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Pew asked the wrong questions

The survey missed the growing number of Jews who go to synagogue and attend Chabad, but don't call themselves Orthodox

Pew asked the wrong questionsFirst it claims that the numbers of orthodox have dropped over the decades fly in the face of reality. Walk the streets of Pico/Robertson in Los Angeles, North Miami Beach or Flatbush in Brooklyn. Thirty or forty years ago it was tough to find a few religious Jews, and today these neighborhoods are bursting with young religious families. In 1975 there was one large orthodox synagogue in Pico/Robertson and a handful of small ones. Today there are ten times as many congregations, large and small.

The researchers at Pew have used the simplistic methodology of self-identification. It does not compensate for the fact that the very nature of who considers themselves Orthodox has changed. Decades ago many Jews belonged to Orthodox synagogues. They were traditional, not fully observant, still they self-identified as Orthodox. Much like Jews today in Europe, Australia and Israel. The shul they went to, even once a year was Orthodox. That generation moved to the suburbs and shifted its affiliation to Conservative and Reform. Today only Jews who are Sabbath observant and keep kosher self-identify as Orthodox. Even Jews who attend Orthodox synagogues do not see themselves as Orthodox unless they are fully Sabbath observant. Once there were very few fully observant Jews, but large numbers who affiliated with Orthodox, today only religiously observant claim to be orthodox. Pew is comparing apples to oranges. Clearly there are far more religiously observant Jews than ever in the United States. It’s clear that the great majority are retaining the loyalty of their children to Jewish observance.

To offset the fact that Orthodox Jews concentrate in major cities, the study claims that it has weighted its inquiries to give greater focus to counties where Orthodox Jews reside. Unless they weighted it to specific zip codes it is possible they may have seriously undercounted the Orthodox. Many Orthodox Jews live in LA County, but few are found in Glendale, Pasadena or Malibu. They tend to concentrate in great density in specific neighborhoods like Pico/Robertson, North Hollywood and Beverly/Fairfax. Unless the study added greater focus on these specific zip codes that have a large Orthodox density, then chances are Pew has grossly underestimated the number of Orthodox Jews.

The study ignores the fastest growing segment of the Jewish community, Chabad. There are 959 Chabad centers in the United States and Canada. The vast majority of Jews who attend these centers are not Orthodox observant. Few will self-identify as Orthodox. Coupled with that is the extensive network of adult education, camps and schools. Many Jews who are members of Reform and Conservative temples participate in these activities and support Chabad programs. While these Jews are not becoming fully observant they are allowing for Jewish tradition to have a stronger voice in their lives. Pew never even created any questions in its survey to analyze this significant trend. The failure to do so represents a tremendous ignorance about the facts on the ground in Jewish life.

If you take a deeper look at the numbers it becomes more interesting. There are 848 Reform congregations in the US. Pew claims there are over a million Reform Jews. That’s an average membership of 1,179 per congregation. There are a few reform temples with such a large membership, clearly the average is smaller. Raising the question if Pew over counted the Reform by using the methodology of self-identification.

Contrast that with the Orthodox. According to the 2002 Synagogue survey there were 1,200 non-Chabad Orthodox congregations in the US. This number must have risen by at least 10% or even 20% in the last ten years. Combine that with Chabad and the number reaches to just under 2500. Orthodox and Chabad centers are usually smaller than Reform Temples. If you cut the average affiliation rate by two thirds, and say 400 Jews affiliate with each Orthodox/Chabad synagogue then the number of traditional Jews in the US reaches about one million. Added to that are the members of Reform/Conservative congregations involved with Chabad and other Orthodox outreach groups making the number of those engaged with Orthodoxy even higher

Pew failed to uncover the real news. Orthodoxy is rising significantly. Today 20% of American Jews affiliate with Orthodoxy to some degree. Two different phenomena are contributing to this. The Orthodox observant continue to retain the loyalty of their children to tradition as reflected by the UJA New York Study. And more and more Jews who may not be fully observant are active in Chabad. This represents a revolutionary shift in American Jewish life towards tradition.

Pew used an old methodology to measure a more complex and diverse Jewish community in a post denominational era. They asked simplistic questions about Jewish belief and observance. They went searching for Russian Jews but ignored more significant trends towards orthodoxy. They used the derogatory term “ultra-Orthodox” to describe observant Jews (are there any “Ultra Reform?”). They produced a survey that has much valuable information, but failed to ask basic questions that would have revealed the most remarkable trend in the Jewish community, the growth of affiliation and involvement of more Jews with Jewish tradition.

The authors of the Pew survey have published a rebuttal to this post.

About the Author
Rabbi David Eliezrie is the president of the Rabbinical Council of Orange County California
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