the United States. Jerry Silverman, the umbrella group’s CEO, told JTA that this year’s confab is not the place for beginning a communitywide conversation about the Pew study results.

This year’s G.A. will be held in Jerusalem and focus on the Israel-Diaspora relationship. The Pew study will not be on the agenda, he said.

“You really need to bring together thinkers and thought leaders who can really think this through. I don’t think that’s the G.A. population,” Silverman said. “That’s not the forum to think this through.”

Chip Edelsberg, the executive director of the Jim Joseph Foundation, which has awarded about $280 million in grants for Jewish education and engagement since 2006, said his foundation needs more time to delve into the Pew data to figure out what changes are necessary, if any, to their strategies for engaging young American Jews.

“It will certainly animate our discussions and have a bearing on the foundation’s decision making, because it is actually good data,” he said.

Michael Steinhardt, the mega-philanthropist behind Birthright Israel, Hebrew-language charter schools and a host of other Jewish community programs, said the results of Pew are hardly news: Separate community studies over the last few years have made the trends clear.

“We should not need the Pew study to give us a reality check,” he said. “The question is what to do about it.”

Steinhardt says he isn’t optimistic that the Jewish community will respond effectively.

“Nothing’s a galvanizing event for the Jewish community,” he said. “I don’t see the community thoughtfully dealing with it.”

Making an Orthodox sense of an unorthodox census

The Pew survey, reported last week in major news outlets, inadvertently mischaracterizes Orthodox demographic trends quite dramatically and necessarily undercounts us significantly, for the same reason that other random-digit-dialing and surveying techniques do.  I previously have analyzed these statistical phenomena at such places as:

Two very brief examples:

1.  Prior generations — older people — who never really were Orthodox will tell pollsters, in all innocence, that they were Orthodox but later became Conservative or Reform, or that they were Orthodox but their children became less pious and perhaps intermarried.  Similarly, their children will so report about themselves and their parents.  That self-reporting advises fair-minded pollsters that Orthodox Jews have a reduced retention rate, marked by Orthodoxy’s presumed significant losses over a generation to non-Orthodoxy.  Pollsters therefore project “continued” Orthodox losses in the future based on those “past trends.”  However, a great number of non-Orthodox respondents who self-report to pollsters that they (or their parents) once were Orthodox in fact mischaracterize and erroneously denominate themselves.  They may have thought they were Orthodox because they affiliated with an Orthodox shul for a while or once had attended an Orthodox cheider.  But profoundly large numbers of self-reporters never lived a life that even remotely resembled Orthodoxy.  Maybe they went to an Orthodox shul for Yizkor, and maybe they had an Orthodox rabbi bury their deceased or went to the Orthodox shul’s bingo game or casino night.  But they never were Orthodox. 

I have learned and encountered this phenomenon repeatedly during the thirty years since I began practicing as a congregational rabbi. Individuals would meet me for pastoral counseling or to begin reciting kaddish to mark a parent’s passing, and they would describe their deceased parent as having been Orthodox.  As we would talk a bit more, I would learn that the parent’s kitchen had only one set of dishes, that the family never ate at kosher restaurants, that they never observed Shabbat, that the children never had heard of Shavuot or Shmini Atzeret or even a “Lulav and Etrog.”  Somehow, they had internalized self-reporting as Orthodox, even as their children, reared in decidedly non-Orthodox homes, grew to be non-Orthodox and even to intermarry.

As the years have moved on, a new — accurately denominated — Orthodox community has arisen, one defined by Orthodox education and self-awareness, inculcated in Orthodox practice and values at yeshiva day schools and at Orthodox summer camps, and in youth programs like NCSY, where I was a rabbinic advisor for a decade and where all four of my children participated actively.  Thus, those who now self-report to pollsters that they are “Orthodox” in fact are profoundly more likely to be Orthodox.  At the same time, increased advocacy and identification by Reform- and Conservative-Judaism institutional leaders has educated people who are not Orthodox that they are not, but rather are Reform-or-Conservative-denominated.  As their children have proceeded to intermarry, now at a rate well exceeding 50%, even as their birthrates have dropped dramatically and as their children have delayed marrying and starting families later than ever before, the demographic advance of the Orthodox community has become ubiquitous both here and in Israel. 

