We have seen the future, and it looks Orthodox
September 29, 2017
(JTA)—The 2013 Pew survey “A Portrait of Jewish Americans” shows that Orthodox Judaism, while currently attracting the allegiance of only about 10 percent of all American Jews, is the fastest growing sector of the community. The high birthrate and retention rate confirmed by the survey have led some observers to predict that within a generation, American Jewry will be predominantly Orthodox, culturally if not demographically.
Of course we cannot presume that present trends will continue, but it’s surely worth thinking about what such a Jewish community might look like.
A glimpse of that hypothetical future community may be found in the 2017 American Jewish Committee’s Survey of American Jewish Opinion, the latest installment of the organization’s annual report on the attitudes of a representative sample of American Jews, conducted in August. The stark differences it finds between Orthodox and non-Orthodox Jews today go far beyond varying patterns of religious observance, and suggest the profound social, political and ideological changes that may lie ahead.
The survey confirms that Orthodox Jews are highly pro-family and pro-natalist. An astounding 42 percent of the Orthodox respondents are aged 18-29, as compared to just 15 percent of Conservative Jews, 19 percent of Reform and 16 percent of those calling themselves “Just Jewish.” And despite their relative youth, 83 percent of the Orthodox respondents are married, far more than the 54 percent of Conservative, 52 percent of Reform and 44 percent of Just Jewish who are.
Jewish identity is strongest among the Orthodox. While virtually all respondents declared that being Jewish was important in their lives, a significant denominational difference emerged as to whether being Jewish ranked as very important: 99 percent of the Orthodox said it did, as compared to 71 percent of Conservatives, 44 percent of Reform and 30 percent Just Jewish.
Another large gap emerged in regard to visiting Israel: 84 percent of the Orthodox had done so, 65 percent of Conservatives, 49 percent of Reform and 37 percent of Just Jewish. A remarkable 66 percent of the Orthodox sample had been to Israel more than once—a higher rate than that for any of the non-Orthodox groups visiting once.
In addition, the AJC survey demonstrates intense political polarization between Orthodox and non-Orthodox Jews. The Orthodox are far more politically conservative, Republican and pro-Trump than other American Jews. Only 3 percent of the Orthodox sample describe themselves as liberal, as compared to 46 percent of Conservative Jews, 64 percent of Reform and 60 percent of those who say they are Just Jewish. Sixty-nine percent of the Orthodox identify as politically conservative, as do only 29 percent of Conservative Jews, 14 percent of Reform, and 16 percent of Just Jewish. (About an additional 20 percent in each of the denominations identify as “moderate, middle-of-the-road.”)
Even as Orthodox Republicans outnumber Orthodox Democrats by 43 to 22 percent (the rest are Independents), other Jews are overwhelmingly Democratic—52 percent of Conservatives, 70 percent of Reform and 58 percent of the Just Jewish. And while 54 percent of the Orthodox voted for Trump in November, 60 percent of Conservatives, 89 percent of Reform Jews and 78 percent of the Just Jewish voted for Hillary Clinton. When the survey was done in August, 71 percent of the Orthodox had a favorable impression of Trump’s performance as president. In contrast, 73 percent of the Conservatives, 88 percent of Reform and 81 percent of the Just Jewish judged it unfavorably.
Responses to questions about Trump’s performance on specific policy issues—national security, terrorism, U.S.-Russia relations, NATO and the transatlantic alliance, race relations, immigration and the Iran nuclear issue—showed a similar pattern. Non-Orthodox respondents view the administration’s record unfavorably by roughly 3 to 1, even as the Orthodox give it favorable ratings by about the same margin.
On Israel, the survey findings clearly indicate that Orthodox Jews are much more hawkish and supportive of the current Israeli government than other Jews. Although clear majorities in all the non-Orthodox groups favor the establishment of a Palestinian state under current circumstances, 78 percent of the Orthodox oppose the idea. And asked their opinion of the way Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is handling his country’s relations with the U.S., 86 percent of Orthodox respondents approve, 51 percent “strongly.” In contrast, 38 percent of Conservatives, 51 percent of Reform and 53 percent of the Just Jewish disapprove.
Questions on the relationship of religion and state in Israel elicited strong American Orthodox backing for the status quo. For example, 57 percent of the Orthodox believe that Israel’s recognition of Orthodoxy as the sole official form of Judaism has no effect on the country’s ties with American Jews, and another 28 percent feel it actually strengthens those ties. In sharp contrast, however, clear majorities of each of the non-Orthodox groups responded that the religious status quo in Israel in fact weakens the ties between the two Jewish communities.
If, indeed, American Jewry turns more Orthodox in coming years, and the Orthodox maintain their current values and views, we will see a community more family-centered, more strongly Jewish, more politically conservative, more engaged with Israel and more committed to Israel’s Orthodox and right-leaning camps.
But before making plans to prepare for this future scenario, bear in mind that prognosticators have been wrong before.
Lawrence Grossman is the American Jewish Committee’s director of publications.