One-Quarter of American Jewish Youth are Orthodox, Says Study

There are more young Orthodox Jews than either young Reform or young Conservative Jews, says a study coming out this week, according to a Nathaniel Popper article in the Forward. Says the article:

While the Reform and Conservative religious movements have long jockeyed for the title of the largest Jewish denomination in America, a new study finds that when it comes to the next generation, the Orthodox movement has the most children affiliated with its synagogues, setting the stage for a future shift in the balance of American Jewish power.

…The new report puts particular emphasis on the figures relating to Jewish children. While only 43% of adults are affiliated with a synagogue, the number is 68% when it comes to Jews under the age of 18, according to Cohen’s computations. Of those young affiliated Jews, 37%, or 224,000, are with Orthodox synagogues. The number is 195,000 for the Reform and 147,000 for the Conservatives.


The article goes on to explain the demographic picture in the Reform and Conservative movements. The Reform movement, it says, “is made up mostly of middle-aged parents with children, while the Conservative movement is dominated by an aging population with fewer children.”

When it comes to the numbers of Orthodox children, there’s no getting around the fact that that is unfortunate news for champions of outreach to interfaith families. Orthodox Judaism is openly hostile to intermarriage, and the stronger the Orthodox presence in the organized Jewish community, the harder it will be to argue for engagement of interfaith families.

However, I wonder if the the study’s approach may have resulted in an overestimation of the Orthodox population. Unlike previous population studies, which only looked at respondents’ self-identification as Reform, Conservative, Orthodox, etc., this study, authored by Steven M. Cohen of Hebrew Union College-Institute of Relgion, looked directly at synagogue membership rolls. As Gary Tobin, president of the Institute for Jewish and Community Research, says in the article, “You’re better off comparing what people do than what they say.”

I agree with Tobin’s statement, but the article makes no mention of the curious case of Chabad. While Chabad houses are Orthodox, they make a point of inviting and engaging Jews of all backgrounds. So while Chabad houses promote and encourage Orthodox Jewish practice, many–if not most–of their members are not Orthodox. We haven’t seen the study yet, so I don’t have any way of knowing whether this is a legitimate issue or not.

I also think the picture the study paints of the Reform movement is encouraging. There was a time when the Conservative movement was the largest Jewish movement in the U.S., but Reform has been larger than Conservative for a number of years. Most observers agree that Reform’s growth is in a large part due to the movement’s proactive welcoming and engagement of interfaith families. This study provides further substance to the argument that interfaith families can contribute to the vibrancy and growth of the Jewish community. And it may also help prod the Conservative movement to liberalizing its stance towards the intermarried (for example, the Conservative movement currently forbids rabbis from officiating at intermarriages, does not allow non-Jewish spouses to take leadership roles in synagogues and has all kinds of restrictions on the participation of non-Jewish spouses in worship).

When the study comes out this week, we will take a look at it and let you know our thoughts.

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