Social Orthodoxy or Sweatpants Orthodoxy? Inclusion and Deviance on a College Campus

Modern Orthodox communities function as a web of useful social support and a satisfying sense of social belonging. But what are the boundaries of the community and how does it handles deviance?

An important contribution to the discussion is the recent Sociology BA thesis (May 2014) done at Brandeis University by Philip Gallagher entitles “When the Schmaltz Hits the Fan: How Modern Orthodox Jewish college students  include a fringe population and negotiate a paradox of community.”


Academic sociology is not the same as the popular use of the word sociology for a collection of anecdotes held together by association and worldview. Gallagher, in contrast, as an academic sociologist in training started with a clear social theory of Durkheim that social groups become weakened and lose their function when there are many who do not play by the rules. According to French sociologist Emile Durkheim, the social group would have a functional need to exclude deviants and would use the dividing line for its own self-definition. The deviant act then, creates a sense of mutuality among the people of a community by supplying a focus for group feeling and draws attention to those values which constitute the “collective conscience” of the community.

One see the Durkheim approach on social media, but Gallagher shows that Durkheim’s approach to deviance is not the reality among college students. In fact, one can be a deviant and play a large social role.

Gallagher as an outsider to MO(Modern Orthodoxy), noticed that many members of the group freely eat out or did not keep many rituals. In the thesis he explores the question: how can one be non-observant and still part of the MO community and how can the group maintain its cohesion. The answer that he found was that the community adheres by social cohesion and not ritual cohesion. MO practice is as pliable as sweatpants allowing for greater and lesser observance.  

In the thesis, Gallagher notes that the MO “are rather insular. They are apart and communal, living together, eating together, learning together, and praying together. Someone who is not in the community and has superficial knowledge of its activities might view it as foreign.” The thesis was born “one conversation on a Sunday evening when a friend of  mine, who was well-integrated in the campus Orthodox community but less observant, decided to order sushi from a non-Kosher restaurant for delivery to campus… From there, I began to wonder how Orthodox Jews choose to follow or ignore Jewish law  and how those decisions impacted their religious community?

For the sociology background, in the 1960’s and 1970’s college used to lead to a loss of religious belonging especially since for most they were first generation students. In contrast in the 21st century, sociologists find that the university can help students develop a stronger religious practice. “Recent research has shown that a college education does not impact students’ underlying religious values but rather their religious practice and ritual. A study by Uecker, Regnerus, and Vaaler found that college education on the whole did not negatively impact students’ religious  values. Specifically, the authors wrote that “young adults are vastly more likely to curb their attendance at religious services than to alter how important they say religion is in their life,” and it is primarily those “respondents who did not go to college who exhibit the highest rates of diminished religiosity.” 

The students interviewed in this study live in MO enclaves, attended the famous day schools of Manhattan, Riverdale and Brookline, went to summer camp and gap year. Not surprisingly, “many of the students interviewed expressed similar patterns of religiosity within their household. The family identified as Orthodox but may not stringently observe the laws of Kashrut and  Shabbos, as Orthodox families are largely expected to do. This type of behavior sets a more  individualized and lenient standard for religious practice among children of the households, one with which they may be most comfortable.” There has been much less of a shift to the right that its proponents and critics think.

 “The families, who may not have stringently observed Jewish law, worked to create an image to the larger community of strict religious observance.  Activities inside the home that violate the Sabbath, such as turning on lights or watching television, are accepted because they were out of the public eye. Driving, an activity that takes place outside the home and can be seen by neighbors, is avoided. Such regular behavior inside a family can create a standard of religious observance along the lines of “it’s okay to break laws if no one  sees.” I see similar observance patterns here among their parents in NJ.

The gap year is not necessarily a game changer, he found that “gap years experiences could be categorized into three main groups among my respondents: they became more religious in practice, they became more involved in Jewish learning, or they were unaffected by the experience.” He makes a valuable distinction between Jewish learning and ritual observance; they are two different groups.

Gallagher notes how the MO affinities grow from enclave to its first expansion and shuffling of networks during the Gap Year and a second shuffling at college. Students arrive with this vast and comfortable network. “Even if an Orthodox student… decides that he or she wants to distance himself from religion, he or she will still find himself within the Orthodox social network. It is a very easy network to connect with upon  first arriving on campus, and many students may include themselves in the Orthodox social network in the first semesters of college simply because it is culturally familiar or because they have friends who are a part of it.” Students speak with older MO peers before choosing to attend a specific college so even upon arrival they are already connected.

