Even as Modern Orthodox Jews see themselves as embattled and on the decline within Orthodoxy, eclipsed by the ascendancy of the haredim to the right, new demographic data offer quite a different picture. In fact, the Modern Orthodox are the largest segment by far of the Orthodox population in New York, according to a leading sociologist whose study on the community has yet to be released.Of the approximately 100,000 Orthodox Jewish households in the New York area, 74,000 are likely Modern Orthodox, based on data from the Jewish Community Study of New York, 2002, commissioned by UJA-Federation of New York, and carried out by Ukeles Associates Inc. “The figures come as a surprise,” acknowledged Jacob Ukeles, a leading demographer who oversaw the study and presented
key findings on Sunday at the fourth international conference of Edah, a Modern Orthodox group advancing tolerance and intellectual inquiry.
“I would have guessed 50-50 [between Modern Orthodox and haredim],” he told The Jewish Week, based on the number of children in yeshivas and day schools.But yet his study based on interviews with almost 900 Orthodox respondents in New York City, Long Island and Westchester County said otherwise. Ukeles noted that the study is the first attempt to discern differences of ideology within the Orthodox community and could only have been done in New York, which is home to the largest Jewish — and Orthodox — population in the country.
Though definitions are less than precise, Modern Orthodox Jews tend to be more supportive of Zionism and embracing of Western culture than haredim, whose communities are more insular.The study also found that Orthodox Jews comprise the largest segment of the New York Jewish community and their ranks are growing, while those of Conservative and Reform Jews are slipping.Still, Samuel Heilman, a professor of sociology and Jewish studies at the City University of New York, described the Modern Orthodox community as “in retreat” and “lacking confidence” while the haredim are growing in numbers, influence and confidence.
“The modernists now see themselves as on the margins,” Heilman told the Edah audience of about 1,000, meeting at the Skirball Center for Adult Jewish Learning at Temple Emanu-El on the Upper East Side. But they are also a part of a trend throughout the Orthodox community that is moving ideologically toward the right.He asserted that those in the modern camp no longer ignore warnings from the more fundamental elements of the Orthodox community about the decline of American culture and the dangers of a liberal college education.Ukeles told The Jewish Week that his and Heilman’s findings “are not inconsistent,” saying that he was addressing a quantitative profile of the community while Heilman’s observations were qualitative.“You may have people who self-identify as Modern Orthodox,” Ukeles explained, “but if they send their children to right-wing yeshivas and are afraid to speak up when their shul doesn’t say the prayer for the State of Israel, etc., they may be overtly Modern Orthodox but in retreat.“The data won’t tell you that,” he added.
“Now you’re looking into their hearts.”From a strategic position, Ukeles said, Modern Orthodox Jews may ask themselves, “If we’re so numerous, maybe we should be more assertive.”In his presentation, Ukeles noted that it is difficult to determine what percentage of the Orthodox community is modern or haredi. The “litmus question” he used in his survey asked participants who described themselves as Orthodox how important they felt it was to give children a college or university education. Those who responded “very important” were categorized as modern, while those who replied “not very important” or “not important at all” were considered as most likely to be haredim.The study found that the vast majority of Orthodox Jews who consider college not important live in Brooklyn, though even there 55 percent believe college is important. And overall, Orthodox Jews who say college is very important are significantly older than those who believe it is somewhat or not important.
Rabbi Avi Shafran, a spokesman for Agudath Israel of America, a haredi institution, said the litmus question seemed sound, but he called the findings of “limited value.” He suggested large numbers of chasidim and other haredim may not have been represented because they were unlikely to respond, or live in other areas. Rabbi Shafran also noted that haredim have a higher birthrate than Modern Orthodox Jews, so the trend is toward more of a balance between the two segments of the community in the future.Marvin Schick, a consultant who has written extensively on Orthodox life, finds the litmus question problematic, though. “It obliterates the category of centrist Orthodox,” he said, noting that many haredim here attend colleges like Touro. The line between those who do and do not go to college “is more fluid” here as compared to Israel, Schick said.Modern Orthodox institutions have seen themselves facing an uphill struggle to maintain their numbers, ideological positions and influence in the Orthodox community. Edah, founded in 1996, is a case in point. Despite numerous innovative programs and publications, it has not grown as its leaders had hoped. This year’s conference was reduced from two days of programs to one, primarily for financial reasons. Some say the organization’s association with Charles Kushner, the New Jersey real estate developer who pleaded guilty to charges of tax violation based on witness tampering a few months ago, has hurt its image, which emphasizes high ethical standards. Kushner houses Edah’s office in one of his Newark office buildings at virtually no cost.In addition, the grant for Edah’s program to place young teachers in Jewish schools around the country has not been renewed, and its leaders acknowledge that recruiting was difficult.
Six teachers are in the program this year.Heilman’s presentation at the conference described, in part, why Modern Orthodox Jews may feel embattled even as their community moves rightward. He cited four reasons, the first being the perceived decline of American culture and values, calling into the question the merits of a liberal education in a time of increasing permissiveness, especially on campus. Second, he said there has been a relinquishing of parental educational responsibilities to yeshiva administrators and teachers, two-thirds of whom are themselves haredim. Third, fewer Modern Orthodox Jews are going into the rabbinate.And fourth, increasing numbers of Modern Orthodox youngsters are becoming more ritually observant during post-high school study in Israeli yeshivas and returning home decidedly more observant than their parents — a phenomenon known as “flipping out.”Heilman said that if the Modern Orthodox community hopes to reclaim its hold on its youth, parents need to play a greater and more direct role in teaching their children, the community needs to train its own rabbis and “take responsibility” for its own “spiritual experience,” in part by creating yeshivas, here and in Israel, that reflect values that embrace both Jewish culture and those of tolerance, diversity and intellectual inquiry.
Rabbi Saul Berman, the director and primary force behind Edah, discussed where the Modern Orthodox community is headed and where it is not. Gone are the days of Modern Orthodoxy of the 1940s and ‘50s, he said, when mixed dancing and more casual attitudes toward kashrut and women’s head coverings were the norm. Modern Orthodoxy will not be “haredi lite,” the rabbi said, asserting that the amount and quality of serious Torah inquiry in “striving for truth” and rejecting authoritarianism is impressive.The rabbi said Modern Orthodoxy is “on the cusp of a renaissance,” but he offered a strong critique of what he called “a failure of will” and lack of religious passion in the community, too little serious Torah study on a regular basis, an unwillingness to challenge the views of those perceived as more observant and a discomfort with difficult mitzvot. “When the going gets tough,” he said in reference to issues like dating, kashrut or women’s hair covering, “the Modern Orthodox find a heter,” or lenient ruling.Rabbi Berman called on his adherents to welcome, rather than reject, those young people who have moved to the right in their observance and study, and to try to “harness” their spiritual energy to modern ideology. nGary Rosenblatt, editor and publisher of The Jewish Week, was one of more than 80 speakers at the Edah conference.
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