January 25, 2005

by Andrew Silow-Carroll
Pipes' dream

Math quiz: Can somebody tell me how soon, based on the numbers Daniel Pipes cites below in this article, Orthodox Jews will again constitute the "great majority" of Jews?

The subsequent 60 years, however, witnessed a resurgence of the Orthodox element. This was, again, due to many factors, especially a tendency among the non-Orthodox to marry non-Jews and have fewer children. Recent figures on America published by the National Jewish Population Survey also point in this direction. The Orthodox proportion of American synagogue members, for example, went from 11% in 1971 to 16% in 1990 to 21% in 2000-01. (In absolute numbers, it bears noting, the American Jewish population went steadily down during these decades.)

Should this trend continue, it is conceivable that the ratio will return to roughly where it was two centuries ago, with the Orthodox again constituting the great majority of Jews. Were that to happen, the non-Orthodox phenomenon could seem in retrospect merely an episode, an interesting, eventful, consequential, and yet doomed search for alternatives, suggesting that living by the law may be essential for maintaining a Jewish identity over the long term.

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#1

As the former champion of my yeshiva's math team, let me take a crack at the math here.


The relevant numbers are: 11% in 1971 to 16% in 1990 to 21% in 2000-01.


Doing straight arithmetic, rather than actual demographics (in which case I would have to take into account the changes among the Orthodox and non-Orthodox populations, to list just the first new variables), shows a 5 percentage point increase over the first two decades rising to 5 points in this past decade. That would put the numbers at 10 more points by 2010 (for 31%), 51% by 2020, 91% by 2030 and a most impressive 171% by 2040. So much for straight line adding up of percentage points.


On the other hand, 5 points represented a 45% increase over 11 points, and only a 31% increase over 16 points. So there seems to be a modest increase of 22% for the first couple of decades to 31% in the past decade. (I'm starting to wonder about the margn of error here.) At a 31% increase every decade, we avoid the problems of getting better than a hundred percent. The numbers that produces are: 27% in 2010, 35% in 2020, 46% in 2030, and 60% in 2040.


Real demographic predictions could come from analyzing a specific age cohort -- say, numbers of 11-year-olds in Jewish schools. To predict denominational data require some knowledge of the rate at which people drop out of Orthodoxy. The only recent survey that seemed to look even a little at that question was the ridiculously self-selecting NCSY survey, which after publicizing the survey primarily in the Orthodox Jewish Action magazine, found that 94 percent or so of NCSY alumni were Orthodox.


Another issue when it comes to multigenerational predictions is that definitions change. A good hunk of the "Orthodox" in the 1970 NJPS would not be considered Orthodox today. A healthy number of today's Orthodox rabbis would not have been considred Orthodox in 1900 -- and for that matter, aren't considered Orthodox by their own Orthodox colleagues. So how do we handle denominational predictions?


Predictions are fun, but I'm not convinced we have any accurate perception of the present.


Here's another question to consider: Are there any trends in today's Jewish community that couldn't have been predicted in 1970?

Posted by: Reb Yudel at January 25, 2005 4:44 PM
#2

Great job. One question:

"A good hunk of the 'Orthodox' in the 1970 NJPS would not be considered Orthodox today. A healthy number of today's Orthodox rabbis would not have been considred Orthodox in 1900 -- and for that matter, aren't considered Orthodox by their own Orthodox colleagues."

Explain?


Posted by: Silow-Carroll at January 25, 2005 5:43 PM
#3

There's a huge older cohort (though less huge than it was 10 or 30 years ago) of first-generation Americans who considered themselves "Orthodox" but for whom observance wasn't that important.

Those non-observant Orthodox are basically a dying breed, with Edah holding discussions on "Orthodox Shuls Serving the non-Orthodox: Should They, Can They?"

That's the laity.

As for the rabbinate -- well, most American Orthodox rabbis have now taken up Mordecai Kaplan's then-radical cause of English-language sermons. He was Orthodox when he started the Young Israel movement to give American-born young Jews an English-language Jewish experience, but he was plenty controversial for departing from long-established customs.

Today's rabbinate -- I think Rabbi Eliashav has drawn a definitive line in the sand with his anti-evolution ban. Certainly plenty of liberal Orthodox rabbis aren't orthodox enough for him... and at what point does the lack of respect start becoming reciprocal?

Posted by: Reb Yudel at January 25, 2005 5:56 PM
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