A Passover Like No Other

Why Modern Orthodox Judaism is under threat in 2016

Matzo and sticker shock aren’t usually mentioned in the same breath. This year, they are: Hand shmurah matza, the most religiously precise available, is going for $50 a box.

The problem Modern Orthodox Jews face extends far beyond matzo, however. While they’re cleaning bread out of their homes for Passover — the entire Modern Orthodox approach to Judaism may soon be toast.

Here’s why I say this. For an increasing number of Modern Orthodox Jews, the pressures of an alluring secular lifestyle are too much to overcome. The cost of religious living is unbearably high, day school enrollment (and often its quality as well) is declining, and fewer Jews opt to remain in modern Orthodoxy.

The result: Within 20 years, many of the “big box” institutions — synagogues, schools, and community centers, especially in urban areas — may disappear, and with them, an approach to Judaism that has thrived for more than a century.

So why is this Jewish crisis different from all other Jewish crises?

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At a well-known Orthodox day school, the rabbis were upset. High school girls were ignoring guidance about tzinus, or modesty in dress, and wearing skirts too short for the administration’s taste.

The administrators were taking rulers to the girls’ skirts and making it clear that the garments were too short, but the message wasn’t getting through. So the school convened a program on modesty in appearance. The girls, divided into groups, had to write essays on the topic. One group came back with an essay (you cannot make this up) called, “The Little Skirt That Could.”

This story illustrates the difficult situation in which Modern Orthodoxy finds itself. Unlike other forms of Judaism, Modern Orthodoxy tries to bridge the gap between secular and religious life, with an unsteady foot in each camp. The problem is that the secular and religious world views have moved so far apart. The Modern Orthodox are struggling to have one foot on each side of an ever-growing canyon and somehow still stand strong.

Struggle to Keep the Doors Open
“Big box Orthodox Judaism is dying,” said the president of a leading east coast Orthodox synagogue. “If it weren’t for the rent we get from the building we rent out to a private school, and the money we make on rent for simchas [special occasions], we couldn’t keep the doors open.”

Younger adherents are far more devoted to Jewish law than previous generations. The problem is they want to celebrate their religious commitment in small, boutique, mini-congregations.

This is the second problem for Modern Orthodoxy. Its younger adherents are far more devoted to Jewish law than previous generations. The problem is they want to celebrate their religious commitment in small, boutique, mini-congregations. They don’t want to be a part of the big religious structures their parents and grandparents knew. 

Those parents and grandparents might have been less committed than current Jews — but they were intensely devoted to their religious institutions. They contributed massively, worked on committees, and ensured the community was well-served with all the accoutrements of Jewish communal life.

Boutique congregations are neither equipped to provide nor interested in paying for these functions. Yet those services are necessary for Jewish communities to survive.

Quality of the Schools
Most Modern Orthodox Jews want their children to attend college and compete in the secular marketplace. They have exceedingly high expectations for Jewish day schools, demanding excellence in religious studies, character development, and secular studies. 
This is often too much of a burden for these schools, which end up falling short. 

As a result, graduates cannot compete effectively in the college admissions battle, or are poorly trained for life as an Orthodox adult.

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These schools also have little capacity for students who are not the “ideal” Jewish boy or girl. Children with behavioral issues or special needs, or those from the growing number of divorced homes, are often shunted to the side, their realities ignored. Such children may end up “OTD,” or “off the derech” — a Jewish term symbolizing the religious life.

Ultra-Orthodox and Hasidic schools have no such illusions about the value of secular studies. In those schools, secular studies are a box to be checked instead of something to be taken seriously. This translates into inferior textbooks and supplies, third-rate instructors, and the expected poor results.

Unlike Modern Orthodoxy, Haredi Jewish life (also known as “black hat” Judaism) is subsidized by the government and by Jewish charitable organizations. Large families and a bias toward a life of learning instead of earning a living ensure an enormous need for charitable donations. 

Financial Pressure
Like most private religious schools, Modern Orthodox schools are under intense financial pressure to survive. Many are poorly run; they simply cannot afford quality administrators. Or the administration is beholden to the board, an often mercurial group of wealthy parents whose loyalty to and friendship with marginally competent administrators compromises the school’s integrity.

A Pew study recently revealed that almost half of Modern Orthodox students leave Orthodoxy by middle age. 

