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United States of Judaism: the Pew and the Future of Modern Orthodoxy

The recently released 2013 Pew Report on Judaism in the United States spawned a small cottage industry of op-eds, articles, interviews, and full-page spreads. Everyone and his uncle, it seems, prophesied doom, questioned the study, or ignored most of the report and offered an optimistic reading. Opinions could be found across Kubler-Ross’s five stages of grief: Denial (“It’s flawed!”), anger (“Liberal Judaism is dead!”), bargaining (“only parts of the study are valid”), depression (“We’re all going to assimilate”), and, finally, acceptance (“where do we go from here?”).

Some writers giddily pointed out that “having a good sense of humor” was more than twice as essential to those surveyed as “observing Jewish law.” Some found that number alarming. Some panicked that in 1957, Jews made up 3.4 percent of the U.S. population, compared to 2.2 percent today. Others attributed the population drop to steady streams of mostly non-Jewish immigrants from Latin America. Most bemoaned the finding that the leading aspect of Jewish identity in the U.S. is remembering the Holocaust, and not, say, working for justice, observing Jewish law, or leading an ethical and moral life.

Jews of all denominations were quickly finding ways to match the results of the Pew with the lives they were living and the future they think Judaism will have. Reform Jews panicked. The Orthodox largely scoffed. Conservative Jews had, as usual, mixed feelings. But one voice was largely missing from the conversation.

No one analyzed how the Pew shed light on Modern Orthodoxy, that one boutique denomination no larger than the survey’s margin for statistical error. Importantly, no one unpacked the implications of the Pew’s discoveries to Modern Orthodoxy’s future. So, what does the Pew reveal about the future of this denomination and Yeshiva University? Where are we coming from and where are we headed?


The most comprehensive survey of American Jews and Judaism in a decade reveals fascinating changes in Modern Orthodox life. Here are ten themes from the Pew Research Foundation’s 215-page report released October 1, 2013:

1. Room to Maneuver: The vast majority of Modern Orthodox Jews think you can be Jewish if you work on Shabbat (96%), do not believe in God (70%) or hold strongly critical views on Israel (90%). Drawing the line at Jesus, only three-in-ten Jews think you can believe he was the messiah and still be Jewish.

2.  Part of the Club: Three-fourths of Modern Orthodox Jews are members of synagogues, and over half are members of another Jewish organization. In contrast, among Conservative Jews, only half belong to synagogues and only a quarter to another Jewish organization. Retention rates are not great, however. Among Jews raised Orthodox, only half stay within the fold. About a quarter stay within other denominations, while six percent of dropouts claim they are no longer Jewish.

3. Ma Nishma? Half of Modern Orthodoxy is confident in their Hebrew language use, while three quarters of the Ultra-Orthodox claim fluency.  The vast majority of MOs are very attached to Israel (77%). Not surprisingly, more MOs have been to Israel (86%) and believe God gave the land to the Jewish people (90%) than any other denomination.

4. Peace in the Middle East:  MOs are highly skeptical that a Palestinian state can coexist peacefully with Israel. Only a third believed peace is possible, while optimism was doubled within the Conservative movement (62%). In fact, MOs are more distrustful of a Palestinian state than white Evangelical Christians (42%). At the same time, more MOs believe the Israeli government is making a “sincere” effort at bringing about peace (73%) and that settlements in the West Bank help Israeli security (38%) than any other Jewish denomination.

5. Welcome to the GOP: While Jews overall are a strongly liberal, Democratic group, conservatism and Republicanism spike within the MO population. Over half of Modern Orthodoxy lean Republican (56%) and conservative (41%), compared to the Reform movement’s 17 and 13 percent, respectively. More MOs prefer a smaller government to a bigger government (58% vs. 34%). MOs also outpace other denominations in disapproving of President Obama’s job performance (57%). Only a quarter approve of his dealings with Iran, and only thirty percent approve of his policies towards Israel. President Obama’s approval ratings double within the Conservative movement.

6.  Growing Acceptance of LGBTQ members: Four years after the “gay panel” shook Yeshiva University and the Modern Orthodox world, half of Modern Orthodoxy says homosexuality should be accepted while only 38 percent said it should be discouraged. Among the Ultra-Orthodox, 20 percent say it should be accepted and over 70 percent disapprove. Data also reveal that Jewish Republicans are far more accepting of homosexuality compared to Republicans in the general population (51% vs. 38%).

