The Pew Research Center’s “A Portrait of Jewish Americans,” released two years ago, provided a snapshot of the community that immediately became the basis for vigorous discussion and soul searching. Last week, Pew released “A Portrait of American Orthodox Jews,” based on the same 2013 data. It shows a population — 10 percent of the Jewish community — that is younger and more politically conservative than the general Jewish population. Orthodox Jews also marry at a younger age and have more children.
“If the Orthodox grow as a share of U.S. Jews, they gradually could shift the profile of American Jews in several areas, including religious beliefs and practices, social and political views and demographic characteristics,” Pew suggests.
It’s a simplistic distillation of what has become conventional wisdom in many corners of the Jewish community. Yet, Orthodoxy is not a monolith, a fact that all too often gets unrecognized in the non-Orthodox sectors of American Jewry. Pew rightly makes a distinction between Modern Orthodoxy (31 percent of the Orthodox population; its adherents follow “traditional Jewish law while simultaneously integrating into modern society”) and Haredi Orthodox Judaism (62 percent of U.S. Orthodox Jews, “who tend to view their strict adherence to the Torah’s commandments as largely incompatible with secular society”).
One takeaway from the report, which its authors caution should not be overemphasized, is the similarity between Orthodox Jews and white evangelical Christians. While the theology of these two groups could not be more different, large majorities of both say religion is very important in their lives. Both attend religious services more often than Americans as a whole. And more than 80 percent believe Israel was given to the Jewish people by God. (A related takeaway, though not explored in the report, would be the similarities between non-Orthodox religiously affiliated Jews and mainline Protestant Christians.)
The Holocaust and the rise of Israel served to unite Jews as they never were before. We live in the time of the big tent, and at first glance the differences between Haredi, Modern Orthodox and liberal Jews make them look like strange tent-fellows. But for those of us who believe in the tent of the Jewish people, both our differences and similarities can strengthen us. For that to happen, there needs to be an acknowledgement that each faction has its own strengths that can enlighten us all.