Every scientist will tell you that the only way to do a successful experiment is to have a control group. As we know, new drugs are tested with a control group getting a placebo, to test whether the new drug delivers as expected. The recently released Pew Study provides a control group for the Orthodox community to measure the implications of decisions made over 40 years ago.
In the late 1950s modern Orthodox and Conservative Jews were quite similar in religious practice, and many graduates of Orthodox Rabbinical schools secured pulpits in Conservative synagogues. Most Orthodox and Conservative synagogues had religious schools, which their children attended after public school. Yet today, the members of those denominations are no longer similar. I believe we can isolate two important factors that led to that difference: the Shabbat community and the day school.
In post-war America, the middle class began leaving the cities for the newly created suburbs. The Conservative movement, concerned that people would not be able to go to the synagogues still located in the cities, issued a Halachic ruling allowing one to drive on Shabbat only to synagogue. The result was that most Orthodox Jews stayed in the urban areas near their synagogues for a longer period of time, while Conservative Jews began moving to the suburbs. When the Orthodox Jews finally left the urban cities, they left together creating synagogues within walking distance of their new homes. By that time most Conservative Jews had already left the city, their synagogue followed their membership moving into a central location within driving distance of their old members. The new Conservative synagogues included large parking lots to accommodate their members, who were mostly not in walking distance. The Orthodox communities in contrast, had the synagogue as the central place within a mile walking distance from their members’ homes.
In America, Orthodoxy had toyed with the idea of day school, which would teach both secular and religious studies. Maimonides in Boston and Ramaz in Manhattan were among the pioneers in that effort, but most Orthodox Jews in the 1950s did not attend those schools. In the 1960s and early 1970s there was a recognition that the Hebrew school model was not working and Orthodoxy began to advocate a day school education for each child. The Conservative movement, started a Schechter day school system, but kept the religious school as the primary educational arm for their children. By the late 1970s most Orthodox synagogues had closed their religious schools.
The Pew Study gives us a stark contrast between the control group, the Conservative movement and the Orthodox community, 50 years after these changes occurred. For example, 78% of modern Orthodox Jews say, “Observing Jewish law,” is essential to being Jewish compared to 24% of Conservative Jews. 90% said “Leading Ethical Life” is essential compared to 69% of Conservative Jews. More importantly, the study notes that “83% of Jewish adults under 30 who were raised Orthodox are still Orthodox. Some experts think this is not a result of accumulated departures as people get older but rather could be a period effect in which people who came of age during the 1950s , 1960s and 1970s left Orthodoxy in large numbers.” In contrast the Conservative movement has seen a sharp decline in retention of its members, especially its youngest members.
We have to recognize that while there are affordability challenges facing our community, we can be proud of the institution and communities we have created. While we have been successful, we have to remember that this has caused the gap between the Orthodox and non-Orthodox community to grow even larger. We have to find ways to show the majority of the Jewish community in North America the beauty of our tradition, before they all slip away into oblivion.
Rabbi Judah Isaacs resides in Teaneck and is the Director of Coummunity Engagement at the Orthodox Union
By Judah Isaacs