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What the Nishma Survey Means for Us


You read the findings, but what do they mean? In response to last week’s blog on the Nishma Survey, I’d like to share with you the following reaction written by a colleague of mine, R. Avroham Gordimer. 

...It all seems to boil down to what Modern Orthodoxy is and what it is not. Is Modern Orthodoxy essentially a passionate commitment to Torah tradition, with an emphasis on navigating the modern world, along with appreciating and partaking of general society’s positive offerings, so long as they comply with and perhaps enhance one’s Torah experience? 

Or is Modern Orthodoxy a diluted and compromised form of Orthodoxy – the “MO Lite” brand – practiced by those who are not really interested in scrupulous adherence to the Shulchan Aruch and engagement in Torah study? 

Or is Modern Orthodoxy a new theology of sorts, which synthesizes Torah and secular values, and perhaps should accommodate changing societal attitudes?

The truth, I believe, is all of the above – for the simple reason that Modern Orthodoxy was never an actual denomination or movement in the first place. Rather, American Jews in the Orthodox orbit informally and pretty much coincidentally identify as Modern Orthodox for a variety of reasons, which are not really related. 

For example, I know people who send their children to Modern Orthodox day schools because these schools:

a) harbor a serious commitment to secular studies/degree preparation (in addition to Torah studies) or

b) “do not force students to be strictly religious” and often have many non-Orthodox students, or

c) are Religious Zionist (e.g. they recite Hallel on Yom Ha’atzmaut and march in the Celebrate Israel parade, etc.), or

d) provide a synthesis of Torah and secular ideology. 

Often, starkly different families send their children to the same exact Modern Orthodox school, each family for any of the above, disparate reasons. These parents, who identify as Modern Orthodox, range from not fully observant, to almost yeshivish/Charedi, to diehard hesder yeshiva types (many of whom are not fans of Western/“modern” values), to those who are not so interested in ideology but adhere to Halacha on a basic level, to Jews who proudly and devoutly espouse a “synthesis” hashkafa (and are fully observant). 

Modern Orthodoxy is thus more of a de facto, general descriptor than anything else; it is almost whatever one wants it to be and was never launched as an official movement.

It is clear to me that the Nishma data reflects a blend of unrelated levels of observance and commitment that happen to fall under the loose Modern Orthodox classification. I know people who take great liberties with the observance of Shabbos, kashrus and most other areas of Halacha, and they have told me that they conduct themselves that way because they are Modern Orthodox. 

I also know some incredibly frum people – frummer than most yeshivish people – who refer to themselves as Modern Orthodox, simply due to their desire to engage and gain from the outside world (educationally and professionally). The Nishma research project includes these dramatically different types and more, and its data was hence all over the place. 

I am confident that the Nishma data which depicts seriously compromised halachic observance and openness to sending children to public school reflects input from “MO Lite” types who participated in the study.

Quite surprisingly, almost half of those surveyed by Nishma are unenthusiastic about the Modern Orthodox day school system, and fewer than one in four respondents finds Modern Orthodoxy inspiring (!). 

This should send shockwaves throughout the Modern Orthodox establishment, as without a robust chinuch system and very strong commitment, retention and perpetuation, disaster will be on the horizon.

Equally alarming is a phenomenon I have observed, in which Modern Orthodox shuls contribute immense sums of money to Israeli causes, while neglecting to provide adequate day school scholarships for the children of that shul/local community itself. 

I am aware of one such situation, in which an extremely wealthy Modern Orthodox congregation donates millions upon millions of dollars each year to Israeli charities, while large numbers of the shul’s youth attend the local public school, due to lack of scholarship funding for the shul’s affiliated day school.

These Nishma research projects provide more than just food for thought – they MUST lead to action, before more of our brothers and sisters tragically leave the fold. It is compellingly clear that there exist major systemic problems; leadership has to act now. 

When we read that “There is widespread concern about (Modern Orthodox) people leaving Orthodoxy (63%), and even more concern that communal leaders are not adequately addressing the issue (67%)”, that 76% of Modern Orthodox Jews do not find their religious experience inspiring, that over a third of Modern Orthodox Jews compromise in Shabbos and kashrus observance and nearly a third might consider sending their children to public school, and that almost half of Modern Orthodox Jews feel that their schools are not succeeding to produce committed Orthodox Jews, we face an inferno.

Some Modern Orthodox rabbis and educators, aware of the sterile religious environment that is often pervasive in their institutions (albeit with many great exceptions!), have introduced Neo-Chassidus and of course rely heavily upon the “gap year in Israel” as antidotes. 

That is not enough and is more of a bandage after the injury; serious and substantive in-house repair and recalibration are sorely needed. (Please see this important discussion about the trajectory of Modern Orthodox education.) Schools, shuls and homes must all be part of the solution.

There is plenty of anecdotal evidence manifesting considerable attrition in the Modern Orthodox community; this issue was addressed in the 2017 Nishma research study. The mere fact that new Modern Orthodox schools rarely open, unless they are in communities which attract many newcomers or “RWMO/right-wing Modern Orthodox” types (e.g. Bergen County), is a sufficient indicator, when placed in the context of Modern Orthodox birthrates. (Please also see here.)

We pray that the dire situation depicted in much of the Nishma data improves – but nothing will happen unless leadership takes decisive action.