(Perhaps the last remnant of the innocently confused are those particular immigrants to America from South Africa and from other British Empire redoubts who innocently tell people that they are Orthodox even though they eat outright forbidden foods, observe nothing of Shabbat and the like — but do “affiliate Orthodox” and attend Orthodox on Yom Kippur, as an atavistic carryover from having grown in a society where Orthodoxy essentially was the only institution at hand.  Their children predictably show consistent signs of being profoundly non-Orthodox, and their intermarriage rates closely parallel those of their non-Orthodox peers. 

In sum, although a fair-minded pollster will interpret from self-reporting that Orthodoxy follows the same attrition trends as Reform and Conservativism, the more sophisticated observer better understands that Orthodox retention and replication rates in fact are dramatically higher.

2.  Intermarried non-Jews who convert outside of Orthodoxy often are eager or comfortable recounting their “Jew-by-Choice” journeys.  They often affiliate with temples that primarily service such populations.  By contrast, Orthodox converts are more discreet and less comfortable discussing their non-Orthodox origins, for a variety of reasons extraneous to the instant analysis.  Meanwhile, other Orthodox Jews adamantly refuse to accommodate census takers because their Orthodox teaching forbids them from allowing themselves to be counted.  (See, e.g., 2 Samuel 24.)  Other numerous Orthodox Jewish enclaves — in their tens of thousands — reared with xenophobic tendencies that inhere in their utmost demographic insularity, bear intense suspicion of “goyim” who phone them to ask about their Judaism, and they disproportionately refuse to engage their callers.  And then there are the obvious additional contributors to undercounting the Orthodox: Families with larger numbers of children, a demographic reality found more predominantly among Orthodox Jews, are less inclined to answer 30-or-more minutes of telephone questions.  Moreover, the best time to get someone willing to “sit on the phone” for 30-plus minutes is over the weekend, but Orthodox Jews are forbidden from taking phone calls for half of each weekend, and they find themselves needing to crunch into Sunday what they could not do secularly on Friday evening and night, and all-day Saturday.  Therefore, despite the best of professional intentions, Orthodox Jews are inherently undercounted in telephone-based polls that are premised on random-digit-dialing and other efforts to find and poll Jews by phone.

As a further striking reflection of the Pew survey’s clear misunderstanding of the Orthodox community and the survey’s failure to tabulate aspects of Orthodox demographics with precision, the poll “found” that (only) 76 percent of “ultra-Orthodox” Jews do not handle money on Shabbat.  (Pages 77-78) To the survey reporters, that number was striking for how large a number of Orthodox Jews do not handle money on Shabbat, but informed observers of the community immediately recognize that the survey number clearly is flawed, whether in the tabulating, the interviewing, or the wording of the underlying question.  There are exceptions to every rule and among individuals within every community, but the reported statistic that one in four “ultra-Orthodox” Jews handles money on the Shabbat is beyond any definition of professional failure.

My interest in the subject of how Jewish surveys dramatically undercount the Orthodox and underestimate future Orthodox demographic trends started 25 years ago when the Jewish Federation sponsored a census in Los Angeles, emerging with projected numbers and trends paralleling last week’s reported Pew numbers and trends.  I was fascinated: the pollsters reported finding that Orthodoxy was not reproducing in Los Angeles and that Orthodox percentages among Jewish Angelenos had remained stangnant over ten years, but my eyes saw something so very different:  Virtually every Orthodox shul and yeshiva day school throughout all of Los Angeles — virtually without exception — had conducted its own respective major expansion during the prior ten years.  Beth Jacob of Beverly Hills, Young Israel of Century City, Shaarey Zedek in Valley Village, Emek Hebrew Academy, Yavneh, Maimonides, Hillel Hebrew Academy, Beit Hamidrash of Woodland Hills (where I then was rabbi, and where we had grown from 9 families to more than 60 families in under than three years, also launching the West Valley Hebrew Academy yeshiva day school with seventy children by its third year).  Virtually none had reduced or closed, while lots more yeshivot and synagogues had opened: Shalhevet yeshiva high school, Maimonides Day School, Ohr Eliyahu in Culver City, the Streisand School in Venice.   Kosher pizza stores had doubled or tripled, and kosher pizza stores do not lie. (A line that I should have copyrighted.)  Likewise, kosher restaurants nearly had tripled.  So I returned to immerse myself in the poll’s internal methodologies, while thinking about the challenges facing fair-minded pollsters who are not intimately conversant with the quirks of Orthodox Jews, the xenophobic insularity of many, how so many innocently mischaracterize prior generations’ denominations — indeed, whether we even will cooperate with being counted.  The same challenges marked last week’s Pew results.