7. The Essentials: 90 percent of Modern Orthodox Jews believe that leading an ethical life is essential to being Jewish. Among other denominations, that number drops by at least ten points (60% Conservative, 78% Ultra Orthodox). MOs lead denominations in valuing intellectual curiosity (54% vs. 25% Ultra Orthodox) and caring about Israel (79%). About ten percent of Reform Jews believe eating Jewish food is essential to being Jewish. That number doubles in the conservative movement (18%) and doubles again in Modern Orthodoxy (40%).

8. Doctor, Lawyer, Accountant: Modern Orthodox Jews lead the pack in college graduation rates. Over 65 percent have college diplomas, compared to the Ultra-Orthodox (25%), Conservative (62%), Reform (61%) and the general population (20%). 37 percent of MO households earn over $150,000, compared to about a quarter of households of all other denominations and only 8 percent of the general public.

9. Complex Pride: While 100 percent of MOs surveyed had a strong sense of belonging to the Jewish people, they lag significantly behind the Ultra-Orthodox in agreeing that they have a special responsibility to care for Jews in need (95% vs. 87%). Among Jews affiliating with a denomination, Modern Orthodox Jews were least proud to be Jewish (93% vs. 100% Ultra-Orthodox, 98% Conservative, 96% Reform).

10. Margin of Error: Modern Orthodoxy represents just three percent of U.S. Jews. Only one percent of Jews ages 18-29 consider themselves Modern Orthodox.


A cursory reading of these statistics reveals that Modern Orthodoxy, unlike many denominations, is vibrant and open-minded. For Modern Orthodox Jews, observance is a culture, not a creed; they are dedicated to a holistic lifestyle that places an emphasis on education, community commitment, religious observance, and Zionism. However, a secondary look at the Pew shows two fissure points starting to grown between Modern Orthodoxy and other denominations.

Where strict Orthodoxy continues to be politically and socially conservative—and progressive Judaism politically and socially liberal—Modern Orthodoxy is stuck in the middle. As a growing number of members slide into the GOP, Modern Orthodoxy, it seems, will break form the strong tradition of Jewish liberalism. The Pew, however, complicates this simple reading. Modern Orthodox Jews, like the general public, are growing increasingly tolerant of LGBTQ, non-believers and non-practicing members of the community. Data indicates that Modern Orthodox Jews are becoming social liberals and fiscal conservatives, a challenging combination, especially when it comes time to seek political allies in other denominations.

Another unique political trend is Modern Orthodoxy’s commitment to Israel. To some it’s inspiring, to others, it’s scary. Modern Orthodoxy’s alignment with conservative politics in Israel diverges with the growing trend of liberalism in young American Jews. While the rest of progressive Judaism grows more skeptical of the settlement movement in the West Bank, more suspicious of Prime Minister Netanyahu, and more optimistic about peace, Modern Orthodoxy is moving in an almost diametrically opposed fashion; they are distrustful of Palestinians, cynical about peace, and supportive of the settlements. While Israel loses support and trust from American Jews in general, Modern Orthodoxy’s determination may lead to political isolation from other denominations.

However, it is this same tenacity that enabled Modern Orthodoxy to attain its primary goal of fostering a community of individuals engaged in both Torah values and the modern world. Despite our commitment to a traditional religious education, we are still leading the pack in college degrees completed. Though religion is often thought to close us off from the world, we have succeeded in promoting a fierce intellectual curiosity. And, while we engage with the great ideas of Western thought, our confrontation with the secular has not diminished our numbers or our resolve.

It is now obvious why there were so few articles about the Pew and Modern Orthodoxy. Simply put, the Pew’s findings weren’t scandalous, they were confirming. The Pew may have revealed a few potential conflicts Modern Orthodoxy will encounter in the coming years, but it did not project widespread assimilation, or intermarriage, or disenchantment, or disconnect as it did with all other denominations. The state of Modern Orthodoxy is sound and strong.

Our denomination’s strength was nurtured by great institutions—Jewish Federations, the Orthodox Union, the National Council of Synagogue Youth, and, of course, Yeshiva University, the flagship of the Modern Orthodox movement. Today, these institutions are suffering. Petty political squabbles have robbed the OU of mature leadership. NCSY’s patriarchy is archaic. Federations have lost their relevance to the new generation of Modern Orthodox Jews. Finally, and perhaps most ominously, the ghosts of YU’s past now threaten to jeopardize its future.

We should not be disheartened by the failures, nor should we grow complacent with reports of our achievements. Our institutions are hurting, but our members are thriving. The state of Modern Orthodoxy is again, conflicted. Ninety percent of us believe that leading an ethical life is essential to being Jewish. Let us channel our tenacity, intelligence, and integrity to strengthen the bedrock upon which our denomination rests.