It’s simply more expensive to be a Modern Orthodox Jew than to practice any other form of Judaism, or, likely, any other form of religion in the United States.

Modern Orthodox young women, exposed to role models from an early age, experience a deeper level of conflict. From a religious perspective, they are expected to marry and start families in their early 20s. From a secular perspective, this is the same time they are starting graduate school or their careers. Something has to give.

The Tax
Another factor to consider, especially for young couples, is what many refer to as the “Orthodox tax.” It’s more expensive to be a Modern Orthodox Jew than to practice any other form of Judaism, or, likely, any other form of religion in the United States.

You must live within walking distance of a synagogue, typically in an urban community such as New York, Chicago, Boston, Cleveland, or Los Angeles. So you are competing against other Orthodox families, non-Orthodox home buyers, and foreign investors for the few available homes in those neighborhoods.

Kosher food is more expensive than non-kosher food, especially at Pesach (Passover) time, when butchers, kosher supermarkets, and other purveyors of kashrus celebrate Israel’s freedom from Egypt by jacking up the prices of everything.

Then there is the high cost of Jewish education. A decent Modern Orthodox day school can range from $20,000 to almost $40,000 a year per child. Orthodox families tend to have more children than secular families.

Then there’s the charitable giving expected of a Modern Orthodox Jew. In addition to synagogue membership, tickets to fundraising dinners for schools and other institutions, and frequent bar mitzvah and wedding gifts, you need accoutrements for the Shabbos table, religious books, and kosher food.

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If you’re going to celebrate a multi-day Jewish holiday on a retreat, you’ll pay thousands upon thousands of dollars for the hotel, kosher food, services, and so on. It’s amazing how a quarter of a million dollars or more in salary barely covers the expenses of a young Modern Orthodox family. Not that many single-wage earner families with the breadwinner in his (or her) early 30s pull down that kind of cash.

Modern Orthodoxy began in 19th century Germany, when Jews were emancipated from the ghettos and finally had the opportunity to blend into secular society. The Reform movement was also born then, out of a desire to fit in with the Gentiles and have a more rational Judaism with most of the spooky stuff — afterlife, dietary restrictions — airbrushed out. Even today, many Reform rabbis still dress like 19th century Lutheran ministers.

The Conservative movement was born out of a sense that the Reform movement had trashed too much of traditional Judaism and that a middle ground was necessary.

The founders of Modern Orthodoxy, on the other hand, sought to preserve all the traditions of religious Judaism while allowing its adherents to benefit from full membership in German society. You were “a Jew in your home and a man in the street.” Yet back then a religious life was not a radical departure from the way most people lived.   

It’s hard to see how a branch of Judaism, culturally and religiously squeezed on both sides, can survive with only 2,000 new adherents a year.

Now, things have changed radically. Modern Orthodoxy scrambles to balance secular culture, with all the sex and violence in its forms of entertainment, a widespread acceptance of tattoos (anathema to Jewish law), and a free and willing approach to sexuality, on the one hand, with the stodgy old Torah on the other. The result? Deep, unresolvable confusion about how to blend two incompatible sets of values.

Modern Orthodoxy is under pressure from the right, who see themselves as the true believers and true practitioners of Torah Judaism, and on the left, from Conservative and Reform Judaism, which are becoming more rooted in religious ritual and belief.

Does Modern Orthodoxy have a future? One estimate says the totality of the approximately four dozen recognized Modern Orthodox day schools in the U.S. graduate only 2,000 students a year combined who will eventually carry on the Modern Orthodox way. It’s hard to see how a branch of Judaism, culturally and religiously squeezed on both sides, can survive with only 2,000 new adherents a year.

How will these 2,000 Jews sustain the institutions that sustain Modern Orthodoxy? Will Modern Orthodox communities even continue to hire rabbis? Will Modern Orthodox parents, unable to handle the burden of day school tuition, enlarge the trend of homeschooling their children, putting even greater strain on day school budgets? How will Modern Orthodox young people even find each other so that they can marry, if they are postponing marriage for education and the start of their careers?

During Passover, as the Orthodox weigh the purchase of $50 boxes of matzo, the question remains: Within a generation, will the Modern Orthodox movement be toast?

Twelve-time national bestseller Michael Levin, a father of four, runs Business Ghost, America’s leading provider of ghostwritten memoirs and business books.

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