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What’s Surprising About American Modern Orthodoxy?

Ask any demographer where to find robust data on the American Jewish community, and most will point to the Pew Research Center, whose 2013 “A Portrait of Jewish Americans” shed light on the broad spectrum of belief and practice in the U.S.

Or did it? While it was considered state-of-the-art, Mark Trencher found the survey lacking, so much so that, in fall 2015, the West Hartford, Connecticut resident launched Nishma Research to better understand the Orthodox community.

“Pew got 4,000 responses but 400 or fewer are Orthodox,” Trencher said. “This is good because it’s a representative sample but when you look at men vs. women, age range, Modern Orthodox vs. Chasidic, Chabad, Yeshivish, you end up with fairly small groups, so the sample is not large enough to analyze sub-groups. And because 88% of American Jews are not Orthodox, most Pew questions are aimed at non-Orthodox. We wanted to look at larger results and see if they made sense.”

Trencher earned a graduate degree in statistics and spent his career in the financial industry. After retiring in 2015, he created Nishma Research as a labor of love that draws on his professional expertise in marketing research and extensive involvement as a Greater Hartford Jewish community lay leader. As Nishma’s primary analyst, he consults with other experienced statisticians and focus-group moderators as needed and with an advisory group of academics and researchers tailored to assist with each survey. His surveys are conducted entirely via the internet, and are opt-in surveys.

Nishma published its first pro bono study, “Starting a Conversation: A Pioneering Survey of Those Who Have Left the Orthodox Community,” released in 2016. Since then, the company has conducted eight additional broad surveys of the Jewish community, as well as several studies exploring specific behaviors in the Jewish community, including voting and attitudes toward the COVID vaccine.

In October, Bi-Cultural Hebrew Academy’s Center for Community Education hosted Trencher in a virtual talk, “10 Surprising Findings about Modern Orthodoxy,” based on Nishma surveys published in 2016, 2017 and 2019.

First, the basics: Trencher estimates the American Orthodox Jewish community comprises about 850,000 members—one-quarter of 1% of the total U.S. population. Trencher recognizes four distinct groups within the demographic: Haredi (550,000)—comprising Chasidic, Chabad-Lubavitch, and Yeshivish—and Modern Orthodox (300,000). Along the Modern Orthodox spectrum, about 30% self-defined as left-of-center liberal, 25 as right of center, and 40 percent in the middle.

For Trencher, one of the most surprising findings about the American Modern Orthodox community is its diversity. “Throughout our surveys, on every question we asked, we find that there are huge differences in response—whether we’re talking about how often people go to shul, how often people learn Jewish subjects, what they think the role of women should be, acceptance of LGBTQ people in their synagogue,” he said. “I’ve seen the Pew survey results, I’ve seen the results of other denominational surveys, and even though Modern Orthodox is one of the smallest Jewish groups—much smaller than Conservative and Reform—compared to the other groups, we are the most diverse internally, with more differences of opinion and practice.”

Trencher was especially struck by what he calls the “fluidity” within the Orthodox community. Growing up in a Modern Orthodox family in 1950s-era Flatbush, Brooklyn, Trencher observed that Jews pretty
much stayed in the demographic they had been born into. “There were people in my community who were what we called ‘heimish,’ like my father, people who came over after the war from Europe,” he recalled. “They were Yiddish-speaking, maybe a little bit Chasidic, but they were heimish in Europe and in Brooklyn, and that’s what they always will be. Then there were the American Jews: They were more modern, they were Orthodox; that’s what they were and that’s what they always will be. So my perception was that Jews fall into certain categories and once you’re in one of these categories, that’s what you are.”

But the 2013 Pew survey revealed a shift away from this reality. “According to that study, if you were raised Orthodox and you are now ages 50 to 64, 41% of you are still Orthodox—meaning that more than half of you are no longer Orthodox,” he said. “Among the younger people, a very substantial majority still identifies as Orthodox. The lesson I learned from Pew is that, unlike my earlier belief that you are what you are, and you always will be, in American society, people are choosing how they want to be Jewish and we see this in the Orthodox community.”

This seems to reflect the fundamentally American value of freedom of choice. Just as the Orthodox-born leave their community, there are some 125,000 baalei teshuva in the U.S., those born into non-Orthodox families who become observant later in life, and those who move from Modern Orthodox to Chasidic or Yeshivish.

Trencher’s Modern Orthodox respondents revealed that over the last 10 years, 40% have become more observant, 25% have become less observant, and about 10% are at risk of leaving the community. Why is that?

“You see that among 12-, 13-, 14-year-old kids who have a little bit more interest in science or secular things and they have questions, what we call ‘conflicting learning.’ The problem is that the community is not well-geared to answer these kids’ questions. ‘Pull factors’ are things outside the community that attract people to leave.”

Does this information matter to the Orthodox Jewish community? According to Trencher, research is a valuable tool for those communal leaders who want to better understand and serve their constituents. “In his podcast, “Unorthodox,” Mark Oppenheimer once said that, in the battle between Orthodox observance and modernity, the best we can hope for is a draw,” Trencher said.

“We can’t change the world but if there’s a problem within our community, we can change that.”

And that is one of Trencher’s goals: not only to close knowledge gaps in the American Jewish community, but to share his findings. He does so on his website by providing full research reports and supporting documentation at no charge, and he plans to launch the “Orthonomics” podcast by the end of 2021, exploring issues of interest to the Orthodox community.

Visit http://nishmaresearch.com to learn more.

By Cynthia Mindell

 

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