On Dec. 4th, Jewish Ideas Daily ran an article with the thesis that there has been a turning of the tide in which “Torah Judaism today retains more of its youth than at any time since the Haskalah.” In principle, that is true, it is a good thing, and it made the headlines in 1990. However, the article got me seriously upset. The article stressed that we, the younger generation, are now self-conscious of being more committed than our parents. But who are the members of the younger generation in today’s society? When one is already a grandmother, then one needs to write from the perspective of the parent, not as the child. Having taught the author’s children and knowing their classmates, writing about the baby-boomers as today’s children rang hollow, sanctimonious, and hiding one’s head in the sand. Many of the Millenials are now self-conscious of being less committed than their parents. I cranked out the letter below in an hour the evening of the article. JID declined to run an edited response, so here it is.
The letter is a summary of my post-orthodoxy thinking on this blog from three years ago. The observation rings true more today when even pulpit rabbis have acknowledged the problem, kiruv workers acknowledge their decline in numbers, youth organizations are acknowledging that they are not connecting and the daily scandals in the community are driving people from Orthodoxy.
The solutions will not come from assigning blame. The question: is what does the younger leadership need to do to change things?
The letter is only referring to the United States and to those raised in the modern Orthodox world. It is not referring to Israel and it is not referring to the attrition rate among Yeshivish and Haredi.
Dear Diana (if I may),
It has been almost twenty years since we last met, when I was your sons’ Jewish studies day school teacher. Since then, I have kept up with many of their classmates, both in person and online and I have come to cherish these relationships because they are with many of the best and the brightest that the community has produced. Because of this long standing relationship, many of my former students have kept me abreast of their treif banquets, of their non-Jewish significant others, of their finding that their creative work is more interesting than keeping the Sabbath, and of their publishing parties held on Jewish holidays. Many of them are self-conscious that they are less committed than their parents; this is not a rare occurrence but it is, however, part of a widespread trend that I had labeled on my blog three years ago as “post-Orthodoxy.” I have been meaning to write about this phenomenon in a public venue for some time but I have never gotten around to actually doing it. However, your post today struck a chord worthy of response based on its blindness to the classmates of your own children.
Diana, you are correct that people started returning to religion in the late 1970’s, creating a triumphalist bubble shared by the Christian Religious Right and Orthodox Jews, but historians are now busy documenting a religious recession. Those who reached college as the millennium approached found themselves less committed than those before them. There is a post-Orthodox moment similar to the post-Evangelical moment in that younger Centrist Jews are leaving the community.
In terms of their public writings, they state that they are leaving because they find the religious community anti-intellectualism, narrow or excessively partisan political views, lack of theological depth or even any credible apologetics, almost no engagement in art, media, and society, slavery to materialism and consumerism, provincialism, insensitivity toward women and homosexuals, and the moral failure of prominent leaders.
The members of Generation Y, the Millennials, are the most liberal generation alive and their immediate seniors, those from Generation X, are the most conservative. More importantly, since the 1730s, every thirty to thirty-five years, American culture has dramatically shifted from liberal to conservative and back again. Paradoxically, the deep acculturation of American Orthodoxy into the American religious landscape has allowed the restoration of its plausibility structure for the baby boomers.
The Great Return to religion is winding down. For example, many of those who were raised as Evangelical in the recent Great Awakening of Religion are not returning to the Evangelical Faith of their parents. Statistics of those leaving Evangelicals vary in the press from 25%-75%. Those who were raised in an intense Evangelical faith don’t naturally blend back into the more mainline, liberal Churches. They are specifically former-Evangelicals who have adapted liberal position. Jewish Orthodoxy is also witnessing similar phenomena. We also have a large number of people who are former Orthodox, who do not believe in what they were taught and are adopting more liberal positions. This doesn’t mean, however, that they are comfortable with liberal Judaism.
Consider the education that your children received at one of the most open and intellectual day schools. They were presented with the educational lessons of the validity of all cultures and the necessity for a pluralistic world-view. Yet, they found that view clashes with an increasingly parochial Modern Orthodoxy. They were taught to value intellectualism, yet they observe that the community triumphs sentimentality and emotionalism. They attended a school with one of the highest acceptance rates to the Ivys of any prep-school in the nation, and then had to integrate in a community fearful of any knowledge beyond mid-brow.
