The American Jewish future: More Shmuley Boteach than Woody Allen?

|The Volokh Conspiracy |

According to recent Pew Foundation data, Orthodox (strictly observant of Jewish law) Jews are only 10 percent of the American Jewish population, with the latter population defined somewhat broadly.

The Orthodox subset of the Jewish community, however, is growing rapidly. I recently attended a Tikvah Fund seminar on the future of American Jewry. I learned a lot of interesting things, but perhaps nothing raised my eyebrows more than the growth in enrollment in grade schools run by the so-called "ultra-Orthodox," the more insular group of Orthodox Jews who constitute about two-thirds of the Orthodox population. (Caveat: Participants in the Tikvah seminar noted that Pew classifications are inexact and that some percentage of those Pew considers ultra-Orthodox are, in fact, what is often called "Centrist Orthodox.") Over a 15-year period, enrollment in these schools, Hasidic and non-Hasidic, had more than doubled.

Consider what sort of birthrate that implies! Participants in the seminar with relevant expertise estimated that 20 to 25 percent of Jews raised in ultra-Orthodox communities go "off the derech," i.e., leave the fold. But even with a 20 to 25 percent attrition rate, the school enrollment figures suggest exponential growth in the ultra-Orthodox community—not to mention that attrition is not a one-way street and that various Orthodox outreach efforts, most prominently those of Chabad-Lubavitch, mean that about 30 percent of adult Orthodox Jews were raised in non-Orthodox homes.

Meanwhile, the non-Orthodox community seems destined to shrink, with birthrates below replacement level, and about a quarter of Jews not raising their children as Jews. Moreover, among the non-Orthodox Jewish population, the percentage who don't practice the religion and don't meaningfully affiliate with the community is growing. The population of active Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist Jews is shrinking, especially among the young. (Aside: It is, by the way, among the former unaffiliated group that disinterest or hostility to Israel is concentrated. When you hear from the likes of Peter Beinart that young Jews are increasingly disaffected from Israel, it's not only inaccurate, but refers mainly to this unaffiliated group, secular individuals with overwhelmingly left-wing politics, not raised in the Jewish religion, who still consider themselves at least partially Jewish. Given the likely demographic future of this group—bluntly, it's destined to have few Jewish descendants—as opposed to the broader Jewish community, the upshot is that the American Jewish population, with the exception of the large anti-Zionist Satmar Hasidic sect, over time will grow increasingly close to, not distant from, Israel. Contrary to conventional wisdom, this is happening already.)

In short, the Orthodox, and particularly the ultra-Orthodox, are within a generation going to be a very high percentage of American Jews, and an even higher percentage of Jews for who Judaism is more than a vague ethnic identity akin to those who proudly point to a Native American ancestor and consider themselves part Indian but have no other ties to that ancestry.

This, in turn, means that theological, social and even economic conservatism is going to become an increasingly important element of American Jewish life. Here's Pew:

Compared with other U.S. Jews, Orthodox Jews are far more socially and politically conservative. When the survey was conducted in 2013, 57% of Orthodox Jews said they identified with or leaned toward the Republican Party. By contrast, just 18% of other Jews identified with or leaned toward the GOP. Orthodox Jews were also much more likely than other Jews to self-identify as politically conservative (54% vs. 16%).

As on some measures of religious belief and observance, when it comes to political attitudes, Orthodox Jews resemble U.S. white evangelical Protestants. For example, 66% of white evangelical Protestants identified as or leaned Republican as of 2013, and 62% are politically conservative.

About six-in-ten Orthodox Jews (58%) say they would prefer a smaller government that provides fewer services over a bigger government providing more services, compared with 36% of other Jews who take the same position. Orthodox Jews also are far more likely than other Jews to say that homosexuality should be discouraged by society, with more Haredi Jews (70%) than Modern Orthodox Jews (38%) saying this.

For what it's worth, I almost never saw a kippah at conservative or libertarian political or intellectual events 20 years ago, but I see them all the time today, for example, at Federalist Society events. So not only are Orthodox Jews a growing right-leaning demographic, they appear to be getting more involved in general American political culture.

We can also predict that as a significant percentage of American Jews come to resemble Mormons, evangelical Christians and traditional Catholics in their general worldview, Jews will increasingly be on the receiving end of the same sort of hostility from secular liberals as those groups receive.

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