The Future of American Orthodoxy

An examination of the challenges facing Orthodox Judaism in America

Print this page Print this page

The following article is reprinted with permission from the February 2001 issue of Shma: A Journal of Jewish Responsibility.

“In the struggle for the soul of American Jewry, the Orthodox model has triumphed," Samuel G. Freedman announced in his widely discussed volume titled Jew vs. Jew. Freedman, himself raised as a secularist, is far from alone in his analysis. In the thirty‑five years that have passed since Charles Liebman, writing in the American Jewish Year Book, first pronounced Orthodoxy to be "on the upsurge" and concluded that it was "the only group which today contains within it a strength and will to live that may yet nourish all the Jewish world."

Orthodoxy has emerged as the great success story of late 20th‑century American Judaism. Some of its leaders proudly proclaim themselves the winners in the race to save American Judaism, and insist that non‑Orthodox Jews, with their high rate of intermarriage, will have no Jewish grandchildren and no Jewish future

A View from History

History warns against triumphalistic claims of this sort. In the post‑Civil War era, Reform Jews believed that they would define American Judaism. The architect of American Reform Judaism, Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise, called his prayer book Minhag America and, given the number of synagogues that moved into the Reform camp in his day, his vision did not seem farfetched. Many in the mid‑1870s believed as he did that Reform would in time become "the custom of American Jews."

orthodox jewish menOf course, with mass East European Jewish immigration that did not happen and within half‑a‑century Reform Judaism had stagnated. Conservative Judaism, meanwhile, became the fastest growing movement on the American Jewish scene and it too enjoyed a moment of triumphalism, especially in the immediate post‑World War II era. But its success proved no more long lasting. In recent decades, its numbers have declined both absolutely and relatively.

The question now is whether Orthodoxy will follow the same trajectory. History, of course, does not always repeat itself, but insiders in the Orthodox world know that their movement suffers from many "dilemmas and vulnerabilities." Indeed a symposium organized by the Orthodox Union in 1998 spoke of "a sense of triumph mixed with trepidation." I want to focus on six reasons for this trepidation. Without discounting any of American Orthodoxy's obvious strengths, anyone who is seriously interested in the future of American Orthodoxy needs to confront these issues.

Membership Retention

First of all, Orthodox Judaism in America has had trouble retaining its members. Indeed, according to a demographic study by Sergio Della Pergola and Uzi Rebhun, published in the Orthodox flagship publication, Jewish Action, Orthodoxy loses more of its members over time than does any other Jewish religious movement. Even among the younger and supposedly more committed Orthodox (born 1950‑1970), according to the survey, Orthodoxy retained only 42 percent of those born into its fold. To be sure, some of these losses are compensated for by gains of new followers, and Orthodox Jews also enjoy a higher birthrate than their non‑Orthodox counterparts. Figures from the 2000 National Jewish Population Survey, one suspects, will show an improved rate of Orthodox retention. Notwithstanding all of these factors, however, the demographers concluded that, "overall, the size of Orthodoxy does not seem to be bound to dramatic growth." Considering that not even 10 percent of American Jews are currently Orthodox, this represents a significant problem.

Did you like this article?  MyJewishLearning is a not-for-profit organization.

Please consider making a donation today.

Jonathan Sarna

Jonathan D. Sarna is the Joseph and Belle R. Braun Professor of American Jewish History at Brandeis University.