Among the plethora of reactions to the 2013 Pew report on Jewish Americans the reactions of Chabad and other ultra-Orthodox rabbis working in Orthodox outreach to other Jews were noteworthy. Whereas the mainstream Orthodox reaction to the Pew study was alarm, as it stressed the very high rates of out-marriage and the growing sector of “Jews of no religion,” which has a very attenuated tie to Jewish practices, belonging, and commitment, these rabbis responded quite differently. Some of them challenged the reliability of the study; others viewed the study as cause for some optimism.
Challenges to the study’s reliability, basically derive from a perceived chasm between what the study reported about Jewish life in America and the felt experience of these rabbis. Rabbi David Eliezrie, a Chabad Hasid who is president of the Rabbinical Council of Orange County and Rabbi Tzvi Nightingale, outreach director for Aish HaTorah felt that Pew had somehow missed the story of Orthodox renewal, which is symbolized above all by Chabad with its 959 Chabad centers spread all over America. As Eliezrie writes:
“Walk the streets of Pico/Robertson, North Miami Beach or Flatbush in Brooklyn. Thirty or forty years ago it was tough to find a few religious Jews and today these neighborhoods are bursting with young religious families.”34
Similarly, Nightingale for his part writes:
“I find this study somewhat skewed and almost worthless. Why because they left out Chabad…. ” Because the Pew study did not provide a “Chabad option to check,” it has “totally ignored the most dynamic movement in Judaism in recent years.”35
Alan Cooperman and Greg Smith, the study’s authors, duly responded. They wrote that the study makes no such claim “that the numbers of Orthodox have dropped over the decades.” “In fact,” they write, “our report shows that compared with other Jews, the Orthodox are much younger on average and tend to have larger families which suggests that there share of the Jewish population will grow.” More tellingly, they argue that respondents did have the chance to mark a Chabad option. In addition to being asked whether they were Orthodox, Conservative, or Reform they were given the option of identifying as ‘something else.’ Indeed, a fair number of Jews self-identified as ‘agnostic’ or ‘atheist,’ ‘Reconstructionist’ or ‘Jewish Renewal.’ Furthermore, those who identified as Orthodox were asked whether they consider themselves Hasidic, Modern Orthodox, Yeshivish, or some other type of Orthodox. Over 150 respondents identified as Hasidic including a very small number (too small to analyze separately) who identified specifically as Chabad or Lubavitch. In other words, according to Cooperman and Smith, respondents did have the opportunity to identify themselves as Chabad, they simply did not do so.36
Despite this altogether sound response, Eliezrie and Nightingale’s criticism goes deeper. They are aware that under received, conventional terms of self-identification and denominational belonging very few people will identify as Chabad. Their deeper claim is that the very terms of Jewish identity, practice, and belonging are changing and that the Pew report does not capture this. Thus as Nightingale writes: “It [Pew] is based upon a completely outdated model and mentality,” and Eliezrie agues, “Pew used an old methodology to measure a more complex and diverse Jewish community in a post-denominational age.” In other words, these rabbis claim that a deep shift in the very nature of Jewish identity, practice, and belonging is occurring beneath the surface and one of the phenomena (perhaps in their eyes – the phenomenon) recording this is Chabad with its hundreds of centers and programs attracting larger numbers of Jews.
Thus, Eliezrie is aware that the vast majority of Jews who attend Chabad centers are not Orthodox observant and that few will self-identify as Orthodox. He knows that many Jews who participate in Chabad activities are members of Reform temples and Conservative synagogues. Nevertheless, “while these Jews are not becoming fully observant they are allowing for Jewish tradition to have a stronger voice in their lives.” His complaint is that the Pew study did not develop any instruments to register this significant trend in American Jewish life.
While Eliezrie and Nightingale are partisan writers, rabbis committed to Orthodox outreach, more impartial academic and journalistic writers are also starting to notice the importance of Chabad in Jewish American life. Thus, according to the 2014 Greater Miami Jewish Federation Population Study: A Portrait of the Miami Jewish Community, directed by Prof. Ira Sheskin,37 26 percent of the Jewish households in Miami-Dade county had engaged with Chabad programming over the past year, including 42 percent of Jewish households with children at home. Although some communities reported the number of participants in these activities to be a bit smaller, the Miami study’s number is very similar to the number David Eliezrie adduced for Chabad engagement in Orange County, CA. Other writers, such as Sue Fishkoff,38 also noticed the widespread presence of Chabad in American Jewish life and their relatively extensive engagement with it, though her treatment of this is more journalistic and anecdotal.
It would seem then, that it worth exploring the suggestion that there is a shift taking place in the very nature of Jewish identity, belonging, and practice in America, and that conventional instruments for measuring these parameters and not entirely adequate. That is, measuring instruments that rely solely on synagogue membership and denominational affiliation may not be capturing the entire story of Jewish identification and engagement, and that they may have to be complemented by new approaches to Jewish engagement that rely less upon these parameters. Is Jewish identity in the United States moving from a community of fate paradigm to one of individual choice? In previous Annual Assessments we raised this suggestion and explored it from the point of view of contemporary Jewish culture and creating Jewish meaning. In this Annual Assessment we will look at this shift from a different vantage point – that of ultra-Orthodox sponsored activity. In a surprising fashion, contemporary Chabad theology and practice fits this new paradigm of Jewish identity.