By Zvi Grumet
Over the course of the past year I conducted a study of Yeshiva high school graduates, beginning in the post-college years. The goal was to gain a greater understanding of the religious lives – both regarding practice and beliefs – beyond the college bubble. The survey was disseminated via Facebook (with all its limitations) and garnered more than 1200 responses. After poring over the data (and there’s lots more to process), I have prepared an interim report. Its purpose is to raise questions for educators and lay people to discuss, with the hope that seeing where the students are at in the longer term can help inform educational goals, content, and messages. I do not propose solutions, as it not my place to tell schools how to respond – but the questions raised are, I believe, important. I would be happy to speak with anyone or any institution who wants to follow up. The full interim report of my study can be accessed and downloaded here. The report summary appears below.
- Based on the sociological definition of Orthodoxy as observance of Shabbat and Kashrut, more than 90% of respondents identified themselves as coming from Orthodox homes. Of those, 86% still consider themselves Orthodox. Put differently, 9% of those growing up in mostly-to-strictly halakhic homes now indicate that halakha is not important to them, and that climbs to 16% when we include those who only sometimes follow halakha. Those numbers, however, do not reflect the nuances of the range of practices of those who still do observe. Amongst those who still consider themselves Orthodox there is an observable decline of as much as 20% in the level of observance, depending on the specific practice being measured. For a smaller group there is an intensified observance. The drop-off in observance can be caused by a wide variety of factors including maturity at the age of decision-making, friction with parents or authority figures, sexual orientation, and ideological exploration. The popular term “off-the derech” refers, in the reality of this survey, to the percentage of the respondents who consider themselves completely non-observant.
- Family status plays a profound role in the religious observance of respondents. Married respondents are more observant than unmarried, with marriage serving as the transition between singlehood and family life. Those with children are as observant – if not more punctilious – than their parents.
- Between 8-10% of respondents who identify as Orthodox, identify as Open Orthodox and attend egalitarian minyanim. This is a group which has consciously chosen to identify as Open Orthodox, rejecting labels both to their right and left. How the educational and Rabbinic communities relate to this population – whether through rejection or acceptance – may impact whether they continue to maintain halakha as an important factor in how they live their lives.
- There are measurable, consistent difference between the public observance of Shabbat and the private Shabbat observance in the home. There are parallels to this public/private distinction in the area of Kashrut, albeit reversed because of the communal/family importance of keeping a kosher home.
- Respondents take greater halakhic liberties with restrictions to premarital intimacy and physical contact with members of the opposite sex than with any other area of halakhic observance. A significant percentage, even of those who are punctilious in other areas of observance, indicated that the halakha plays a smaller role in governing their intimate behavior.
- There is little correlation between the frequency of the parents’ studying Torah and the frequency of their children studying Torah as adults.
- The hook-up culture, as part of integration into broader society, is beginning to break down traditional taboos of interdating, with possible future implications for intermarriage.
- “Half-Shabbat” (i.e., full Shabbat observance with the exception of cell phones), while discussed anecdotally as a phenomenon for high school students, does not appear to be a phenomenon in the post-collegiate group.
- Respondents who spent a post-high year of yeshiva/seminary study in Israel scored higher – but not dramatically – in almost every category related to observance, identity, the role of halakha in their lives, and connection to Israel. It is unclear whether this is because of the study in Israel or whether the group which elected to take that gap year of study had a greater proclivity towards increased Jewish commitment and expression. The long-term impact of the yeshiva/seminary gap year in Israel requires further study.
- While there is a segment of the Modern Orthodox community whose halakhic practice is indistinguishable from right-wing Orthodox, most of Modern Orthodoxy is associated with a slightly lower level of halakhic practice than Right-wing Orthodoxy. Open Orthodoxy is associated with a significant decline of halakhic practice.
- Statistically, in a typical high school class of 25 students, there is likely to be one student who identifies as LBGTQ. This has significant implications for the messages conveyed in schools and synagogues, and the manner in which the LBGTQ community is spoken about in any public forum.
