Chaim I. Waxman
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Modern Orthodoxy thriving? Don’t be so sure

Plenty of community members drop out because they don't fit in or can't afford the life style

Professor Sylvia Barack Fishman of Brandeis University presents a very optimistic portrait of American Modern Orthodoxy. In her view, “It is a very clear demographic reality that Modern Orthodoxy is thriving.” There are, apparently, strong bases for her optimism. She points to the fact that “American Modern Orthodox are statistically the country’s highest educated, most financially successful Jewish population.”

That indeed does seem to be the case, at least as far as income is concerned. Since the beginning of the mass immigration from Eastern Europe in the late-nineteenth century, American Orthodox Jews as a group had lower incomes than non-Orthodox Jews. In fact, it was often the case that denomination was as much a reflection of income status as of religious ideology, with the higher income status being Reform, the middle being Conservative, and the lower being Orthodox. That pattern lasted throughout the twentieth century. In my study of Jewish baby boomers, based on the 1990 National Jewish Population Survey, I found a gap of more than $10,000 between the mean family incomes of Orthodox and Conservative, and a similar gap between the mean family incomes of Conservative and Reform baby boomers.

The most recent data available, from the 2013 Pew Center survey, indicate that the pattern is history, and the present reality is quite different. Today, the median annual family incomes of the Orthodox and Conservative are almost identical. Moreover, a higher percentage of Orthodox (28.1%) than Conservative (24.6%) American Jews have an annual family income of $150,000 or more, and the percentage of Modern Orthodox (37.6%) is even higher than that of the Reform (31.8%). With respect to educational status, the Pew data indicate that the percentage of American Jews with a bachelor’s degree and higher is almost the same for the Modern Orthodox (73.7%), Conservative (74.3%), and Reform (76.0%).

There is, however, another side to the picture. Until recently it was estimated that the Modern Orthodox comprise as much as two-thirds of American Orthodox Jewry. The ratio has apparently now changed. According to the 2011 UJA-Federation of New York’s Jewish Community Study of New York, in the city with the largest Orthodox population in the country, the Modern Orthodox are a minority, comprising only 43 percent of the city’s Orthodox population. The majority, 57 percent, are “Hasidic &: Yeshivish.” Further, the Pew Center found the proportion of Modern Orthodox to be even lower in the country as a whole. Of those identified as Orthodox, two-thirds are “ultra-Orthodox” and one third are “Modern Orthodox.”

Of course, part of the increase in the proportion of “ultra-Orthodox” is the result of their much higher birth rate. In addition, some might argue, the Modern Orthodox percentage has declined because a significant number of them go on aliya. That notion, however, does not appear to be supported by evidence. While it is true that American Orthodox Jews have a much higher rate of aliya than their non-Orthodox brethren, at least since 1985 the annual number of American Jews who made aliya was approximately 2,000, of which a not-insignificant number returned to the United States within five years. In addition, it is far from clear than the number of Modern Orthodox making aliya is significantly higher than that of other American Orthodox Jews. Thirdly, with respect to Modern Orthodox aliya, evidence indicates that one factor stimulating their aliya is the high cost of Modern Orthodox Jewish living in the United States.

While Modern Orthodox Jews in America have achieved high economic status, based on annual family income, it is highly questionable whether they are actually financially successful. Despite their high incomes, many struggle economically because of the high cost of Modern Orthodox Jewish living. For example, in the major Modern Orthodox day schools in New York, Boston, and Los Angeles, tuition and other costs per child in primary school is approximately $20,000 per years. Synagogue membership is between $1,200-1,900 per family annually. Summer camp is another $3,500-8,000 per child, depending on the length of stay. That is just to start. There are also, of course, a variety of annual institutional dinners which one is expected to attend, to say nothing of the regular costs of kashrut and the Jewish holidays, even without going to a luxurious hotel for Pesach and Sukkot.

There is reason to believe that a not-insignificant reason for the decline in the proportion of Modern Orthodox and the increase in the proportion of “ultra-Orthodox” is that Modern Orthodoxy has been pricing out many who might otherwise have remained within its sphere. While lauding the financial and educational success of the Modern Orthodox, no attention is given to dropout and defection rates. Demographic calculations indicate that their numbers should be significantly higher than they are. But we know that for more than a century, there has been a high defection rate from Orthodoxy. Some find it socially restricting; some have ideological-theological issues with it; and some feel that they just can’t afford it. They view Modern Orthodoxy as elitist and unwelcoming.

Among the latter, some may leave it altogether, while others choose to belong to “ultra-Orthodox” communities in which the costs are much less and the sensitivity to individual needs is perceived to be greater. The “ultra-Orthodox,” who were often portrayed as isolated and withdrawn from the rest of Jewry are today perceived as much more open and engaged with their non-Orthodox brethren, so that some within the Modern Orthodox community who experience the financial strains are more open to living in an “ultra-Orthodox” community.

This does not mean that Modern Orthodoxy has no reason to be proud. Quite the contrary! There is, however, a difference between pride and confidence. Those Jews whom the late Brandeis University scholars Simon Rawidowicz and Marshall Sklare referred to as an “ever dying people,” were no less proud of what Jews had accomplished. They were, however, worried about the future and that anxiety spurred them to assure an even better next generation. One need but reflect on the state of Conservative Judaism in mid-twentieth century and today to realize how cautious one should be of educational and financial achievements. They are important but they do not guarantee the future.

About the Author
Chaim I. Waxman is a sociologist of Jews and Judaism. He is former chair of the Behavioral Sciences Department at Hadassah Academic College in Jerusalem and professor emeritus of Sociology and Jewish Studies at Rutgers University. His most recent book is Social Change and Halakhic Evolution in American Orthodoxy (Littman Library of Jewish Studies and Liverpool University Press, 2017). He and his wife, Chaya, live in Jerusalem.