Orthodox “Retention” and Kiruv: The Bad News and the Good News

A mere 22 percent of Jews 65 and older who were raised Orthodox are still Orthodox, while 57 percent of people aged 30-49 who were raised Orthodox are still Orthodox – and the percentage rises as the group gets younger.

[This essay is from “Philanthropic Priorities in Light of Pew,” reprinted with permission from Contact, a publication of The Steinhardt Foundation for Jewish Life.]

By Jerome A. Chanes

We are swimming – indeed drowning – in the ink spilled on the data from the Pew Research Center’s 2013 study of American Jewry. Early reactions from the religious movements have been, predictably, along the lines of the Talmudic “Kol ha-doresh, doresh l’atzmo” – “The one who analyzes, analyzes in his own interest.” There have been a number of analyses of the data, but to date we have seen mostly reflexive, defensive responses from the movements. Thus, to paraphrase Chabad: “We were undercounted!” The Conservative (in effect): “We are interested in quality, not quantity.” And the Orthodox, triumphantly responding with no small measure of schadenfreude to the Conservative decline: “We told you so!”

But Orthodox reaction is a tad puzzling, especially in light of the “retention” numbers: how many people have chosen to remain Orthodox – and how many have not?

First, there is the basic question, sadly not addressed by Pew: What is “Orthodox”? There are at least six Orthodox groups: the Modern Orthodox, which is beleaguered by religious and social forces from the right; the Centrist Orthodox, occupying most of the middle ground, increasingly conservative in its politics and its religion; the Hasidic communities; the sectarian world of the non-Hasidic yeshivas (“yeshivish,” in contemporary parlance); Chabad, a discrete group, not part of the Hasidic community; and Satmar, a sectarian group, also not Hasidic (contrary to conventional wisdom), with its own distinct character.

On retention rates for the Orthodox, there’s bad news and good news. The bad news is that among those who were raised as Orthodox, only 48 percent are currently Orthodox; the rest are now affiliated with less traditional movements. (The retention numbers for the Conservative are bleaker: only 36 percent of those who were raised Conservative are currently Conservative.)

The good news: among Orthodox Jews under 30, the retention rate is 83 percent. Noteworthy is that Orthodox retention rates are vastly lower among older people who were brought up Orthodox than they are among younger people. A mere 22 percent of Jews 65 and older who were raised Orthodox are still Orthodox, while 57 percent of people aged 30-49 who were raised Orthodox are still Orthodox – and the percentage rises as the group gets younger.

This relatively high percentage – 83 percent – among younger Orthodox, as compared with the overall 48 percent Orthodox retention rate, is more reflective of history than of sociology. Analysts suggest that the fact that the Orthodox Movement retains fewer than half its adherents reflects trends of yesteryear, and that Orthodox retention will become healthier as today’s younger members – who according to Pew are remaining Orthodox – grow older. What is the explanation for this phenomenon? My sense is that the varied options for Orthodox youth – especially the more conservative Centrist Orthodox – may be compelling and therefore lead to greater cohesion, which was not the case in previous generations.

More to the point is that the Orthodox community is retaining its young people through the “odyssey years,” those high-school and post-high-school years that are crucial to religious identification and loyalty. It may be almost clichéd to point this out, but attending day schools through the high school years largely works. Furthermore, we ought not to discount the “gap-year” phenomenon. Unknown 50 years ago and rare 40 years ago, the post-high-school gap year, often spent in a yeshiva in Israel, has become standard for Orthodox youth. The gap year in Israel is a powerful factor cementing adherence of youth to some flavor of Modern, Centrist, or even sectarian (yeshivish) Orthodoxy.

What about remedies? The most popular flavor over the past three decades and more has been “kiruv” – “bringing close” – outreach to the non-observant. But what is clear from the Pew data is that any growth in Orthodoxy will come from inside the movement. Despite massive outreach efforts on the part of Orthodox groups to non-Orthodox Jews over many decades, the Pew data show that a mere 4 percent of Jews brought up Conservative, and perhaps 1 percent of Jews brought up Reform, are currently Orthodox.
The obverse side of the kiruv coin is the numbers. Indeed, the numbers on kiruv, in terms of drop-out rates, are not good; some estimates are that up to 80 to 90 percent of participants in kiruv programs do not stay the course. The astronomical sums put into the range of kiruv programs over the decades are not reflected in the returns – in the view of its proponents, “returns,” literally, to Judaism. In a word, Orthodox kiruv does not work. Some place the blame on the shrinking of the Conservative Movement, which provided kiruv programs with many young Jews who had at least a minimal familiarity with Jewish tradition and ritual, enough to be comfortable with Orthodox outreach. In 2013 there are simply not enough young Conservative Jews out there as potential targets for outreach professionals. Others blame the kiruv programs themselves, which often are heavy-handed, indeed crude.

But it’s not all about the numbers. The question for kiruv is not how many potential adherents become Orthodox, but whether these programs are lighting a spark to deepen and enhance Jewish involvement – whatever that involvement may ultimately be. It’s highly nuanced. I asked Steven Bayme of the American Jewish Committee about the issue. He suggested, “People who are touched by the National Council of Synagogue Youth, Chabad and other programs and do not become Orthodox, or who try Orthodoxy out for only a brief period, may well become more active Jewishly within the Conservative and Reform Movements, or they may try out a ‘congregation of renewal’ such as New York’s Romemu.”

Unfortunately, the Pew data have nothing to say about this hypothesis. But if it is indeed the case that potential subjects for kiruv go in a number of directions – not necessarily Orthodox – it is positive. “It is to the collective good of the Jewish people,” Bayme asserted.

There are data that suggest that a substantial percentage of the Orthodox community – as much as 25 percent, according to some estimates – are “baalei t’shuvah,” so-called “returnees to observance” from other movements. Even if that number is accurate, we need to remember that the Orthodox population remains small compared to the non-Orthodox population. The percentage of non-Orthodox who have become Orthodox, therefore, represents a very small percentage of the larger religious community, and raises critical questions as to whether money invested in kiruv has been well spent.

So kiruv is a mixed bag – but outreach certainly does not represent a congeries of initiatives designed to reverse the bleak Orthodox retention numbers. What are the implications of this verity for philanthropy? Limited, for Orthodox retention. Potentially substantial, for the fiber of Jewish life. Jewish funders are, as always, facing hard choices.

Jerome A. Chanes, a fellow at the Center for Jewish Studies at the CUNY Graduate Center, is the author of four books on Jewish history and communal affairs.