Gallagher labels one group on campus as  “liberal Orthodox Jews” who consider themselves to be fully observant but may hold more progressive ideologies or interpretations of halacha.” Another group he identifies  as “traditional Orthodox Jews” are fastidious in their  practice and consider themselves to be fully observant. And a third group as “Fringe MO” who do not attend or work within the community but are still included.

His thesis showed that within the MO community on campus “the social hierarchy is largely divorced from religious observance. In other words, it is  possible to be popular within the Orthodox campus community without being religious. It is possible to be popular and command social influence within the community without necessarily being stringent in  religious practice. This divorce between social hierarchy and religious observance is evidenced by the  election of less-religious students to the Board of the MO Organization. This is similar to the broader MO world in which board members of schools and synagogues or those that set community agenda are not correlated with observance.

From my findings in this college community, I found that being “Orthodox” largely consisted of growing up in an Orthodox community, participating in the Orthodox social network, and continuing to affiliate with the Orthodox denomination and ideology. Orthodox practice was, interestingly, not a prime concern. Thus, identification with Orthodox ideology and engagement in Orthodox practice were divorced concepts.

The title of “Fringe” “is privately given to students who may not follow communal norms of religious observance but are still included within the community. The title functions as a mechanism to include those students by labeling them as part” of MO  but also identify them as different and “on the fringe” of the community.”  The term fringe “allows the community to include students who, through religious dissociation, may not be inclined to include themselves either religious (prayer services, for instance) or social (group events organized by the organization).”

“The less-observant students mentioned don’t qualify as “religious individualists.” Robert Bellah et al. write that criticism of both religious belief and religious institutions are very common among religious individualists.” The fringe MO  “merely did not practice all of the rituals or follow Jewish law with the same rigor as their more stringent peers. A more proper name for them might be “religious disconnects.” However there is no outright hostility between the two camps in the community

“By tolerating the religious practices of less-observant Orthodox students and creating a space for them,” the MO community “sets for itself  broader standards of acceptable religious practice. The entire mechanism helps keep students in the community who may be tempted to move away from Orthodox Judaism during their college years.” There is an ideal of “refraining from judging their peers.” and striving to reach that tolerant ideal.

In the process of avoiding external judgments of peers breaking Jewish law, the students interviewed very frequently, instead, legitimized religiously-illicit behavior with language of  being in “different places.”

Such language allows  students to take a step back from their own practice to contextualize their own practice within the diversity that exists in their community. However, it also indicates an attitude of tolerance, as oppose to acceptance. The idea of being in “different places” harks back to a “live and let live”  philosophy; Orthodox students attempt to withhold individual judgment on their peers and simply coexist in peace without engaging with the fact that people observe the religion in different ways…Being tolerant of that diversity is, therefore, being presented as a virtue, while openly expressing disapproval of that diversity is frowned upon.


Deviations, therefore, are seen as struggles along the way to meeting that standard  instead of meeting a completely different, lower standard. Once it is believed that everyone is  striving for that same religious standard, it is easier to include everyone in the community  regardless of the stringency of their current religious practice. In reality, everyone is not striving for that same religious standard.

Returning to the discussion of the fringe group, to be a part of it an individual must be connected to the MO social network and be well-acquainted with members of the community.” This allows those who are not keeping kosher and Shabbat and not attending services or events to be included in the MO community. This label allows the MO to manage the different approaches to life through inclusion at a distance. Interestingly, Gallagher notes that students may also be Fringe by being “religiously stringent but socially disconnected.”

By designating those students as “fringe,” it recognizes their choice to lessen their engagement with the BOO community and also serves to identify them as not following certain social or religious communal norms… I want to note that students who begin to drift from traditional practice are not simultaneously drifting from ideology. The vast majority of students who admitted to violating certain components of halacha still identified with Orthodox Jewish ideology.

Fringe members still subscribe to the belief system of MO Judaism and the observance of Orthodox ritual in theory. In contrast, if one is observant of kashrut and Shabbat but adopting a different, more liberal Jewish ideology then one is out of the community, but if one does not keep kosher one could still be an active member of the MO community. The Orthodox divide from Conservative and other liberal movements is wide even for the fringe, lenient, and liberal.  The Conservative rabbi on campus is barely accepted as a source of knowledge let alone authority.

One of his interviewees said “when I grow up, I want to be shomer Shabbat and shomer Kashrut.” But he notes “when does that start?”

His conclusion:

 I find myself thinking of this as “sweatpants Orthodoxy,” in that Jewish practice is like wearing a pair of pants. Modern Orthodox Judaism is a snug pair of jeans: comfortable but without much room for gaining or loosing weight. The type of pants in an Orthodox campus community, however, may be more like sweatpants. As one becomes “out-of-shape” with their ritual practice, the sweatpants expand and continue to fit. Upon graduation, the student can get back in-shape and the sweatpants contract following their increasing level of observance. Thus, having broader standards may allow for experimentation and individuation during college years and permit students, through the sweatpants model, to resume practice later on.

