Where have all the minyans gone? 

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In these pieces, I’ve discussed the Non-Observant Orthodox of the 1950’s. The question which continues to nag at us is: If they’re not observant, why are they Orthodox? 

The answer: People identified their brand of Judaism based upon their synagogue membership, regardless of their personal religious behavior. 

So, why did non-observant people (like my parents) belong to Orthodox shuls? For a number of reasons, often they lived closest to an Orthodox facility, or there was a certain nostalgia for the Old Time Religion. In the case of my parents, it was a combination of reasons. We had friends in the Orthodox shul, and my father, who only went to shul on the High Holidays, felt uncomfortable in the local temple, because they had an organ. To my Dad OB”M, that was too much like a church. A study, in Kansas City, MO, from the early 60’s concluded: 

the choice of a particular branch of synagogue affiliation among American Jews today is rarely the product of a choice made on the basis of conscious analysis of theological or ideological philosophies. The decision is likely to be more closely related to such factors as geography, socio-economic positions and aspirations, distance from the immigrant generations, general impressions of the relative demands made by a particular branch of Judaism, relationships to parents and childhood experience, their own estimates of their own degree of commitment to what they assume Judaism to be, and many others  

Now we can deal with the great paradox. As Orthodoxy became more robust in the 60’s, the number of people who aligned themselves with the Orthodox Movement, went down. 

As we’ve demonstrated in many ways, Orthodoxy was much stronger in 1970 than it had been in 1960. There were more students in Orthodox Day Schools, the number of Kosher establishments mushroomed, Mikva attendance rose dramatically, kipot became noticeable in major cities, lulav sales were up, shmurah matza became widely available. The list goes on and on. 

But the actual number of Jews claiming to be Orthodox was declining. According to the National Jewish Population Survey of 1970, there were 600,000 Orthodox Jews in America. In 1964, Charles Liebman gave a figure of 204,640 men who were members of 1603 known Orthodox synagogues in America. If we use the 4.5 souls per household used by the Conservative Movement as a population guide, that means that there were about 920,000 Orthodox Jews in America in 1964.  I would argue that Prof. Liebman’s number might be low, because a lot of Orthodox shuls and minyanim were more like shtieblach and would not show up in any survey, plus there are many people who don’t pay dues and become official members. In any case, that’s a drastic decrease in half a decade. 

I think that the precipitous plunge in Orthodox population figures followed a similar fall in Orthodox synagogue numbers.  

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Let me begin with anecdotal evidence. In my hometown of Malden, MA, in the 1950’s there were six Jewish houses of worship, 5 Orthodox and one Reform. By 1970, there were 2 Orthodox remaining. There was a similar picture in other Boston suburbs, like Chelsea, Lynn and the inner city of Boston itself. 

Victor Geller, who was in the employ of YU’s Community Service Division, and worked tirelessly in the 50’s to open Orthodox synagogues in America’s suburbs, kept track of the synagogues of all stripes in New York City. He found that in 1950 there were 2,100 Jewish houses of worship. By 1975, there were 761 and by 1980 there were only 601. 

How did he arrive at these numbers? He checked the phone numbers. Remember phone books? He also believes that his 1975 figure is generous, because ‘it included synagogues which still had phones, but where I personally knew there was no one to answer.’  

I’m sure that the same story was being written all over America. Jews moved from inner cities to suburbs and abandoned more synagogues than they rebuilt. These less than fully Orthodox Jews often didn’t search for the new Jewish neighborhood with an Orthodox shul.

This contraction of the number of shuls, therefore, meant fewer Orthodox Jews for these population surveys. I believe that this was also the beginning of the ‘non-affiliateds’, who now are the largest Jewish grouping in America.

A famous example of this phenomenon is the alphabet shul of West Orange, NJ, Congregation Ahavas Achim B’nei Jacob & David, or AABJD. The shul was founded in 1961 as B’nai David, but in the late 60’s was joined by Ahavas Achim and B’nei David as part of the exodus from Newark. But it didn’t end there. In 1970, Tiffereth Zion joined, and four years later Toras Emes. There was also an addition, Emunath Israel, from East Orange. Later the remnant of Kehillath Israel of Newark also officially merged into the family. So, out of at least 7 shuls we now have one. I say ‘at least’ because there were other interim mergers along the way. 

Friends of mine described a similar situation in Providence, RI. In the 50’s there were by their count there were a dozen active shuls. My wife’s uncle was rabbi in one that merged with another. Now there are two active shuls within the city limits of Providence.

That’s the great paradox: American Orthodoxy got stronger in observance and influence, while shrinking in number of adherents throughout the late 60’s and 70’s. The trend of shrinking numbers only began to reverse in the 1990’s, but that’s after the time frame of my focus. 

Next: The Rebbe on Campaign 

About the Author
Born in Malden, MA, 1950. Graduate of YU, taught for Rabbi Riskin in Riverdale, NY, and then for 18 years in Efrat with R. Riskin and R. Brovender at Yeshivat Hamivtar. Spent 16 years as Educational Director, Cong. Agudath Sholom, Stamford, CT. Now teach at OU Center and Yeshivat Orayta.
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