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Mind The Gap Between Orthodox And Other Jews
Mon, 11/28/2011 - 19:00
Editor And Publisher
Gary Rosenblatt
Gary Rosenblatt

When journalist Peter Beinart talks about the growing alienation between young American Jews and Israel, and with their Jewish practice, he is quick to point out that he isn’t referring to the Orthodox.

Indeed, young Orthodox Jews, reflecting their elders’ behavior, are the exception to his rule, deeply committed to their religion and the Jewish state.

At a time when the issue of West Bank settlements is increasingly divisive in much of the American Jewish community, it’s still a no-brainer among the Orthodox, who support the settlements enthusiastically. (In fact it seems like some Orthodox congregations here rarely invite a speaker from Israel who lives inside the Green Line.)

Settlements are but one issue where the gap between the Orthodox community and the rest of American Jewry is disturbingly wide, and growing, from politics in the Mideast and Washington to religious practice, education and family values.

I’m often taken aback by how little each group is aware of, and sensitive to, the concerns of the other.

For example, one reason why support for the Jewish communities in the West Bank is a given in Orthodox synagogues is because many congregants have family members, friends and former neighbors living there. (Keep in mind that the large majority of Americans making aliyah each year are Orthodox.)

It is not uncommon for congregants to visit Israel several times a year, especially if they have a son or daughter studying in an Israeli yeshiva post-high school, which has become the default pattern for Orthodox teens over the last two decades.

In recent years there has been a major shift in voting patterns from Democrat to Republican among the Orthodox, primarily over the issue of Israel. Whether or not he is seen as a Muslim or follower of Rev. Jeremiah Wright — it seems unlikely he could be both — President Obama is viewed with deep suspicion, if not outright hostility, as a negative factor for the Jewish state.

The fact that the levels of strategic and military cooperation between Jerusalem and Washington are at a high point is trumped by the troubled personal relationship between Israel’s prime minister and the American president, and the feeling that Obama has disrespected Netanyahu publicly and privately.

More and more I hear friends in the Orthodox community express their willingness to vote for anyone but Obama in the 2012 election, convinced that he has no patience or sympathy for Israel. Even moderates in the Orthodox community on domestic issues say they are willing to tolerate an ultra-conservative president who will be demonstrably supportive of Israel.

That reflects the fact that many Orthodox Jews list “Israel” as the No. 1 issue on which they will determine who to vote for next year in the national elections, unlike most other Jews.

One reason why close to 80 percent of American Jews voted for Obama in 2008, and a majority will do so again next year — though his numbers are likely to decline — is that only a small percentage of the U.S. Jewish community is Orthodox, generally estimated at between 10 and 20 percent.

Most American Jews are still liberal, and see themselves as supportive of Israel, certainly, but also caring deeply about a wide range of domestic concerns, from the economy to human rights, and deeply distrustful of Republican candidates who speak about their fervent Christian beliefs.

According to a recent American Jewish Committee survey of American Jewish attitudes, 53 percent of American Jews disapprove of Obama’s policies toward Israel; among Orthodox Jews the disapproval rate is 81 percent.

Overall, 45 percent of American Jews approve of Obama, a 23 percent drop-off from 2008, but 6 percent higher than Americans in general; among Orthodox Jews, who represent 9 percent of the AJC sampling, Obama’s disapproval rate is 72 percent.

But politics is not the only issue that divides the Orthodox and overall Jewish communities.

It really goes deeper, to issues of values, and Orthodox Jews are more traditional not only in religious practice but in cultural behavior as well. They marry younger, have more children and put a great emphasis on intensive Jewish education.

Day schools and yeshivas are a major priority, with a focus increasingly on the tuition crisis. The combination of a sinking economy and large number of children is making affordability a huge concern for Orthodox families. But they believe the general Jewish community, including the federation world, is not interested enough to alleviate their plight in a meaningful way.

