Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Will Your Grandchildren Be Reform?

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.

According to the WYGBJ model, 100 Chassidic and Yeshiva Orthodox Jews will grow to 324 such Jews in one generation. 100 Centrist Orthodox Jews should grow to 163 such Jews in a generation. In contrast, 100 Conservative Jews will shrink to 66 Conservative Jews after a generation, and 100 Reform Jews will shrink to only 46 Reform Jews. Thus, in a single generation, the ratio of Chassidic and Yeshiva Orthodox Jews to Reform Jews will increase approximately 7 times (324/46 is about 7), and the ratio of Centrist Orthodox to Reform Jews will increase about 3.5 times. (Technically, a slight adjustment has to be made for changes in total population, but this adjustment does not significantly change the ratios.) Orthodox populations should be soaring.

But that's not what the data show. In 1971, 1990, and 2000-2001, demographers published a National Jewish Population Study (NJPS). (There was no study in 1980.) The data on religious denominations reveals some interesting trends. I'll present the data first and then analyze how it pertains to issue at hand. (Accessing the 1971 and 1990 data requires free registration.)

The 1971 NJPS (Jewish Identity Report) shows the following percentage for the Head of Household:
Orthodox Jews: 11.4%
Conservative Jews: 40.4%
Reform Jews: 30.0%
Just Jewish and Other: 15.0%

The 1971 report estimated there were 5.4 million Jews total.

If (as is likely) Orthodox families had more children than non-Orthodox Jewish families, the percentage of Orthodox Jews (as opposed to just Orthodox Jewish heads of household) would have been higher in 1970.

The 1990 NJPS Study Highlights, Part 2 (Table 25, Current Jewish Denominational Preference of Households) showed the following percentages:
Orthodox: 6.8%
Conservative: 40.4%
Reform: 41.4%
Other: 11.4%

This study used various definitions of who is a Jew, but found a core Jewish population of 5.5 million, with more people of Jewish ancestry who now practice other religions.

The 2000-2001 NJPS breaks down the more recent data in a slightly different but more informative way. American Jewish Religious Denominations, Table 2, contains the following data:

Jewish Adults (18 or older)
Orthodox 10%
Conservative 27%
Reform 35%
Reconstructionist 2%
Just Jewish 26%

Jewish Children (17 or younger)
Orthodox 23%
Conservative 24%
Reform 35%
Reconstructionist 3%
Just Jewish 21%

Total Jews
Orthodox 13%
Conservative 26%
Reform 34%
Reconstructionist 2%
Just Jewish 25%

The 2000-2001 NJPS estimated a total population of 5.2 million Jews.

Although the definition of Jews varied in these three studies, and thus the percentages in different reports are not strictly comparable, they are nonetheless close enough for these purposes. In the years 1971, 1990, and 2000-2001, the adult Orthodox population percentage went from 11.4% to 6.8% to 10%. It was relatively constant. The adult Conservative population percentage went from 40.4% to 40.4% to 27%. (The two 40.4%s are a coincidence, not a typo.) It remained relatively constant through 1990, but declined after that. The adult Reform population percentage went from 30.0% to 41.4% to 35%. It increased.

There is no sign here of a dramatic increase in Orthodox population nor of a dramatic decrease in Reform population. (The decrease in the Conservative population is the result of some odd demographics, and I may blog on this separately.)

But the 2000-2001 NJPS does show a marked increase in the percentage of Orthodox children. While only 10% of Jewish adults are Orthodox, 23% of Jewish children are Orthodox. This suggests that we are on the verge of an Orthodox "breakout". As soon as these children reach adulthood, there will be a lot more Orthodox Jews.

However, there is a problem with this conclusion. Orthodox Jews also had a significantly higher birthrate than non-Orthodox Jews in 1970 and 1990 (and all years in between). Why didn't those children raise the percentage of Orthodox adults in the 1990 and 2000-2001 NJPS?

The answer is also contained in the study. Orthodox Judaism has a very high attrition rate, as the following table (Table 4 from the 2000-2001 NJPS American Jewish Religious Denominations Report shows:

  Denomination Raised
  OrthodoxConservative ReformJust Jewish
Current Denomination
Orthodox 42323
Conservative 2956711
Reform 17287817
Just Jewish 12131470
Total 100100101101

Of all children raised Orthodox, only 42% have remained Orthodox as adults. 29% become Conservative adults, 17% become Reform adults, and 12% become "Just Jewish". In contrast, 56% of children raised Conservative become Conservative adults, and 78% of children raised Reform become Reform adults. Thus, Reform Judaism is more successful than Conservative Judaism in keeping children within the denomination, and Conservative Judaism is more successful at this than Orthodoxy.

Of the children who switch denominations when they become an adult, most become more liberal. Only 2% or 3% of non-Orthodox children become Orthodox as adults, while 17% of Orthodox children and 28% of Conservative children become Reform adults.

