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The State of Modern Orthodoxy in America


Nishma Research was established in 2015 with the goal of asking tough questions concerning the Jewish community, without preconceived notions or judgement. Nishma means “we listen” and this organization was established to conduct studies and promote findings that encourage better listening among different Jewish groups. They recently published their findings on a survey of 2,629 Modern Orthodox American Jews. The findings are fascinating, what do you think:

Orthodox Beliefs, Practices and the Importance of One’s Orthodox Observance

  • The vast majority (85%) of Modern Orthodox respondents say their Orthodox observance is an important part of their lives, and a significant majority are fully or mostly comfortable with key aspects of day-to-day Orthodox life. 
  • But Modern Orthodox Jews are far from uniform in their beliefs, attitudes and practices. While 42% say they are “centrist,” a majority say they are either to the left or to the right, and almost one in five (18%) says they are primarily “Shabbat Orthodox.” Women skew slightly more to the left (liberal) than do men. 
  • There is strong agreement that Modern Orthodoxy is “Jewishly authentic” and lets people think about ideas intellectually and critically. But pluralities only somewhat agree that Modern Orthodoxy is spiritually inspiring, and there are mixed views on whether religious observance in the Modern Orthodox community is where it should be. Specifically, fewer than half (43%) agreed that” religious observance within the Modern Orthodox community is where it should be.” 
  • A majority of respondents are concerned that too many Modern Orthodox communal leaders come from right-leaning segments, with only about half agreeing that Modern Orthodox schools have an adequate supply of Modern Orthodox educators. • A large percentage of respondents (42%) identifies as baalei teshuvah. (This survey contained many questions aimed specifically at those respondents, examining their decision to become Orthodox, the challenges, journey, etc. The findings are contained in a separate concurrently released report.)

The Future of Modern Orthodoxy

  • Modern Orthodoxy’s worldview involves melding Jewish observance with secular knowledge and participation, and 88% experience positive interactions between their Orthodoxy and secular society – most often simply by taking advantage of opportunities to create a positive impression with non-Orthodox or non-Jews.
  • However, interaction with secular society can create conflict, with 88% of respondents having experienced such a conflict. While half (51%) stand firm in their religious practice, a substantial minority (37%) compromise at some level – most often in areas of kashrut and Shabbat. 
  • Modern Orthodoxy experiences constant and often conflicting pressures to change. While a slight majority (53%) feels there is an appropriate balance between making changes vs. “drawing lines” to prevent change, more than one-third (35%) see Modern Orthodoxy as too focused on “drawing lines” to prevent what they see as needed changes. 
  • The top issues raised by those who want changes within Modern Orthodoxy are increased roles for women and acceptance of LGBTQ. But the same two issues (with dissenting views) are at the top of the list among those opposed to change and who think tradition is not being sufficiently preserved. Thus, Modern Orthodoxy is being stretched by what are seen as both positive and negative views and values of secular society. 
  • More than one-third (34%) believe “there is no longer a single, cohesive Modern Orthodox community. Modern Orthodoxy should acknowledge this and would perhaps be better off splitting into separate camps.” 
  • Despite the pessimism about cohesiveness, respondents are mildly optimistic about Modern Orthodoxy’s future religious strength and growth in numbers.

Modern Orthodoxy’s Youth and Schools

  • 55% of respondents agree that their Orthodox community school systems are successful in creating committed Orthodox Jews, while 34% disagree. 
  • But the historic near-universal attendance at Orthodox Jewish day schools seems to be slipping, as 31% of respondents say they might consider public school as an option. 
  • Modern Orthodox parents hope their children will be religiously observant. More than three fourths want their children to be typical Centrist Modern Orthodox Jews (58%) or more observant than that (18%). One in eight (13%) say their child’s religious preferences are not so critical or relevant to them.

People Leaving Orthodoxy

  • There is widespread concern about people leaving Orthodoxy (63%), and even more concern that communal leaders are not adequately addressing the issue (67%). 
  • (In reaction to Nishma’s 2016 survey of people who have left Orthodoxy, we have experienced leeriness among shuls and communal organizations about discussing the topic. However, while it is a difficult and often uncomfortable topic, people want it to see it addressed.) 
  • Nishma has estimated (based on the 2017 profile of the MO community) that 9% are at risk of leaving, and we have seen that 15% MO do not fully agree that their Orthodoxy is an important part of their life. The reasons why people leave Orthodoxy are complex and while we have some suspected indicators (lack of strong belief, liberal mindset, religious “disconnects” within a family, etc.), it is ultimately an individual and often unpredictable decision.