Survey Highlights Risk of Modern Orthodox “Going Off the Derech” (Leaving Orthodoxy)

There has been growing concern in the Orthodox Jewish world in recent years about people leaving Orthodoxy – going “off the derech” (off the path) or, as it is sometimes labeled, “going OTD.” Our recent survey sheds light on this phenomenon (The 2017 Nishma Research Profile of American Modern Orthodox Jews, of which all findings are publicly available at the website).

The personal experiences recounted in memoirs (such as Shulem Deen’s All Who Go Do Not Return and Leah Vincent’s Cut Me Loose) and films (e.g., Netflix’s recent One of Us) suggest that this has been viewed largely as a Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) world phenomenon that affects individuals in those insulated sects. It is likely that the media and public curiosity have focused more on the stories of Hasidic people leaving their fold because their stories are so intriguing, as they often portray strangers in a strange land, with barely any secular education, limited ability to earn a living, often speaking little English, and with only the most minimal understanding of how the world outside their cloistered community works. Additionally, they are often shunned by and alienated from their community and family, and so they draw both curiosity and sympathy.

The OTD trend in the Modern Orthodox (MO) world has, unfortunately, been largely ignored, even though it is actually much easier for someone from the MO community to “check out” (since they are already well-embedded into secular society). It is easier for someone Modern Orthodox to leave the fold in terms of their beliefs and even many practices, because they can retain enough of their look and mannerisms to still live within the community and be largely accepted – albeit perhaps as a more liberal and less frum (observant) Jew.

Two questions I am often asked are: why do people leave the Orthodox world, and how many are leaving? Nishma’s 2016 study of 885 people who left Orthodoxy provided answers to the first question: why do people leave the Orthodox world? I am sometimes asked for a summary of the key findings, and I tell listeners that we found that, for every 10 reasons given that reflect people being pulled out (lured or attracted) by the outside world (secular knowledge, science, Internet, popular culture, etc.), 17 reasons are given that relate to people being pushed out (repelled, turned off) by things they see in their community (hypocritical behavior by leaders, abuse, being judged, etc.). Most respondents gave multiple reasons; there was no list of reasons that people could check off, but they were given as much space as they needed to tell their story, and we coded all of the reasons given.

The 230 formerly Modern Orthodox respondents gave the following reasons for going OTD.

Modern Orthodox respondents were split almost exactly 50/50 by gender, and while men and women gave numerous reasons for leaving their community (we tallied over 50 different reasons given), they varied significantly. The biggest difference was that women were more often turned off by their gender’s role and status (which did not bother men much), and men were more often turned off by unsatisfactory responses to their questions or an inability to resolve what they learned secularly with their religious teachings.

Let’s turn now to our second question, and again focus on the Modern Orthodox community: how many people are leaving the community … going OTD? And who (what group within Modern Orthodoxy) is at risk?

People might find it difficult to answer a survey question along the lines of: “how likely is it that you will no longer view yourself as Orthodox in five years? Ten years?” Questions worded in such a manner (asking about the likelihood of one’s taking an action that is viewed as less than acceptable) generally provide unreliable responses. Instead, we took a page from a type of survey question that is common in measuring satisfaction, by asking in our recent survey (The 2017 Nishma Research Profile of American Modern Orthodox Jews): “On a scale from 0 to 10 –– where 0 = do not agree and 10 = fully agree –– to what extent to you agree with the statement: Being an Orthodox / Observant Jew is an important part of my life?”

Among all Modern Orthodox Jews:

  • 73% assigned a rating of 9 or 10 (Orthodoxy is an extremely important part of their life).
  • 18% assigned a rating of 7 or 8 (Orthodoxy is a somewhat important part of their life).
  • 9% assigned a rating of 6 or less (Orthodoxy is not an important part of their life).

In customer satisfaction research, people responding to such questions are categorized as Promoters (a rating of 9-10, signifying strong advocacy for the entity being considered), Passives (a rating of 7-8, indicating no strong feelings either way), or Detractors (those rating 6 or less).

Now, this is not to say that someone who rates their Orthodoxy as between 0 and 6 in importance will eventually leave Orthodoxy, just as we cannot say that someone who rates their Orthodoxy as a 9 or 10 in importance will remain observant. Still, over the long term (and our 2016 study indicated that, for many people, the process of leaving their Orthodox community takes many years), it is reasonable to view the Detractors as the group at risk of going OTD. But there are also some additional wrinkles to keep in mind.