He discusses a group of students connected socially to the MO community that have been hosting parties with music and dancing… each Friday night. One of his interviewees acknowledged that her friends still often attend these parties, they do affirm their discomfort together with the setting and recognize that it does not align well with their values of religious observance. Gallagher notes that his interviewees have a tension but they definitively have not resolved the tension. “The pressure to move away from strict observance of Jewish law does not necessarily come from outside the Orthodox community but often from inside by other Orthodox students who are still part of the community despite being minimally observant.” Respondents also expressed a desire to avoid causing embarrassment for or appearing to cast judgment on the hosts of the party. The social pressures and social criteria for inclusion win out over the religious pressures.

In detail, the observant students are motivated to prioritize their social relationships over strict religious observance despite their discomfort with it. The paradox of community exists here between the students observing Shabbat to their standards but desiring to spend time with friends in a less-observant environment. Party attendees prioritize the social-end of the paradox, which helps legitimize the less-religious environment and include the Fringe hosts within the Orthodox community.

What of the campus rabbis? Students prefer those they are close with. “Many respondents expressed appreciation for the work of the JLIC couple and others on-campus but made clear a partiality for their home rabbi, a rabbi from their gap year in Israel, or a parent.”  One student explained “that he merely wants to practice Orthodoxy the same way his family does, and his mother is a reliable source of advice for practicing to that standard.”  The student explained: “She’s well-versed in how I want to be when I’m older. Like, I don’t want some crazy observant response. I just want what we do,”

 In addition, most Fringe MO students “whose engagement with the community is largely social” do not relate to the JLI emphasis on ritual and religion. Those who are not as engaged with traditional religious practice and learning but part of the Mo community would be better with different programming.

As a sociologist, he notes surveys of the Jewish community only look at  five key  Jewish rituals, attending a Passover seder, lighting Hanukkah candles, fasting on Yom Kippur, lighting Shabbat candles, and keeping a Kosher home. Each ritual had a compliance rate among Orthodox Jewish respondents of at least 95%, with the exception of lighting Shabbat candles, which only had 91%.  However to gather data on MO one needs to ask about kosher out of the home, how they keep Shabbat, or saying daily prayers and blessings.

Gallagher’s concludes: “Orthodoxy is evolving at a very fast pace, especially with the development of Open Orthodoxy, a new movement within Orthodoxy committed to ideological flexibility and partnership minyans, in which women can read from the Torah and lead certain sections of the prayer service.”  The diversity of religious practice within MO will almost certainly grow and the meaning of Fringe  in the community will change. “Inclusion will be of paramount importance…”

My tentative points taken from this:

*There is no need to even mention God, religious experience, devotion, or spirituality; the operative factors are community values, commitment, and belonging.

*Much of this inclusion of social Orthodoxy also goes on in the major synagogues and institutions and their boards.

*Historians and sociologists need to speak to laity more and not just interview Rabbis.

* Much of the changes to Modern Orthodoxy are driven by the laity who is way more deviant than even the most liberal YCT rabbi who is still in the system. The Open Orthodoxy trend is sweeping laity without necessary having any rabbinic approval. It is similar to the Conservative movement laity and Modern Orthodox laity of 1955 that was way more lenient than anything that could have been at the time Rabbinic sanctioned.

* Practice is not necessarily decided by a posek, rather by a person they are personally close to or use as a role model. 

* There has been much less of a shift to the right that its proponents and critics think. Late 40’s and 50’s parents produced children similar to themselves in religiosity.

* There are three groups: those that define themselves though study, those that define themselves by ritual observance and those that are entirely social. While an ideal assumes that study and scrupulousness go together, it may not be reality.  Now, we have those that want a daily halacha or ten minutes of halacha as a shiur, and those who want a challenging text. Pulpit rabbis, however, may have to, or may already be, catering to those who have entirely pop culture and social interests.

* There are many more families than we acknowledge that may not be observing Jewish law, yet they work to create an image to the larger community of strict religious observance.  They do activities inside the home that violate the Sabbath, such as turning on lights or watching television, which are accepted because they were out of the public eye. Driving is not socially OK.

* This tolerance toward deviance and very broad tent inclusion is the opposite of what we see on much of the social media. (I will return to this in another post.)

* Unlike the Baby Boomer’s who wanted to be individuals, unique, hippies, disestablishmentarians who lived in the moment. Here there are no Kotzkers or Kierkeguardians.

* The line between Modern Orthodoxy and members of the Conservative movement is hard and one of the few things that actually are deviant.

