The just-released Jewish Community Study of New York: 2011 clearly shows that the Jewish population decline in New York has been stemmed by large numbers of babies born to Orthodox families in America.
The heroic fertility and educational efforts of Orthodox Jews — sometimes to the point of actual impoverishment — is legendary. Ironically, it is historically the Conservative and Reform Jewish movements that have unintentionally benefited from this Orthodox Jewish investment.
In 1990, 44 percent of American Jewish adults had shifted from their childhood denomination. Just 10 years later, in 2000, denominational switching increased to 59 percent of American adults. According to the recent study, now only a minority has stayed in the Jewish denomination in which they were raised. The greatest shifts are away from Conservative and Orthodox Judaism.
While this has greatly worried the Conservative movement’s rabbis, the denominational shift has always affected Orthodox Judaism proportionally to a far greater extent. In Los Angeles in 1996, four out of five Jewish adults who reported being raised in Orthodox families chose other denominational affiliations. This may be a phenomenon of the “unchurched West,” of Jews fleeing the traditions of the East Coast.
Historically, Conservative and Reform Judaism owe their very existence and phenomenal growth to the vast Orthodox Jewish migration to America prior to 1924 and the massive shift away from Orthodox Judaism, primarily to Conservative Judaism. Ironically, Conservative Judaism is suffering from the same leftward historical trend. In the past three decades, as many as half the children raised as Conservative Jews become Reform Jews as adults.
Orthodox Judaism has traditionally served as the feeder denomination for Conservative as well as Reform Judaism. Conservative Judaism gets the majority of adult denominational shifters from Orthodox Judaism, but Reform Judaism currently has in its pews about one in 10 adults who were raised by Orthodox parents.
It is in the self-interest of the Conservative and Reform movements to encourage the flowering of the Orthodox American Jewish community, for they are the ultimate beneficiaries of the adult choices of Orthodox-raised children. In spite of the best efforts of the Orthodox community, data shows that many of them will choose to live adult lives as something other than Orthodox Jews. In the same manner, it is in the best interests of Reform Jews to support the flowering of Conservative Judaism.
So, American Jews of all stripes, be nice to the Orthodox Jews, who comprise about one-tenth of the community. When Orthodox polemicists ask: Will your grandchildren be Jewish? The answer is: Probably. The more pressing question to the Orthodox is: Will your children be Orthodox? The answer is: Probably not.
Pini Herman has been on the faculty of USC and is a past research director at The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles. He is currently a principal of Phillips and Herman Demographic Research. Visit his blog, Demographic Duo.