Orthodox Judaism Today

With rising numbers and increasingly stringent observance, Orthodoxy thrives even as it faces challenges.

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The shift to the right is a product of many factors. Traditional religious groups tend to be more aggressive--and successful--in proselytizing for new members. While Orthodox Judaism rejects proselytizing non-Jews, it does embrace kiruv, the concept of working to convince non-observant Jews to adopt a more traditional lifestyle. Through organizations like the National Council of Synagogue Youth (NCSY), Chabad Lubavitch, Aish HaTorah, and others, many non-Orthodox Jews have been brought into the Orthodox fold in recent decades.

In addition, the rise of conservative religion is likely a reaction against the increased permissiveness and anything-goes attitude of secular culture. Boundaries and rules attracted many people today just as the removal of such behavioral limits attrracted the youth of the '60s and '70s.

Orthodoxy also has higher birthrates than other Jewish communities; sends a much-higher percentage of its children to Jewish day schools; has a much lower intermarriage rate (and children of intermarriages have a higher likelihood of being uninvolved in Jewish life); and generally have a much higher rate of participation in Jewish life--all factors that help to strengthen Orthodox communities and make it attractive for non-Orthodox Jews to join.

And the Orthodox Jewish lifestyle is easier than ever before. The affluence most Jews have achieved--together with changing societal norms--makes working on Shabbat less of a necessity. The plethora of kosher food in supermarkets worldwide eases observance of the dietary laws, and the growth of kosher restaurants in many cities reduces the inclination among many Orthodox Jews to eat in non-kosher establishments. Religious book and CD publishing is thriving and an industry of Jewish-items producers seems to make observance ever-simpler, with innovations such as a snap-together sukkah, Shabbat-friendly kitchen appliances, and Passover-kosher food from pizza to granola bars to hamburger buns.

Stringency

Orthodox Jews are today reviving customs and laws that had been virtually forgotten for decades except among haredim. Increasing numbers of married women in Orthodox communities are covering their hair--either with hats or wigs--a Jewish law that was hardly observed among most Modern Orthodox women since the days of the shtetl in Europe. Kosher restaurants and caterers often need to pay for multiple kosher-certification certificates, each from an agency or rabbi with somewhat different standards, to convince all customers of their acceptability.

The shift is in culture and not just halakhic (Jewish law) observance. After high school, many Orthodox teens spend a year studying in yeshiva in Israel, and increasingly, one year is turning into two, three, or even more. When they return, these are expressing ever-deeper discomfort with secular college life--socially because of the culture of sexual permissiveness and intellectually because of their discomfort with academic teachings on subjects like the Bible and the nature and history of religion.

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Michael Kress

Michael Kress is the executive editor of Parents.com. He was also the the VP of Editorial and Managing Editor at Beliefnet and the founding editor-in-chief of MyJewishLearning.com.