A short paper reviewed the 2000-2001 data and concluded there has been a shift away from Orthodoxy. "Viewing Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform Judaism and a fourth “non-specific” group as categories that range from the most traditional to the least traditional respectively, . . . [¶] We found that 62% stay within the same group, 29% move away from tradition, and 9% move to a more traditional denomination."

This is not new information. A similar table (Table 24) appeared in the 1990 NJPS. The authors note,
"Table 24 shows that nearly 90 percent of those now Orthodox were raised as such, thus indicating any movement toward Orthodoxy is relatively small. In contrast to the Orthodox, the Conservative and Reform drew heavily from one or both of the major denominations; one-third of the Conservatives were raised as Orthodox and one-quarter of the Reform as Conseratives with an additional 12 percent having been raised Orthodox."

However, the WYGBJ model simply ignores this critical demographic statistic.

Thus, the basic demographic facts are clear. Orthodox Jews have a lower intermarriage rate and a higher birthrate than more liberal or moderate Jews, but a much higher denominational-switching rate. Of all Jewish adults who were raised Orthodox, fewer than half are now Orthodox. No other Jewish denomination has such a high switching rate.

What do we make of all this? I see several points that are worth noting.

1. The Orthodox Attrition Rate. I am not a demographer, but I would expect the Orthodox switching rate to increase. There are many reasons why people leave Orthodoxy, but one reason (as illustrated by many commentators on this blog) is skepticism about Orthodox factual claims. Many Orthodox communities limit access to critical or non-Orthodox information or argument, especially for young people. (This might be good or bad, but my point here is simply to note the fact, not debate its merits.) This lack of access to information prevents some young Orthodox Jews from learning about more critical and skeptical points of view, and this in turn makes it less likely that they will choose to leave Orthodoxy.

But the internet has changed that.

In the 1980s, when I first started investigating many of the Orthodox claims (as a non-Orthodox Jew), I had a very difficult time obtaining information. I was in college at the time and fortunately had access to UCLA's extensive libraries. But even that was less than ideal. Finding the information I was looking for was quite time consuming, and virtually no one else that I knew was interested in these somewhat obscure topics. However, this situation is quite different today. A quick google search on any of these controversial topics (the documentary hypothesis, the Kuzari argument, Bible codes, evolution and creationism, Biblical archeology) yields a wealth of information, arguments pro and con, and a large community of people who are interested in these topics.

My point here is not to debate the merits of these critical arguments, but simply to note that some people find them persuasive and switch from Orthodoxy to non-Orthodoxy. And with greater access to this information and these arguments, more Orthodox Jews are likely to find this information, and some of these are then likely to switch.

Of course, Orthodoxy may respond in several ways, and these responses may decrease the attrition rate. Determining the net effect may be much more complex.

2. Birthrates. Despite overlooking the inter-denominational switching rate, the basic point that the WYGBJ chart made is still largely (but not completely) valid. Jews having fewer children will certainly result in fewer Jews in the next generation. Jews who care about this should certainly take this fact into account, at least in some way, when considering how many children to have.

3. Intermarriage. Intermarriage is much more complicated. I am going to ignore the halachic issue of who is a Jew and focus solely on demographics. I know several intermarried couples, some of whom strongly identify as Jews, raise their children as Jews, and have solidly Jewish families. Others do not and are essentially secular. And the same is true for in-married Jewish couples as well.

The overriding factor in whether parents practice Judaism and raise their children as Jews is whether the parents find Judaism important and meaningful. Thus, intermarriage may frequently be the result of a lack of interest in Judaism, not an exogenously determined cause of assimilation. The "solution" to intermarriage may be to focus first on how to make Judaism important and meaningful to Jews. Jews who find Judaism important either do not intermarry or do so and raise their children Jewish.

There are numerous other issues here, and I will leave them for a future post.

4. The Math The WYGBJ math is simply wrong. Including inter-denominational switching shows that the process is a complicated web, not a simple linear progression. It cannot be modeled by a simple chart showing Orthodoxy increasing exponentially and Reform and Conservative Judaism falling into oblivion. Technically, it would have to be modeled with Markov chains. (The basic matrix is provided above, but it needs to be flipped.)

The problem with such a model here is the same as the problem with all models that try to predict well into the future. All these rates (birth rates, intermarriage rates, inter-denominational switching rates) are likely to change over time.

One can do the arithmetic without too much trouble. (For the interested reader, simply take the 4x4 matrix above, flip it along its diagonal, multiply it by 1x4 vectors representing the intermarriage rate and birth rate, and then raise that matrix to the nth power. This will give you the matrix predicting population distributions in generation n. When you multiply a 1x4 initial population vector by that matrix, it will give you the estimated population in generation n.)

However, the result is virtually meaningless. These rates are likely to increase or decrease, perhaps substantially, and such extrapolations multiple generations into the future are simply not reliable.

5. Recommendations: We're All Interconnected The data show that we are all much more interconnected than we might think. I think all branches of Judaism would benefit from strengthening all other branches of Judaism. I will have a separate post on the details and implications of this.

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