First, there is anecdotal evidence that OTD is higher among the young. I saw a Facebook post asking young Modern Orthodox millennials what percentage of their MO high school classmates are still observant, and the median response was 70%, indicating that 30% are no longer observant (not a scientific finding, but telling nonetheless). Additionally, we found the median age at which Modern Orthodox people go OTD to be 28. Since our survey excluded those under 18, the survey finding may be underreporting the level of detractors due to its exclusion of adolescents.

Second, there are definitional questions. What exactly is OTD? For example, are high schoolers who keep what is sometimes referred to as “half Shabbos” (e.g., texting in their rooms) OTD? How much does the determination that one is OTD depend on adherence to objective, normative behaviors? In our 2016 survey, it was self-definitional, i.e., they were OTD because they told us that they no longer viewed themselves as being members of their Orthodox community of origin. Such questions will be important as the broad Modern Orthodox community considers how to view those on its fringes (especially on the left) … and we’ll address this further.

Third, “leaving Orthodoxy” does not necessarily mean that one becomes obviously non-observant. We found that 26% of former Modern Orthodox who had gone OTD indicated that they were leading a “double life.” Outwardly they were still members of their community in terms of appearances and visible actions, but internally they no longer viewed themselves that way. We need to recognize that, in the Modern Orthodox community, going OTD often takes the shape (sometimes in the interim and sometimes permanently), of becoming a “double lifer” – appearing to be a member of the community, but not so much in beliefs and private behaviors.

Continuing with our assumption that it is the Detractors who are most at risk of going OTD, we find that:

  • 9% of the Modern Orthodox community are at risk of going OTD.
  • There is no significant difference between men and women.
  • There are only slight differences across age groups, with the exception of those ages 35-44, where 12% are at risk (perhaps a result of financial stress?)

The lack of any significant difference between men and women is noteworthy, as there has been some talk about women being turned off by their limited (compared to men) role in Orthodoxy. But our finding refutes the view that women are “checking out” any more than men. Verbatim responses in the survey indicate that there are differences between men and women in terms of the aspects of their Orthodox lives that cause them the most unhappiness (paralleling the finding in the 2016 survey), and we will be exploring this in the future. But, bottom line, neither gender is more nor less likely overall to leave Orthodoxy.

Where we do see significant differences in the risk of going OTD are across the “sub-denominational groups” within Modern Orthodoxy, as follows:

  • 18% – Open Orthodox
  • 17% – Liberal Modern Orthodox
  • 5% – Modern Orthodox
  • 3% – Centrist Orthodox
  • 2% – Right-Wing Centrist Orthodox

Finally, looking at the left wings (Open Orthodox and Liberal Modern Orthodox) by age, there are nominal differences, and it is perhaps surprising (but also encouraging) that younger respondents (13% of those ages 18-34) actually seem to have a somewhat lower risk of going OTD (compared to 18% of those ages 35 and older).

Our conclusions are that the OTD risk for Modern Orthodoxy overall is noteworthy (9%), and it is virtually identical for men and women. It is much higher (17%) among left-leaning individuals within Modern Orthodoxy, and much lower (4%) in the center and right of Modern Orthodoxy. Overall, there are only moderate differences across ages.

I would love to hear what readers think of this estimate. Does it jibe with your sense?

Ultimately, the question of whether people have “gone OTD” will not always be black and white. Interestingly, when we asked what gives the most satisfaction, joy or meaning to people’s lives as Orthodox / Observant Jews, the most-cited response was not in areas of beliefs or practices, but in the sense of community and belonging. Given the importance of the community, we should consider which is stronger: a broad community that is inclusive of those on its margins, or a smaller, tighter and more homogeneous community? How the Modern Orthodox community answers this question – both at the individual level (family members and friends) as well as its institutional policies – will ultimately determine its shape.

About the Author
Mark Trencher is president of Nishma Research, a sociological and market research firm focused on the Jewish world. He was the lead researcher on two recent ground-breaking quantitative studies, the 2016 study of people who have left Orthodoxy (the "OTD study") and the 2017 study of the Modern Orthodox community.
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