So Orthodox Jews tend to see federations as not addressing their needs, and federations see the Orthodox as not wanting to be involved in the communal agenda and campaign. Which is a shame, because if more Orthodox Jews were active in federation, chances are there would be more attention given to the day school agenda.

In addition, the Orthodox perceive the mainstream Jewish organizations as having too liberal an agenda, championing a strong church-state divide, for example, when many parents of day school children would prefer vouchers or some other form of government financial aid.

As society has become more open, religious families are increasingly conservative, culturally as well as politically. It’s true of Americans in general, and it certainly holds among Jews.

Orthodox families often are resistant to sending their children to universities where coed dorms, sexual experimentation, drinking and drugs are common. And while the majority of American Jews admire the Orthodox for their commitment to Torah study and observance, and preserving family and tradition, they also feel alienated from their very different worldview, seen as sheltered and parochial.

That love-hate feeling works both ways, with Orthodox Jews regarding the high intermarriage and assimilation rates among most of American Jewry as a disregard for essential Jewish values and deeply disturbing in terms of the future.

A number of surveys show that with Orthodox women averaging between 3.3 and 7.9 children (the more observant, the more children) as compared to 1.86 for other Jewish women, it won’t be too long before the Orthodox become the majority of an American Jewish community that will continue to decline in overall numbers.

Whether or not anything can be done to stem the growing divide within and among our people, at least we should be more aware of it, and talk about it. There are discussion groups between Jews and Christians, and Jews and Muslims; how about a few more between Orthodox Jews and the rest of the community?


different sects of Judaism, Orthodox Jews

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I believe that the non-orthodox gravitate to the universalistic aspects of Judaism and downplay or reject the nationalistic aspects, and the Orthodox perhaps tend toward the nationalistic at the expense of the universalistic. What really makes this a problem in the United States, as opposed to British commonwealth countries, is that there is no common spiritual aspect; In America, Conservative and especially Reform Jews are following, in my opinion, a different religion that the one that I follow as an Orthodox Jew. In the British commonwealth countries, most non-Orthodox Jews go to Orthodox synagogues, and this provides a commonality that (mostly) all Jews share.

How about starting a tradition of serving vegetarian kosher food in the sukkah on Sukkot every year at liberal Jewish temples. Sukkah hopping is common in the Orthodox community, Sukkot is an opportunity to visit all the Jewish sites in a community. Having kosher food in the sukkah is easy and does not require koshering the temple kitchen. Just put out whole fruits, bottled juice, and packaged cookies.

1) Gary Rosenblatt says 10-20% of Jews are orthodox, but earlier this week the Wall Street Journal published an op-ed from Jonathan Sarna acknowledging that no one today has any clue about Jewish demographics. The most recent comprehensive city-wide study came from Rosenblatt's own city of Baltimore, and the study there showed more than 30% are orthodox. Gary, your estimate of "10-20%" is as outdated as the Commodore Vic-20.

2) Mr. Rosenblatt says orthodox Jews vote Republican "primarily because of Israel". It is amazing how often liberal voters try to convince themselves that this is the reason the orthodox vote GOP. If you spend any time in a yeshivah [orthodox academy] you will see the opposition to democrats is more because of their social and economic policies than anything to do with Israel. The Democrats' enthusaistic support for the homosexual agenda, as the Wepner election showed, and which Mr. Rosenblatt conspicuosuly ignored, is a massive turnoff. Likewise their support of militant feminist - i.e., anti-family - notions. You think these things mean nothing to the orthodox?

Economically too, the largely entrepeunerial orthodox community detests the regulation-society fostered by Democrats. I concede there are many orthodox Jews who benefit from Big Government programs, but nevertheless, it is a fact that even those Jews do not support Big Government notions. They simply say "hey, if the money's available, why not take advantage of it." Can you blame them for thinking this way? Most of them, if asked, would tell you straight up it's not the government's role, and would prefer to have less taxes and less intrusion, even if the prorams were stopped.

Bottom line - Israel is one component of an average orthodox Jew's voting card, yes, but not at all the dispositive issue.