Although Orthodox Jews are reported as comprising 10 percent of the population counted by Pew, in fact we are undercounted by pollsters accumulating the samples from which they project their results. We thus comprise probably 20-25 percent of American Jewry today, and our much-better-than-projected replication rates (despite acknowledged losses, too) probably assure that our numbers and percentages, under current trends, will have us in the majority of American Jewry quite a bit sooner than Pew imagines. Strikingly, the more recent New York Federation census validates those expectations of an emerging Orthodox majority in the Jewish community, not merely a plurality, as do recent polls published in Israel.

This is not about Orthodox triumphalism.  If anything, it is more about the heart-rending and tragic disappearance of a million and more Jews outside Orthodoxy.  We once were 6 million among 200,000,000 Americans, comprising 3 percent of the country’s population. By contrast, today our proportion has dropped by 50 percent in the United States, as we number fewer than 5 million among 300,000,000 Americans. The policy ramifications of the real numbers are enormous for us as Jews, as our influence inexorably wanes with continued declines marching towards disappearance, offset by increased percentages of Orthodox Jews en route to becoming the American Jewish majority within, say, thirty-to-fifty years.  As those realities set in,  a new symbiosis between American Orthodoxy and local Jewish Federations will have to be recalibrated on both sides.

Rabbi Dov Fischer, formerly Chief Articles Editor of UCLA Law Review and an adjunct professor of law at Loyola Law School, is founding spiritual leader of Young Israel of Orange County and is author of Jews for Nothing:  On Cults, Assimilation and Intermarriage.  He blogs at

Understanding the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life’s religious affiliation study

The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life recently released a global study of religion whose findings have appeared in newspapers and social media everywhere. Using more than 2,500 censuses, surveys and population registers, it found that 84 percent of adults and children around the globe are religiously affiliated; the median age of two major groups, Muslims (23 years) and Hindus (26), is younger than the world’s overall population (28). Jews have the highest median age (36) of the groups studied.

But the study also concluded that one out of every six people has no religious affiliation — the third-largest group in relation to religion, equal to the world population of Catholics, about 16 percent. The remaining Christians double that population. Jews are only about 0.2 percent of the world’s population. An increasing number of people, however, do not attach themselves to any world faith. This should be of concern to anyone who cares about religion.

Clergy and religious leaders often spend the majority of their time trying to strengthen faith in those who show a sparkle of commitment, and yet the disengagement of tens of thousands should make us think more about what it takes to enhance faith in the world generally. It takes passion.

Contrast this spiritual malaise to a passage of Talmud (BT Shabbat 83b) that highlights the role of passion and religion. A rabbi entered a study hall and suddenly an esoteric matter he had studied for many years was suddenly clarified for him by one sage, and he had yet another level of illumination. One cannot miss a moment of study, for in that one moment, intellectual clarification can unexpectedly happen.

As the passage unfolds, one sage commented that Torah is only attained by one who “kills himself in the tent,” based upon an odd reading of a verse: “This is the Torah: A person who dies in a tent…” (Numbers 19:14). The verse is an introduction to obscure laws of purity. Figuratively, the sages made some unusual connections between learning and death. “Rabbi Yonatan said: One should never prevent himself from attending the study hall or from engaging in matters of Torah, even at the moment of death.” Learning takes place in an instant. Learning should take place until the very last moment, and finally, as the quote above implies, in order to learn in depth, one must “kill” oneself in study.

This use of language is inherently violent and disturbing but manipulated in this commentary to turn physical violence on its head. When you care about something, you give yourself totally to it. You feel the “flow,” in the word of one researcher. You become deeply engaged and committed. Rather than give your life in the name of religion, give your life to it. Engage in ideas. Argue vehemently. Debate rigorously. Allow faith to inform ideas and shape attitudes as one of many vehicles of comfort and insight. But if faith becomes a sword, then it will not frame who we are. It will become religion’s letter of resignation.

Jon Stewart once said, “Religion: It’s given people hope in a world torn apart by religion.” In a world where religion has been the source of so much violence and internecine battling, many people will just walk away altogether. But in the absence of religion people may lose a language in which to express deep universal sentiments about love, kindness, suffering and community. In the words of a friend who began his involvement in Judaism late in life, “Since I’ve become involved with Jewish life, not one day has passed where I have questioned my purpose in life.”

Affiliation should not be about membership. It should be about the inner life. We have to make it that way.