* The historian Prof. Adam Ferziger described in his research how 19th century Orthodoxy was open as an enclave but maintained a hierarchical culture in which some were seen as keeping the tradition better than others. Hence only the top of the hierarchy could have public roles. Here we see a breakdown of the hierarchy in which we accept everyone as “being in a different place.”

Any thoughts? Those who work on Campus, does it ring true? 

12 responses to “Social Orthodoxy or Sweatpants Orthodoxy? Inclusion and Deviance on a College Campus

  1. How different are these findings from your average Modern Orthodox community ? It does not seem so different from my community .

  2. The idea that the most important thing for being MO is having been raised MO (regardless of current practice) resonates with me based on much of the under-40 y.o. shul scene where I currently live (uws).
    What happens to baalei teshuvah in this context? Would someone observant who doesn’t know the culture be more or less mainstream than someone raised MO but lax?
    Does the author define how he uses “orthodox ideology” here? if one is nonobservant but keeps to “ortodox ideology” does that mean one sees onesself as a sinner? or is the ideology looser than that? torah misinai? pro-israel?

    • Someone on FB commented that the BT would have more difficulties than someone raised in the culture.
      He gave a variety of answers for how one who is lax self -reflects –as having to work things out, as being in transition, as being in a different place, as valuing social integration over ritual, as the ritual not speaking to them, and also as a not very observant. But it is sin without significant guilt or boundary crossing. I think the ideology is a vague “I believe what Orthodox Jews value” even if their personal beliefs are elsewhere.

  3. This is really fascinating and results do resonate with my intuition but I find the study to be deeply flawed
    1. All Brandeis students, so a very self selective group
    2. Sample size of 20

    Not sure what inference one can draw from that

  4. Social acceptance in American Modern Orthodoxy, to my eyes, is dependent more on appearance and cultural identity than on behavior. Anyone who injects himself into a Modern Orthodox environment; actively participates while they’re within that social context; and speaks no ill of Orthodoxy outside the Orthodox social context, is welcome as long as s/he looks the part. Caucasians face little barrier – modest dress isn’t expected, and males don’t need a headcovering as long as they want to be involved. Darker-skinned males, however, more often need to wear a yarmulke in order to gain acceptance.

    • Kenneth Perkins

      Is there any literature about the acceptance of “Darker-skinned” Jews within different denominations of Judaism (or streams of Orthodoxy)?

      Similar to my question below, is there any literature about the experiences of others who might encounter MO communities from outside the mainstream (e.g., converts and/or Jews of color)?

  5. The real question is whether the answers would be the same or similar of students on other campusesn that offer equally strong resources for MO students. I think that what this study, however limited it is, may show , is that a MO that stresses modernity at the expense of Orthodoxy cannot be viewed as a strong bulwark against the cultural and intellectual attitudes of the average American colleg campus.

  6. Yedidya Sinclair

    I served as campus rabbi at a well-known British university a decade or so ago. I certainly recognize this phenomenon. Back when I was on campus it troubled me considerably and I spent significant time engaging with the “fringe MO” students, many of whom had been to the best Israeli yeshivot and sems in their gap years but dropped away from observance in college. Today I note that a couple of these students have become rabbis, a couple more are successful Jewish studies academics living observant lives, another is well-known Jewish educator in the UK, a handful more made aliyah and nearly all of the rest are married to Jews and involved in the Jewish community. I recognize that the social tolerance of the campus MO community enabled them to stay affiliated while doing whatever experimentation and questioning of their upbringing and education they felt they needed to do at college.

  7. Menachem Schrader

    Dear Yedidya, Looks like you have the last word in more ways than one. Menachem Schrader

  8. Rabbi Sinclair wrote in relevant part:
    “Today I note that a couple of these students have become rabbis, a couple more are successful Jewish studies academics living observant lives, another is well-known Jewish educator in the UK, a handful more made aliyah and nearly all of the rest are married to Jews and involved in the Jewish community.”

    Aside from the couple of students who became rabbis and Jewish studies academics, who “live observant lives”, how many remained Shomer Shabbos , lor could be described for lack of a better purpose as fully Shomrei Torah UMitzvos, and identified with the Orthodox world?

  9. lawrence kaplan

    Steve Brizel: How is it that when it comes to MO you always manage to see the glass half-empty? You also did not quote Rabbi Sinclair accurately.

  10. Menachem Schrader

    At Cambridge University where Rabbi Sinclair was rabbi, it must be understood that the numbers of Orthodox students are relatively small on American standards, and it sounds like the students he is referring to are the bulk. Of course, I would happy to be corrected or contradicted by Rabbi Sinclair himself. Menachem Schrader

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