We survived for 2000 years in exile not by moving away from Jewish traditions, instead by adhering to time tested Jewish values. Unfortunately half of the young American Jews have no knowledge of Jewish history and customs except for Bagel and lox. And turning a minor Jewish
holiday of Hanukkah into Jewish Christmas. Eventually both reform and conservative Jews will disappear from American landscape, the ones who will survive are the ones who will embrace traditional Judaism.

"There are discussion groups between Jews and Christians, and Jews and Muslims; how about a few more between Orthodox Jews and the rest of the community?" Thanks, Gary, for concluding that we need more dialogue between Orthodox and non-Orthodox Jews. The Synagogue Council of Massachusetts, which I have directed for 30 years, is a paradigm of exactly that: dialogue, learning, singing, laughing and spending Shabbat together, as well as traveling to the various seminaries in NYC and visiting Israel on a pluralistic Unity Mission... all across denominational lines. We learn not only to tolerate the "other" but to embrace diversity and truly appreciate the philosophies and practices of people with whom, in our busy day-to-day segregated lives, we would never have had the opportunity to meet.

Attention should be paid to what is said in this article. It is always amazing to me that the Conservative rabbi many times makes analogies to Christian thought during a service, even a high holiday service, and does not meet with orthodox congregants or thinking, but does seek for community with a Lutheran church in the neighborhood.


Great article. But, I think you missed an important shift piece. The overall Jewish community has shifted to the left, leaving the Orthodox community behind. Take endogamy for example. Intermarriage was once universally seen as a scourge of the Jewish community. Today, the non orthodox are learning to deal with it. In the past, Israel was a source of pride for American Jews, today, it is seen as a problem. Look at the mission statements of the major non orthodox Jewish organizations; Hillel, URJ, UCSJ, etc. and look at how they have changed over time.

We are witnessing the cultural erosion of our people. The Orthodox are trying to stay put.

Nice try, Gary, but the Orthodox (and this needs more def), the white socks. streimel wearing, anti-State of Israel- community, like things just the way they are, thank you, and consider the rest of the Jewish community as "goyim" anyway. Which is entirely wrong of course and if hashem was here now he/she would tell them so.

I'm not quite sure what your point is? It seems like trying to articulate something everyone is aware of. The bottom line is that the Orthodox strive to live a life adhering to true jewish ideals; those who do not is not some kind of alternate true jewish option. It's unfortunate that you make it sound like it is. You like to make some kind of news out of these differences. May I suggest that instead of being the high priest of journalism/sociology, try writing in a way that shows you're with the program. It would help the jewish cause - maybe even offer some clarity to those who've unfortunately allowed themselves to assimilate. Straighten your backbone and say it like it is.

"how about a few more between Orthodox Jews and the rest of the community?"

And what about more communication between the Orthodox Jews who dress like Americans, and the Orthodox Jews who dress like 19th century Europeans?

Thanks for speaking frankly in your well balanced and informative article. As an active member of a progressive, all-inclusive Reform Congregation in
Westchester County, New York, I have found our clergy and members very respectful of our Orthodox brothers and sisters as well as members of other religious groups. The hostiltiy of many Orthodox Jews on matters of religion is too obvious here and in Israel to require further commment. What Mr. Rosenblatt should say is that differences of opinion should be respected and that is the essence of democracy,to which Orthodoxy in any form, is in conflict. This plain fact is born out by the history of all modern Orhtodox religious groups.

It bears mention that, besides the difference in Orthodox and other US Jewish birthrates, that assimilation takes a far greater toll among the non-Orthodox. Orthodox Jews in general carry a strong attachment to Torah and to Eretz Yisrael.

