Will Your Grandkids Be Reform?

Bruce writes:

Some Orthodox advocates view Reform and Conservative Judaism as dying denominations. In a article with the provocative title "Will Your Grandchildren Be Jews?" the two authors contrast Orthodox Judaism’s relatively high birthrates and relatively low intermarriage rates with lower Reform and Conservative birthrates and higher intermarriage rates. Their conclusion: after a few generations, Reform and Conservative Jews will practically disappear, and everyone will be Orthodox. Their recommendation to Reform and Conservative Jews: become Orthodox, or at least sent your children to Orthodox Jewish day schools.

An intriguing idea. However, the "WYGBJ" model is inconsistent with the actual observed data over the past 38 years. The reason for this inconsistency is that the model ignores the high Orthodox inter-denominational switching rate, despite this data being published in the same studies that it cites. Nonetheless, the two factors this model is based on (intermarriage and birthrates) are obviously important but require more complex analysis than WYGBJ provides.

If the WYGBJ model were correct, we should have already started seeing this effect in massive numbers. But in fact we do not.

Mordy Ovits from TheKnish.com responds:

1) Your interpretation of the data ignores the very significant definitional shift in the meaning of the term "Orthodox" over the period polled. If you retroactively applied the 2001 definition of Orthodox to 1970 (shrinking it massively), you might actually see that exponential growth you say isn’t evidenced.

2) Exponential growth by definition isn’t impressive in the beginning–but it explodes rapidly once it hits its stride. This is especially important when the numbers started small in the first place. From 1970 to now is barely a generation and half; it’s entirely possible that the next census will show the expected exponential effects. I know it’s already visible on the streets, in the yeshivas, and even in the growth of products that cater to an exclusively Orthodox market. (And yes, I know about the empty shuls of dead American Orthodox communities of the past.)

3) I strongly believe you’re misinterpreting the Orthodox attrition rate. I think that what the survey show as Orthodox attrition is actually evidence of my point #1: the changing definition of "Orthodox." Sure, lots of people who once called themselves Orthodox no longer do. But that’s because the definition of "Orthodox" changed, not because they did. The attrition was in the masses of nominally Orthodox, the now nearly defunct category of people who affiliated Orthodox but were not particularly observant. No one I know, and I know gobs of Orthodox Jews, is seeing anything like 42% Orthodox attrition rate. That would 13 kids out of every 30-kid graduating class; that’s nowhere near the reality I see on the ground, no matter how hushed up OTD kids are.

4) You overestimate the impact of skeptical knowledge. People are generally religious for social reasons, from the initial socialization into the religion to the community ties that keeps them in for the long haul. So long as the social environment is good, all the skeptical knowledge in the world won’t shake most people out of their social comfort zone. Historically, Jews left observance at rates you’re considering only when observance was uncomfortable, the source of poverty and limits. Today in America, Jewish observance is marked more by materialism than poverty, no one is losing their job over Shabbos, and observant Jews can be basically anything they want to. Economics would have more effect on attrition rates than all the evolution websites on the Internet.

I won’t defend WYGBJ, but your counterarguments have some serious deficiencies.

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see Amazon.com). My work has been followed by the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (Alexander90210.com).
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