Looking Backward: Modern Orthodoxy in the Year 2000

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[“Looking Backward” will be an occasional feature on TraditionOnline.org in which we ask authors to reflect on their contributions to the pages of Tradition from years ago, or in which we re-explore classic essays and their ongoing contributions to religious thought.

I am grateful for the opportunity to look back on the article which the late Prof. Egon Mayer and I wrote for Tradition more than 40 years ago. In that article, Modern Jewish Orthodoxy in America—Toward the Year 2000” (Tradition 16:3, Spring 1977), written in 1975-76, we looked at a number of demographic patterns, including size, birth rate, and socioeconomic patterns, and we predicted growth and organizational strength. We also looked at American social and cultural patterns and their implications for Modern Orthodoxy. We suggested that the role of the family in education and work patterns may have contributed to the growth and development of Modern Orthodoxy, especially in the growth of yeshivot and rising occupational and income status. On the other hand, we suggested that these and other developments contributed to a shift in the centrality of the synagogue and its rabbi to the primacy of the yeshiva and roshei yeshiva. Likewise, we suggested that there was a developing shift from midot and mitzvot (correct living) to lomdut (correct knowledge). Two final developments we pointed to were a shift in Modern Orthodoxy from the centrality of the local community and its institutions to a broadening of the sense of community, and to the emergence of a spiritual quest among some sectors of American society and its impact on the “turn to the right” in the Orthodox community.

Rereading the article, I am very pleased at the accuracy of many of observations and the realizations of many of our predictions. For example, we predicted “a considerable increase in the numbers of young Orthodox families, at least for the next decade” from that time. We conditioned our prediction for the following decade and into the next century on the family planning patterns of the next generation. As it turned out, the Orthodox birth rate continues to be well above replacement level, and the Ultra-Orthodox rate much higher. [See my book, Social Change and Halakhic Evolution in American Orthodoxy (Littman Library of Jewish Civilization, 2017), 32, 40.]

In addition to the continued growth of the traditional day schools pioneered by Torah Umesorah, there has now developed a pattern in which Jewish schools offer adult education programs (see Tzvi Sinensky, “Adult Education: A New Frontier in the Jewish Day School Movement?,” The Lehrhaus). As far as mikvaot are concerned, the increase in their numbers and usage has continued and accelerated. [See, for example, www.mikvahusa.org/about and the directory of North American mikvaot, as well as community mikvaot, which welcome non-Orthodox Jews as well.

Our prediction that patterns of high levels of secular education status would be maintained has been proven accurate. In fact, data from the Pew 2013 Survey of American Jews indicate that a higher percentage of Modern Jew have a bachelor’s degree or higher than do Ultra-Orthodox, Conservative and Reform Jews (Social Change and Halakhic Evolution in American Orthodoxy, 37-38).

Although, as a group, Orthodox Jews have lower annual family incomes that do Conservative and Reform Jews, higher percentage of Orthodox than Conservatives have an annual income of $150,000 or more. The percentage of Modern Orthodox with an annual income of $150,000 or more is even higher than that of Reform Jews, and their median annual family incomes are almost identical with those of Conservative Jews (pp. 34-35).

However, those figures do not tell the whole story, and that is something we did not fully grasp when we wrote our original article. The reality is more complex than is indicated by income level alone. Even in households with a high income, many struggle economically because of the high cost of Modern Orthodox Jewish living. For example, in the major Modern Orthodox day schools in New York, Boston, and Los Angeles, tuition and other costs per child in primary school total more than $25,000 per year. There are families in which one of the parent’s entire salary goes to pay tuitions for their children. Synagogue membership is between $1,200 and $2,000 per family annually. Summer camp is another $4,500 to $9,000 per child, depending on the length of stay. That is just to start. There are also, of course, a variety of annual institutional fund-raising dinners which one is expected to attend, to say nothing of the regular costs of maintaining Jewish religious dietary laws, and the expenses incurred during Jewish festivals, even when one doesn’t go to a luxury hotel for Pesach and Sukkot. The high cost of Jewish living is, of course, not unique to Modern Orthodox Jews, but it does appear to have a greater impact on them.

