Ignoring the Elephant in the Room


By Rabbi David Eliezrie

Yet another Demographic Survey has stuck out, ignoring the fastest growing Jewish movement in the US and the largest in the world, Chabad.

The recently issued Greater Seattle Jewish Community Survey fell back on the antiquated methodology of denominational self-identification in a post denominational era. According to the recent Pew Study, just 11% of American Jews are actual members of Conservative Congregations and just 14% Reform, orthodox number 10%. The numbers of those who self-identify, but not actually join the non-orthodox movements is higher.

Clearly today Jews affiliate differently than in the past. The old approach of asking a Jew who he identifies with, might have been a good idea decades ago, and may be important today to analyze trends over the long term. This methodology does not properly represent the dynamics of an ever changing Jewish community. Decades ago Jews who were not fully observant, yet attended orthodox synagogues, tended to self-identify as orthodox. Today, only Jews who are Shabbat observant self-identify as orthodox. But Pew had a major blunder, it failed to ask about Chabad, nor did it develop queries to explore the new American Jewish trend. Most Jews active in Chabad Centers are not fully observant, those Jews will not self identify as Orthodox, or for that matter Chabad. The only way to uncover the level of Chabad involvement, is by asking them if they are active, or support Chabad.

Miami’s Jewish Federations recent demographic survey took a different tack, and they got it right. It did not just ask about self-identification. They asked specific questions about Chabad involvement. The numbers were startling, 27% of Miami Jews are active in Chabad. In the age cohort of under 35, the number skyrockets to 47% of Jews active in Chabad. The Miami survey revealed other intriguing facts. Only 20% of those active in Chabad self-identified as Orthodox, 33% said they were Conservative, 18% Reform, and the balance just Jewish. Clearly Jews who do not practice a fully traditional lifestyle are choosing to be active in Chabad. This fact represents a major reorientation of American Jewry towards tradition. It points to the remarkable success of Chabad’s network of schools, camps, campus centers, and programs for young adults in engaging the next generation.

The Seattle survey asked questions about the tiny Jewish renewal movement, and the Reconstructionist movement, that hovers between one and two percent of American Jewry. Today in the US there are more Chabad Centers than either Reform or Conservative congregations. There are over 900 Chabad Centers, 595 Conservative and just over 800 Reform temples. True the Chabad Centers usually serve a smaller demographic than the liberal congregations, but they are growing. While these movements are closing and consolidating, Chabad is rapidly opening new locations and building new facilities.

Chabad has network of centers in Seattle, plus a variety of youth programs, campus programs, and educational activities. Clearly many Jews in Seattle choose Chabad as an important point of connection to their Heritage. Still the survey did not create any questions to measure this growing trend. This was the same mistake of the recent Pew Study. They too failed to create a line of inquiry about Chabad involvement prompting a major controversy surrounding the study. Presently other demographic studies are underway in Jewish communities in the US. It would be wise for them to follow the Miami model and create a similar line of questioning.

Jewish life in the US is undergoing a major shift. The historic lines of Reform, Conservative and Orthodox are becoming more blurred. As the Miami survey shows, many Jews, in particular younger ones, are selecting a different path of engagement than their parents and grandparents. Some are choosing to dabble in multiple elements of Jewish life, attending one type of synagogue, sending their kids to another type of school, and choosing to support yet another group. The Miami survey has uncovered a major trend, that till now, was only known anecdotally. Significant numbers of Jews who are not orthodox observant are active in Chabad. This fact may indicate a new shift in American Jewry, more reflective to the way Jews affiliate in Europe and Israel. In these countries, Jews may not be fully observant, but they choose orthodoxy, and Chabad in particular, as their avenue of Jewish interaction. Close to fifty percent of young Jews in Miami are active in Chabad. Measuring Chabad involvement is crucial for Federations. One of the intriguing facts unveiled in the Miami survey is that over 30% of those active in Chabad also support the local Federation. Showing that greater bonds between Federation and Chabad could enrich the community.

Rabbi David Eliezrie is a Chabad Shliach in Yorba Linda California. His email is rabbi@ocjewish.com