The surprising future of American Orthodox Jewry

American Jewry's past is very different from its present state and even less similar to what is predicted for the future. Israeli leaders would do well to pay attention to the change.

Dr. Manfred Gerstenfeld , | updated: 01:23

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Manfred Gerstenfeld
Manfred Gerstenfeld

“The greatest inaccuracy in demographic predictions about American Jewry was the prevailing view during the 1950’s that Orthodoxy would die out. There were only a few core communities and scattered enclaves of Jews around America who were seriously observant.”

A professor of law at Columbia Law School since 1974, Richard Stone is a past Chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations and a venture capitalist investing primarily in Israel.

“Most Jews who would have identified as Orthodox at that time were not seriously observant. For many, Orthodoxy was more a social than a religious category. In most places, the immigrants who arrived Orthodox in the major wave that occurred between the turn of the century and the 1920’s, did not establish serious Orthodox education systems for their children.

“The vast majority of these children, even if they identified as Orthodox, were little different in actual practice from Jews who identified with the liberal denominations. In a generation or so most descendants of Orthodox immigrants made the easy transition to Reform or Conservative. There were stigmas suggested by the term Orthodox that related to issues of class, wealth, Americanization, and outmoded, unattractive behavior.

“The influx of Holocaust refugees greatly strengthened the existing Orthodox infrastructure. Orthodox communities began to grow and to overcome the resistance to Orthodoxy that had prevailed in American-Jewish society. Jewish day-schools, in which children could receive a serious education grounded in Jewish text, grew with amazing speed in both the modern and haredi communities.

“This drastically changed the prior odds against perpetuating Orthodoxy in a new generation of American raised children. By the 1960’s, there were critical masses of genuinely Orthodox Jews of many different stripes. The need and tendency of Orthodox communities to concentrate in their own geographic locations created Orthodox neighborhoods, primarily in New York and its surrounding areas, but also in Boston, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Chicago, Cleveland, Denver and even in unpredictable places like Memphis, Tennessee, Savannah and eventually Los Angeles and others.

“The arrival and determination of the refugees was the original catalyst for this demographic surprise. Another important factor was the growing viability of the State of Israel, which inspired even those Jews who did not yet call themselves Zionists. 

“Worldwide Jewry experienced an extraordinary moment when Israel emerged triumphant from the ‘6-Day War.’ This intensified a pride in being Jewish that facilitated the ability of the American-Jewish community to recognize that strong Jewish religious identity was not an impediment to other aspirations.


It turned out that many Orthodox Jews with minimal secular education were extremely successful in a range of other businesses. There is now a class of haredi Orthodox billionaires and hundred-millionaires much larger than is generally known.
“In the 60s and early 70s a legitimate embracing of ethnicity developed outside the Jewish community. At the same time stereotypes about the definition of American aristocracy broke down. This played a role in strengthening Jewish identity and facilitating an increase in Jewish observance, at least at the more modern end of the Orthodox spectrum. This development in American society also opened the door to a surprising number of secular American-Jews who sought spirituality by becoming Orthodox.

“Simultaneously the modern Orthodox community attended top schools in substantial numbers, and flourished professionally and financially. By the 1970’s being Orthodox was in no way an impediment to success in the professions or in the businesses that graduates of excellent secular institutions of higher learning tend to populate.

“Even more significantly, in the haredi Orthodox communities refugees and children of refugees began to accumulate serious wealth without the traditional educational profile. Much of this wealth resulted from the major appreciation in real estate values over the last fifty years throughout the New York metropolitan region. It also turned out that many Orthodox Jews with minimal secular education were extremely successful in a range of other businesses. There is now a class of haredi Orthodox billionaires and hundred-millionaires much larger than is generally known.

“A dramatic result of the wealth accumulated in the haredi Orthodox community is that thousands of Jewish men study in yeshivas on a full-time basis for much longer periods than ever before.

(Illustration) Hareidi-religious Jews in Manhattan
Flash 90

“There is now a multi-faceted Orthodox world with an infrastructure that should enable it to continue to grow, perhaps geometrically, as Orthodox families on the average have far more offspring than  generated in the non-Orthodox Jewish world.

“The non-Orthodox Jewish world continues to claim the affiliation of a decided majority of Americans self-identified as Jews. Yet it has morphed into a different kind of Jewish community which future seems to be in doubt. Only a tiny percentage of students educated in the Reform and Conservative institutions receive a Jewish education that compares even remotely with the level of their secular education.

“Many non-Orthodox children are by now four or five generations removed from knowing family members who had a grounding in Jewish knowledge or observance. For at least two generations, the majority of Jews outside the Orthodox community have intermarried. This has resulted in a continuing movement of the liberal denominations toward accepting as Jewish anyone who wants to be a Jew. Many have assimilated and have little or no Jewish identification.

“Those who seek to retain Jewish identification frequently define their Jewishness as an aspect of liberal political values and ethics. Even to those who accept this type of Jewish identity as legitimate, it seems difficult to project anything but decline in the non-Orthodox Jewish community.

“Consequently, it seems that Orthodoxy is on a path to dominating American Judaism and that Orthodox Jews will grow dramatically both in numbers and influence. Haredi Orthodoxy is already substantially larger than modern Orthodoxy. Haredi Orthodoxy’s growth will probably be greater than that of any other segment of the Jewish community.

“Predictions of American-Jewish demography have frequently been wrong in the past, and there could surely be developments in the future that will belie the predictions suggested herein. But if current trends continue, there will be many implications to the predicted outcome. An Orthodox dominated American-Jewish community will continue to be prominent in many secular fields of endeavor. On the other hand Jewish prominence in certain areas, such as entertainment and popular culture, would likely diminish.

“The tendency of Orthodox Jews to protect their values and interests is likely to continue to produce political influence that is disproportionate to the number of Jews in the general population. Orthodox Jews have the financial resources, the sophistication and the motivation to play a substantial role in issues that are of genuine interest to them. My guess is that the pro-Israel lobby in America, though it will be Orthodox-dominated, will continue to be very effective.”


 




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