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
October 4, 2013

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:  http://www.cross-currents.com/archives/2011/03/06/census-and-non-census/

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 www.rabbidov.com

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