This is a pretty accurate article in identifying the demographic realities of the two kinds of Jews that inhabit this country. As you are aware, there have always been two kinds of Jews in the world - committed to religious practices, and not commited. As the popular culture (actually a misnomer because it is really a "non-culture") increasingly infects society, the committed naturally circle the wagons and protect themselves from it. This brings out the poobahs and talking heads urging Jews to "talk about it" to "stem the growing divide". This is Fed-speak for since we can't actually DO something about it, let's at least talk about it and pretend that talking about it is the same thing as doing something about it. Maybe it's time to realize that the committed are destined to remain so while the uncommitted are destined to evaporate into history, and while Kiruv and outreach are certainly admirable and quaint Jewish customs, we need to reinforce the committed with our actions and resources.

Thank you for your refreshing call for dialogue among Jews.

The Orthodox produce more children, but they do not all remain Orthodox. Future generations of Conservative and Reform Jews will come from the children of the Orthodox.

Very unlikely. The children of the Orthodox will produce future generations of secular, unaffiliated Jews, but it is highly unlikely that they will become Conservative or Reform. I speak from experience - a relative of mine who comes from a very Orthodox family but is no longer observant scoffs at the Conservative rituals that he (exceedingly rarely) participates in to satisfy his father-in-law. Children of Orthodox families know that Conservative and Reform Judaism are highly inauthentic. If they're no longer observant, it's most likely because they're not interested in any religion, not because they're looking for a watered-down version.

As one of the 19% of observant Jews who is not aligned with
the Israeli Government's policies over the past 40 years in regards to settlements, I find it more and more uncomfortable to be in a synagogue where it is expected that everyone think the same way. It is a dilemma solved only by avoiding talking about Israeli or American politics. I, for one, could not vote for an ultra-right wing candidate just because he supports the current policy in Israel and ultimately I don't think that such a vote would be good for Israel or good for American Jews.

An interesting article. Thank you for writing it! Unfortunately, some "liberal" Jews are happy to dialogue with terrorists and murderers, but foam at the mouth and cannot hide their venomous dislike for Hareidi or other religious Jews. A study was done in Israel showing that secular Israeli Jews feel much less brotherhood towards religious Jews than vice versa. The religious are accused of not accepting other Jews , when , in fact, they feel more solidarity with other Jews than the others feel for them. They also are much more active in volunteer organizations (as % of their populations) and give a larger % or their money to charity. This is in Israel.

The main flaw with "if this goes on" arguments is that this doesn't go on. The "Orthodox Jewish children" market will sustain a crash, just as the housing market did, and for the same reason. Exponential growth is unsustainable, and growth curves always become S-shaped.

After spending six years researching the ecological, cultural, and Jewish roots of gardening, my German language book, "Der Himmelsgarten", came out with some striking revelations as to the distinctions between Liberal and Orthodox Jews. It is the age old question, whether those who have never felt spirituality in their hearts believe it exists, and those who feel it cannot understand why the others are not craving it. For those who can not yet feel it with your hearts, here is how I discribed it for the mind. If any of your are familiar with the Williams Christ Pear Brandy, you have probably asked yourselves.."How did the pear get into the bottle". The bottles are placed over pear blooms allowing for the pear to grow inside of the bottle. Majority of Jews believe that their souls exist as these lonely pears in the bottle, totally unware that there exist implant roots from the tip of the pear vine that desire nothing more than to be recognized. The egoistic "spirits" detach us that much more. For the majority of the Jewish Population, the Ethics of our fathers are just that, shallow rooted dogma. For Orthodox, these ethics are actually deeply rooted kabbalistic chapters instructing us how to bridge that gap beyond the pear vine tip into the broadband spiritual reality, in nature allows you to feel more of what it has to offer. This perception does not come free. It involves performing rituals that garden each others spirits while cleansing the soul. For that matter, even extracting a weed with a spiritual intention is also a symbolic method of bridging the gap. Why did G-d create this disparity between us Jews, as well as our Moslem and Christians brothers and sisters? Perhaps to shake us out of our inspire us to weed out hatred for sowing the seeds of love, peace and respect in each other. For the tree of the field is man.

