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2016 Annual Assessment

The 2013 survey by the Pew Research Center reported that Orthodox Jews make up about 10 percent of the estimated 5.3 million Jewish adults (ages 18 and older) in the United States, an increase of 2 percent since a similar study was done ten years earlier.1 Although the population of adult Orthodox Jews is yet a small minority of the U.S. Jewish population, and its overall growth has been limited, a dramatic change is underway, the result of soaring Orthodox birthrates and a steady decline in the non-Orthodox Jewish population. Roughly a quarter of Orthodox Jewish adults are between the ages of 18 and 29, compared with 17 percent of Reform Jews and 13 percent of Conservative Jews, and Orthodox Jews between 40 and 59 had an average of 4.1 children, compared with an average of 1.7 for other U.S. Jews in that age group.2 A 2012 study of the New York area Jewish community by the UJA-Federation of New York confirms this trend. From 1991 to 2011, the fraction of Jewish households in the New York area that are  Orthodox rose from 13 to 20 percent, and from 2002 to 2011, the fraction of the total Jewish population that are Orthodox grew from 27 to 32 percent. Of all Jewish children living in the area in 2011, 64 percent lived in Orthodox households.3

The growth of the Orthodox population as a percentage of the U.S. Jewish population potentially disrupts settled conceptions of the overall character of U.S. Jewry. The Pew study observed that Orthodox Jews more closely resemble white evangelical Protestants than they do other Jews with respect to the importance of religion in their lives and the belief that God gave Israel to the Jewish people. The study added that Orthodox Jews are more conservative socially and politically than other Jews: they lean Republican, and they are more likely to say that homosexuality should be discouraged.4 The reality though, is somewhat more complex, as the Orthodox Jewish population does not align neatly with white evangelicals and Orthodox Jews are not standard Republicans. Large groups of Orthodox Jews support and lobby for welfare and other government assistance programs, and are just as likely, or even more so, to vote Democratic in local and state races than Republican. Even so, the differences between the Orthodox population and the non-Orthodox American Jewish population are stark.

The changing profile of the U.S. Jewish population is an area of concern for communal organizations serving the broader Jewish community. The UJA-Federation noted in its report the challenge it faces as its traditional base of support declines and the Orthodox community grows, for the large and growing insular and illiberal groups within the Orthodox community historically have not shown a “commitment to community-wide Jewish philanthropy and collective responsibility.”5 The characteristic here identified – an alleged overly narrow conception of community and collective responsibility – is only one aspect of the deep ideological divide between such organizations as the UJA-Federation and the illiberal Orthodox groups that will need to be confronted as the Orthodox share of the American Jewish population grows.

This essay is composed of two parts. The first provides an overview of the major sectors and sub-groups within American Orthodox Judaism. The American Orthodox population is highly diverse, a fact that is not fully recognized by the major population studies. The second considers the challenges presented by the growth of the illiberal Orthodox  streams to mainstream broad-based Jewish organizations. The conclusion will briefly outline the options available to established communal organizations in meeting these challenges.

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