- LBGTQ Jews from Orthodox homes are not simply looking for a way out of observance or the community, but, to a large extent, want to remain as part of the community. Given the communal nature of the Orthodox community, whether they remain observant may depend on the community’s ability to integrate them.
- In the perception of the alumni, high schools do not focus on helping their students to develop their Jewish identity. Further, while the alumni felt that the schools prepared them best for functioning as Jews in purely Jewish contexts, they felt underprepared for functioning as Jews on campus and the workplace. This has potentially significant implications for a population which will spend the bulk of its waking hours in those challenging environments.
- In the area of dogma, alumni of the high schools and yeshivot/seminaries de-emphasize or reject most of the beliefs accepted traditionally as dogmatic or normed as core to identification with Orthodoxy. This general rejection extends even to those who are married with children, for whom recommitment to intensified observance was important. Educational institutions need to rethink either the emphasis on these topics and redirect their energies towards practice, values and identity, or – if they deem the dogma to be non-negotiable educationally and religiously – to draw resources from their emphasis on other areas (skills, knowledge, practice, commitment, etc.) and refocus those energies on the dogma.
The Modern Orthodox community, with all of its communal institutions including family, schools, and synagogues, seems to be able to approximately replicate its numbers. The communal forces, which seem to drive much of personal practice, are weakest during the extended period of exploration, which lasts until marriage and child-rearing. During that period of exploration there is a marked drop-off in observance.
These mimetic practices, driven primarily by family and community, are given formal language in the educational system. That formal language is the language of halakha and of formal Jewish learning, which – based on the survey – seem to be of premium value in the Modern Orthodox high schools.
This primacy comes, it appears, at the expense of issues such as Jewish identity formation. Jewish teens are being prepared for formal Jewish life in exclusively Jewish settings, but not for life in a complex world with competing social and intellectual and pressures in university and work environments.
All this relates to practice, so that it would be fair to say that, when the dust settles, the graduates of Yeshiva high schools are largely Orthoprax. Regarding the beliefs of Orthodoxy, the Modern Orthodox community is quite diverse, and many of the religious beliefs once considered axiomatic are held by only a minority of the communal members. Additionally, there are currently multiple “labels” used for identification, some of which formally or informally legitimize or even embrace the fluidity of the dogma. This diversity, combined with contemporary acceptance of the fluidity of identities – including sexual identity – poses one of the great challenges to the current generation of educators and religious leadership. The extent to which the leadership accepts or rejects this diversity will have a profound impact on many of the students currently growing up in Modern Orthodox communities and attending its schools. The extent to which they will consider their education and community relevant or irrelevant because of its relatability or lack of to their weltanshauung will influence whether they continue to identify with the Orthodox community and continue their religious practice.
Areas for future study
This study was designed to open the doors of inquiry into a massive educational system. Its conclusions are intended to pose questions, which will hopefully be discussed by both the professionals working and leading the Yeshiva high schools as well as by the parents and the lay leadership of those schools. With all that this study has revealed, it has raised even more questions for further inquiry. They include:
- An exploration of the moderation of practice/belief with increased years of singlehood
- A better understanding of the world of the Orthodox LGBTQ community
- A deeper understanding of the experiences of the various populations described in this study, along with an understanding of the processes involved in the shifting of religious beliefs and practices over time and through life stages
- A greater understanding of the long-term impact of the high school experience on religious life, attitude, and experience
- A study directed at teachers and school leadership to gauge their perceptions
- The role of socialization within the Orthodox community and within the educational setting
- The emerging Open Orthodox community
- An understanding of the nature of Torah study taking place amongst graduates
Some of this could be accomplished through quantitative studies such as this one, but some of those questions would best be answered through qualitative, in-depth research.
Zvi Grumet is a rabbi and a senior staff member at the Lookstein Center for Jewish Education where he is the editor of the journal Jewish Educational Leadership. He is the chairman of the Bible department at Yeshivat Eretz Hatzvi and is a faculty member at the Pardes Institute in Jerusalem.