As someone who grew up Conservative and is now Orthodox, i appreciate Gary's article very much. My favorite paragraph he wrote in this article is this one which sums things up very well...
"Orthodox families often are resistant to sending their children to universities where coed dorms, sexual experimentation, drinking and drugs are common. And while the majority of American Jews admire the Orthodox for their commitment to Torah study and observance, and preserving family and tradition, they also feel alienated from their very different worldview, seen as sheltered and parochial."
Does anyone else find that paragraph funny or is it just me? If someone recognizes that the general society is promiscuous, using drugs (and is self-indulging in a hedonistic way) which to many, including myself is obvious, so why should it be seen as being in any way negative to live a sheltered life and under such circumstances, be parochial? If you see the car in front of you spewing out horrible smoke- is it parochial to roll up your window? Keeping one’s children out of harm’s way isn’t negative, it is very much a positive thing! Since American culture has so many of these self-destructive forces flowing through its current “norms” why should a secular Jew look at their desire to “live a sheltered life ” or to protect one’s children as a negative thing? Here's a good concrete example to explain what i mean:
Only by setting themselves apart have the Orthodox managed to create a better world for themselves. The taboo on pre-marital sex is alive and well in the Orthodox world, and virtually doesn’t exist in the non-Orthodox world. Such an accomplishment can only be done if we are “parochial” – so if you want to call us that – great! So be it and we are proud of it. This non-acceptance of pre-marital sex has kept our women (and our men for that matter) from getting used and from abusive relationships. It also has contributed to the beautiful sight of seeing young parents (in their mid- 20s)having children instead of the norm in the non-Orthodox world where the first marriage is somewhere between 30 and 35. Recently when i watched parents picking up their kids from Hebrew School i felt sorry for all those kids who all had parents who looked like grandparents. Check out and see a bit of the tidal wave of what young marriages mean demographically for the future of Orthodoxy in America. And see for an article I wrote which shows why I think living an Orthodox life-style is a MUCH more of a progressive choice for a woman (contrary to what many are told to think) than choosing a secular life-style.
(To the editor: I hope you allow this talkback to appear as above- as I am confident my response to you is very much shared by my fellow Orthodox Jews as a response to your article. )

the orthodox are more than willing to take donations from the non-orthodox (like me) but hold them in contempt.That knowledge is not lost on us.

the non(like you) dont realize that jews(like me)love all jews the same and just desire that we all serve one g-d according to jewish law & tradition.

I wouldn't give to any organization or person that held me in contempt.

As a practicing Orthodox Jew who did not grow up Orthodox, I will tell you that the nasty comments and "contempt" displayed to me by the secular far outpaced, in number and intensity, any comments I received from the Orthodox.

Either way, I wouldn't give the time of day, or the satisfaction, to those jerks (either the religious or secular).

Try not to let your emotional life be controlled by people who have nothing better to do than make nasty comments. You'll feel better.

Such anger. Such sweeping generalizations. Such contempt from someone accusing others of being contemptuous.

Great column!

I wonder, given current trends, when the birth rate difference cited in your column between orthodox and non-orthodox Jews will lead to a reversal of Jewish demographics in the US. Instead of orthodox Jews making up 10 - 20 percent of the Jewish population, imagine non-orthodox Jews making up no more than 20 percent of the Jewish population. How would the Jewish Week and rest of the Jewish community change? I wonder when the tipping point, the point where the orthodox community makes up 51 percent of the Jewish community, is expected to occur.

When the demographic numbers flip, the Jewish community will on the whole be less wealthy than it is today, at least relative to the rest of the population. The ultra Orthodox are among the biggest users of food stamps and Section 8 housing vouchers in the country. Facebook billionaire Mark Zuckerberg made his first plunge into the world of big time philanthropy by making a large stock donation to Newark, NJ's public schools. He has no interest in Judaism.

Nice comment Michael. I believe the date is Feb 17, 2043. I noticed your comment because my father's comment is down near the bottom of the page.

If Orthodox Jews only care about Torah Education how do you explain a great amount of Kippa wearing Doctors at some of the top hospitals in the U.S Sloan Kettering ,Boston General John Hopkins and many others