There are a number of other developments that I am pleased to see that we foresaw, but I want to point to two interrelated ones which, even if we suspected, we did not mention in that article but are central to contemporary Modern Orthodoxy—namely, the role of Israel and the changes in the status women.

Although Modern Orthodox American Jews have always been more strongly attached to Israel than other American Jews, when we wrote our article Israel did not play as central a role in American Orthodoxy as it does today. The most significant factor in the change was the development of the “gap-year program,” the one-year post-high school yeshiva in Israel program, which was created and initiated in 1957 by Rabbi Zevi Tabory, Head of the Torah Education Department of the Jewish Agency in New York. What began as a program with a small group of male participants was expanded to include young women as well, but it was not until the early 1970s when, under the leadership of Rabbi Mallen Galinsky, the Associate Director of the Torah Education Department in New York, the program was significantly expanded and became a mass movement, to the point that by the middle of the 1990s, up to 90 percent of the graduates of Modern Orthodox high schools were in such a program. [See Shalom Z. Berger, Daniel Jacobson, Chaim I. Waxman, Flipping Out? Myth or Fact?: The Impact of the “Year in Israel” (Yashar Books, 2007), 160.] I have written elsewhere on the significant impact that Israel has had on American Orthodoxy, and such developments were not apparent in the mid-1970s.[“If I Forget Thee, O Jerusalem… :The Impact of Israel on American Orthodox Jewry,” in Religious Zionism Post Disengagement: Future Directions(Orthodox Forum Series), (Ktav, 2008); and in Social Change and Halakhic Evolution in American Orthodoxy, esp. ch. 7.]

In no small measure as a result of the participation of women in the one-year programs (which frequently becomes two) of Torah study in Israel, the Jewish educational level of Modern Orthodox women has increased dramatically, and this has opened up new professional positions for women. It has also raised consciousness for many Modern Orthodox women and men who wish to see increased equality of opportunity in almost all areas halakhically permissible activities, including synagogue life. Not surprisingly, this has generated serious and emotional debate within the community.

Two patterns which we saw have turned out somewhat differently from the way we then saw them. The turn to the right that we discussed and which has been elaborated up by Samuel Heilman [Sliding to the Right: The Contest for the Future of American Jewish Orthodoxy, (University of California Press, 2006)] led to an opposite pattern among other segments of the community, namely, to what Yehuda Turetsky and I analyzed under the rubric, “Sliding to the Left,” Modern Judaism, 31:2 (May 2011); see also ch. 5 in Social Change and Halakhic Evolution in American Orthodoxy.

Where we saw a shift from midot and mitzvot, what has actually developed in the Modern Orthodox community is a shift from the centrality of the cerebral to the centrality of the spiritual and the growth of the centrality of the spiritual, including neo-hasidism. Much of this was also sparked by the impact of the year in Israel.

Finally, while it was unforeseeable in the mid-1970s and it has impacted on the entire planet rather than just Modern Orthodoxy, I feel I would be remiss if I did not  indicate some of the major impacts of computer technology and the web on Modern Orthodoxy. It has contributed to all of the development mentioned above, and much more. It has enabled the development and accessibility of much greater knowledge than was previously imaginable, and it has thus impacted on the role of educators and synagogue rabbis. It has revolutionized the meaning of place, makom, as in “Hevei goleh le-makom Torah,” “Exile yourself to a place of Torah” (Avot 4:14). It raises serious questions about what is a tzibur, community, and much, much more! Haym Soloveitchik famously wrote in Tradition about the impact of texts on Jews and Jewish observance. It can safely be said that the impact of computer technology and the web are much greater. To seriously analyze the variety of ways they have impacted would require much more than a brief reflecting back. It is not a subject that could be adequately analyzed in an article; it requires a book-length analysis.

Chaim I. Waxman is Professor and Chair of the Behavioral Sciences Department, Hadassah Academic College, Jerusalem, and Professor Emeritus of Sociology and Jewish Studies at Rutgers University, New Brunswick, NJ.

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