It is hard to get statistics of a live phenomenon with no external signs. We know that after the 1960s and 1970s, there were 45 % less Orthodox Jews. Even now, it is hard to tell when someone is out of the community–some declare they are out at 22, others at 32, and others at 42. We will look back in 2025 and not only see the losses but also how many of those who leave orthodoxy join mainline forms of liberal Judaism and how many create some new limbo approach. Think of it in the same way as the decline of the Northeast Conservative congregations was only shown in 2000, even though one sensed it already in 1985. One local rabbi known for freely speaking his mind regardless of reality claimed that in 2010, the attrition rate was only 15% and then, in 2012 spuriously intimated that it was 50%. Every local rabbi has addressed from the pulpit this changing reality as of vital concern. But we will only know the numbers in hindsight.
As a side point, I must address those ideologues who observe the phenomena and think that these younger graduates are a new liberal part of Orthodoxy. Rather, many of them are simply eroding; some of them eat swine on Shabbos, others intermarry, some preserved their mizvot in a renewal setting. Many have just given up and do not care. They are those that are open about their lack of observance and there are many others who like Torah and observance but do not like the community’s provincialism.
Some have given up religion entirely and want to be left alone from it all. Others are sowing wild oats while some have become renewal or liberal. There are groups who practice egalitarian halakhic and some are just feeling boxed in. And yet, despite the various approaches, others still choose to return to more of a 1950’s Orthodox approach. Much of this is non-ideological, having more to do with carving out a space different than their parents. Much of it can be attributed to new careers, taking up new places of residence, staying single longer, texting or bicycling on Shabbat, or discovering the wider world.
For some, it is just a matter of being tone deaf to religion. I know one family where the eldest son is a rabbi and the younger sons are committed science minded engineers. Their observance level and affiliation will be more subject to where their careers take them than any ideology. Personally, I have attended weddings of several children from the same family in which older siblings had a mechitza on the dance floor and then attended their younger siblings’ weddings in which there was mixed dancing.
For those who stay observant, there is even a new sociological term, “deconversion,” for those who sense this loss of their childhood faith or for those who find their religious lives wanting. This group has hope for a solution, for a new plausibility structure, or at least a new community. If I wanted, I could collect the Facebook answers to “Religious Views” to show that something is amiss. I now of plenty of examples of those who were raised Orthodox who now define themselves in all sorts of convoluted ways such as: “Observant,” “post-modern orthodox”, “It’s complicated”, “halakhic freethinker”, “alternafrum” “at home in the halakhic discourse”, “there is no place devoid of Him eyn od milvao” “of orthodox culture” and even there has been the return of “Conservadox.” Many of those raised Orthodox who are still observant are not comfortable with the label.
To return to the classmates of your children, as they are self-conscious of their de-conversion, One of them wrote me that she perceived that she and her peers to be living in an era of new globalization and that their generation would “clash with traditional institutions in a way that was more vibrant and also destructive.” She saw the placid suburban community of the day-school and home as restrictive and an unsafe place of abuse. “There were few people who saw that a transition period was coming up for Modern Orthodoxy and with that a big identity crisis for all of us. I guess that our generation happened to come into adulthood just as these old definitions were dying out, or at least I would hope so.” Diana, The pain in this letter contrasts with the safety you felt in Orthodoxy.
I personally do not have solutions; I am more of a Facebook friend.
Yes, “Torah Judaism today retains more of its youth than at any time since the Haskalah.” American Orthodoxy is no longer the province of immigrants and the elderly. The State of Israel played a role as did the rebuilding of a Torah Jewry after the War combined with the post-1967 turn to Jewish pride. But now, it is the more prosaic ups and downs of religious recession and revival, generational conflicts, plausibility structures broken and repaired. For Baby Boomers, “in America after 1966, Jewish tradition has felt like something worth their commitment.” But for those who came of age at the millennium there are still many reasons to drift away.
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