The Orthodox community of the last few decades has seen itself as a community on the rise. The growth in numbers of adherents, the large families, and the explosion in the numbers of synagogues and schools attest to that rise, and feed into the phenomenon of Orthodx triumphalism that I personally find upsetting. Some, like Rabbi Harry Maryles at Emes V’Emunah, believe that this growth, and its concommitant rightward motion, will lead to a Hareidi future for Judaism.
As the market has taught us though, past results are no guarantee of future performance. And it is the market’s recent performance that makes me speculate on the future of Orthodoxy.
Dr. Jonathan Sarna, writing about this topic from the perspective of Jewish philanthropy, has identified a few trends that bode ill for the Orthodox community.
In most economic downturns, it is the weakest companies and institutions that take the biggest hits. Sarna points out that the Orthodox community faces a double-whammy. Not only are the Orthodox disproportionately employed in the banking and financial sectors that have been hardest-hit in this downturn, but Orthodox institutions are also the most vulnerable financially. On top of this, the Orthodox use two very expensive classes of institutions very heavily: synagogues and schools.
Based on the above, we might predict a few things. First, educational expenses will continue to rise, and many schools will be forced to close. Some Orthodox Jews will surely yank on the escape cord and make Aliyah. Others will be forced to consider other educational options for their children. Despite all the news about vouchers and charter schools, at this time, public school is the only real alternative.
The effects of this will be felt broadly. As Rabbi Maryles correctly points out, the Hareidi domination of Orthodox education has been a key factor in the general rightward tilt of Orthodoxy. But with fewer students attending these schools, and a lesser demand for teachers in Orthodox schools from right to left, the Hareidi economic system will come under even more pressure. Orthodox institutions, particularly those providing social services, will also be under tremendous strain, and some will surely fold. Organizations that provide what one might call ‘shadow’ care – that is, services that are already available through the government (eg Hatzalah ambulance service) or through non-Orthodox organizations will see their support dry up as critical charitable services receive top priority from stretched donors.
Taken together with the already-precarious economic structure that Orthodoxy rests upon, and what we have is the makings of a severe decline for Orthodoxy. Some will push further right, embrace lives of faith, poverty and subsistence on government programs. More will enter the workforce. As more Orthodox children attend public educational institutions, demand will rise for supplementary education that can help students navigate their more socially integrated lives. As an educator, I would guess that those precious hours in after-school programs will not be spent on learning how to decode the Talmud. Instead, the curriculum will focus on Jewish identity in a plural society.
All this may well be a boon to Orthodoxy, American Judaism, and American society as a whole. It will certainly erase many denominational lines, as Jews from across the denominational spectrum will all be faced with the same essential challenge of how to maintain a Jewish identity and grow a vibrant Jewish culture without the help of ghetto walls. But it will be a difficult blow to the Orthodox community of today, and to many of its finest institutions.