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Defensive strategies for Jewish Orthodoxy survival is not a winning game-plan

It is wisely said that often what people worry about turns out not to be what they really should be worried about. Liberals worry about white racism towards minorities - really they should worry about their own lowered expectation of what passes for public schools in the inner city. People worry about plane crashes - really they should worry about are the horrific effects of distracted driving.

So it is when it comes to the threats to the survival of Jewish Orthodoxy. The Orthodox comprise 10% of Jews in America, 2% higher than 10 years ago. However this is largely due to the strong fertility rate among the Orthodox which is at 4.1 children per family vs. only 1.9 for Jews overall (which includes the Orthodox). The Orthodoxy retention rate which albeit has gotten better in recent years still has a detraction force. According to a 2013 PEW research study; for those Othodox aged between 18 and 29 the retention rate is 83%, between 30 and 49 it is 57%, between 50 and 64 it is 41% and 65 and older it is 22%. Based on these figures, even the strongest rate of 18 to 29 year olds, the drop-out rate of 17% is just 3% short of a whole fifth of the group. According to some studies, the drop-out rate within 2 years after high school graduation among the Modern Orthodox is as high as 50% but that figure is taken from youth who attend Modern Orthodox schools but may not have been MO (Modern Orthodox) from home.

Reasons given for the drop-out rates according to the group, Emes Ve-Emunah, are “being sexually abused and the negative reactions to it by family and community, dysfunctional family situations, faulty educational environments, teachers unprepared to deal with questions of faith, or being overly sheltered from the world so that rebellion occurs when they are exposed to it unprepared.” However this source goes on to say that the biggest determinant seems to be role modeling; if the parents’ faith is shaky so would the children’s faith turn out to be. If the parents go to shul so would the children. I would add that family dynamics has to be a very large factor. If the parents are pleasant, honest and loving while representing a Torah way of life, chances are that the children would credit a Torah way of life for the positive attributes of the parents.

Dealing with the hard questions in life, such as the suffering of righteous people and the seemingly happy life of people who just take advantage of others (up to a point of course, because prison is not a happy place) is hard enough for people. But why wouldn’t we, to counteract that, as a community, not promote what are the truly wonderful and readily understood aspects of our religion? I refer here to the deep and satisfying world of midos which are too often not explored. There is someone that I knew from childhood who is quite an angry and confrontational fellow yet doesn’t think that he would benefit from therapy even though his anger and dysfunction hold him back in life both socially and financially. This person goes to a daf yomi shiur on a daily basis but oddly enough, feels that his midos are in line with what our Chachamim taught. Recently, I bought a copy of Orchos Tzadikim and mailed it to him. I haven’t heard back from him as to whether he feels he could benefit from its study. The reason he will most probably ignore it is because the emphasis of the community is placed on what he does - namely, to go to a daf yomi shiur. Otherwise, however, his bad character falls through society’s net and he manages being a totally offensive person to many if not all people that he deals with.

Much of the Torah is not revealed to us with regard to prohibition of acts without en explanation (chukim) e.g. not being allowed to plow one’s field with an ox and a donkey together or the mixing of certain fabrics (wool and linen together) in one’s clothing. In kashrut, as it was pointed out to me, eating one type of grasshopper is considered as disgusting and prohibited and yet another type of grasshopper is actually kosher. Even when it comes to prohibitions based on explanations from the Torah (mishpatim), earthly man is not privy to a real understanding of such that would be self evident. Who would consider the punishment for someone creating a fire by lighting a match on Shaboss, albeit a day of rest to keep holy, worthy of death??? What about Needah? The Torah says that a woman’s menstruation is impure. We are given that reason for abstaining from intimacy for 2 weeks of the month but is there a real understanding of this? We do not have an earthly understanding of the depth of this prohibition.

Some in the Orthodox community have upheld the past prospect and current reality of legislation legalizing gay marriage as a travesty for the Orthodox world. Homosexuality, which no one can scientifically refute as stemming from nature, nurture or a combination of both, is not subject to a fashion choice. However, to a person with such proclivities it is like countless other commandments in the Torah which we all have to struggle with, each according to his particular test (neesayhon) to make it conform to Torah laws. Homosexuality as a reality in society does not influence the homosexual any more than malls being open on Shaboss influences Jews to desecrate the Shaboss.

Some people think that America’s progressive left is coming after our institutions of mila and shechita. I say that as long as truth is on our side that America’s constitution will protect our religious rights. So far we have support from the scientific community that mila is indeed a healthy practice. Even if it were not so, the state would have to show that substantial harm is inflicted on a baby by the practice. Shechita is less clear as being the most humane practice of slaughter. I would venture to say that if stunning an animal before it is killed is clearly superior to the current practice of shechita, who is to say that our future poskim won’t make a tikun to the procedure as they have done with other things (e.g. Tikun Derabainu Gershom)? But before that, the laws would have to outlaw hunting as well, as neither that practice involves stunning an animal before it is killed.

In Europe and Russia we were persecuted from our neighbors and not allowed to live in peace with our traditions. As such we sought to protect oneself from the Christian world by reacting to our external environment such as spitting on the ground and uttering words of contempt and disparagement (shaketz teshaksenu kee charem hoo) when walking by a church. In the new world we no longer do that. Rabbi Krohn once said in a lecture that in the new world the way the gentiles want to terminate us as a people, is with a smile and not the sword. To worry about threats coming from the outside is fighting the last war and not worrying about the real threats that confront Jewish Orthodoxy in the modern age. In the modern age our spiritual religion must fill a void that people hunger for and feel in their hearts.

Yet we are up for the challenge and Orthodoxy can adapt with the times. In America and in secular Israel, where people have more religious lifestyle options to choose from, I say that it is best to accentuate and showcase more of those aspects of our Mesorah whose values are more self evident, such as in the beauty of treating one another with the utmost of respect. I think that if along with a Daf Yomi class, having a class on midos or mussar once or even twice a week, would do much much more to keep Orthodoxy alive and thriving in our modern world. Orthodoxy, while remaining true to its doctrine can and should promote a more positive approach of love and concern for our fellow Jew and gentile alike. This already is and in the future will be even more, the approach to retaining our youth to our wonderful tradition.

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