Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Becoming Not Frum

The National Jewish Population Survey of 2001 reported that 20% of adult American Jews were raised Orthodox, but only 10% of adult American Jews currently identified as Orthodox. 17% of current Reform Jews were raised Orthodox. I have no idea exactly how to read these figures and I understand there are statistical problems involved in this study. It also might not be indicative of the situation today going forward. What is clear is that even today, with a much frumer population and with every step being taken to prevent anyone from dropping out, there are still a substantial number of Jews, especially young Jews in late adolescence and in their early twenties, who leave Orthodoxy.

There has been an ongoing discussion in Orthodox circles what to do about kids who don’t fit into the yeshiva system, most recently by Rabbi Maryles (11/26). There is a two lane highway into the walled city called Orthodoxy .The baal teshuvahs (repentants) are moving in; the skeptics and troubled youth are on their way out. Yeshivot are elite institutions with high standards, and are not made for everyone. Some kids are too dumb to excel. Some kids are smart but don’t excel in the topics the yeshivas teach. Some kids are just plain-out rebellious and high-spirited. Some, and I don’t think the numbers are large, were mistreated or molested by parents or someone in the community. Each of these groups requires special attention and special solutions. The common sense answer is to have many different institutions specializing in each of these different types of troubled young people with courses designed to speak to their strengths and, in turn, finding ways to keep them in the fold. Easy to say, hard to do. How to shape the curriculum and how to create such schools is an issue for educators and concerned parents, and not one I am really equipped to talk about.

I do have a few comments on the general issue. I feel that many times the most rebellious kids are amongst the best. Submission to authority is not always a virtue in a teenager, and breaking a kid, so that he toes the line, is not the best way to go. Sex and the very natural eagerness of adolescents to become involved in sexual activities must also be a factor. The philosopher Bertrand Russell, forever the wise guy, advocated allowing 12-13 year olds to have full sexual relations on the grounds that they would have the peace of mind to do mathematics. Teachers and counselors need some direction in how to deal with this issue. Being very strict might cause even greater rebellion. It requires a person who has above average emotional intelligence and some psychological training and aptitude to handle rebellious adolescents.

It might be a prejudice on my part, but I tend to believe that large and very large families have something to do with the problem. I simply don’t see how parents with eleven-thirteen kids can pay adequate attention to each child from birth through adolescence. I have two concerns in this regard. My suspicion is that children are raising children in some of these large families. I suspect some kids just fall between the rafters. I acknowledge I have seen many large and very large families where all the kids turned out great. My question is whether any significant correlation exists between troubled youth and larger families. My other question is whether there are any correlations between I.Q. scores and larger families? Even if a large component of I.Q. is genetic, there has to be some relationship between family environment, and in particular mother-child bonding in the first few years of life, and alertness and other cognitive skills. Does the size of a family make a difference? If the answer is yes, and I don’t know this, then having very large families is not a free lunch. It is not inconceivable that as we go forward, future generations of charedi youth will be less intelligent than their parents and grandparents.

The young people that leave Orthodoxy because of theological questions pose a different problem. In Israel, they call Jews who leave Orthodoxy chozerim be'she'alah (returning to a state of skepticism).Usually they are bright, educated, honest, and full of common sense. Rosh yeshivas and rabbis who have no college education or only a minimal amount are not fully equipped to talk to these people. In a free society, guilt and shame only go so far. I don’t even believe that the people who engage in kiruv (helping secular Jews become Orthodox) are well-equipped to deal with such people. The world looks very different to a potential baal teshuva looking in than to an f.f.b. (frum from birth) looking out. The talk has to be different or so it seems to me. You need people who can handle any theological challenge, and can also find a way to deal with the underlying emotions and feelings behind the challenge.

There is a third problem which interests no one. Suppose somebody actually leaves, walks away from Orthodox life and tries to establish life elsewhere in the Jewish spectrum. Many times such people are troubled both theologically and psychologically. They need a little extra help to get started in their ‘new’ life. They are certainly not going to get any help from the Orthodox group they left. And there is no evangelical kiruv movement on the part of Conservative or Reform Jews which could help these Orthodox refugees to become more integrated into liberal Jewish life. They are on their own. I read that in Israel, there are organizations that help the chozerim be'she'alah, but I know of no such groups in America. The problem is accentuated because, like bad marriages, each Jew who was Orthodox and has left is different. Orthodox tend to be somewhat more homogenous; skeptics are skeptical each in their own way, some more reserved and troubled, some ‘acting out’ like there is no tomorrow. It is difficult to create an apikorsim (heretics) minyan.

Finally, I have had a long standing disagreement with friends whether it is best for an emotionally/religiously troubled young person to go to an Orthodox psychotherapist or a secular psychotherapist. I am on the secular side of the debate, but it’s a long topic and not for today.


At 11:03 AM, Anonymous largefamilychild said...


I disagree with you regarding large families and intelligence. I believe that it is quite the opposite. Children from large families are almost always ahead of their peers. Whether this may be that they need to push harder to shine, or perhaps because they witness so much more happening (bacause of the different ages of their siblings)than their counterparts in smaller families.

At 11:36 AM, Anonymous Veganovich said...

I think that the National Jewish Population Survey overstates the percentage of Orthodox people who leave Orthodoxy, because it relies on self identification. Many older people perceived themselves to have been Orthodox but would not be Orthodox by current definitions. Fifty years ago, the percentage of Synagogues that were Orthodox was much greater than it is now, but the percentage of people who kept Shabbos is much smaller than it is now. How would you classify someone who would only go to an Orthodox shul, but after going to shul on Saturday went to work? Fifty years ago, there were such people, now there are not.

On another note, you are incorrect to state that there are no organizations in America to help those that leave the Orthodox community. There is a non-profit group, Footsteps that does just that. Their website is

At 12:27 PM, Blogger evanstonjew said...

largefamilychild...I offered the conjecture without doing any research because I try to follow the trader’s maxim "don’t bother me with the facts I am trading". Your experience, though valuable, is still anecdotal. I was hoping some reader would send in a url with some studies. I looked it up on and found this article that seems to confirm both my conjectures with respect to the general population.

Jewish or Orthodox large families may be different. But why? A later article claims family size is unrelated to IQ scores.
Interested readers might try working their way through the literature, which I imagine is at this point rather large.

veganovich...I am indebted to you for both of your remarks. Much appreciated.

At 2:16 PM, Anonymous Eliyahu said...

EJ wrote:
"... The young people that leave Orthodoxy because of theological questions pose a different problem. ...Usually they are bright, educated, honest, and full of common sense. Rosh yeshivas and rabbis who have no college education or only a minimal amount are not fully equipped to talk to these people. ..."

My comments:

I find that while rejecting Orthodoxy, some drop-outs still accept what they have taught- that only Chareidi-Yeshivish Orthodoxy is the Real Thing and that Centrist-Modern Orthodoxy is bogus. Thus some of those who leave Chareidi-Yeshivish Orthodoxy, don't consider alternatives within Orthodoxy.
So the Centrist arguments aren't given a fair hearing by those dropouts who might really not have a problem with Orthodxy but with the Chareidi-Yeshivish versions that they have experienced. Chareidi-Yeshivish Roshei Yeshivah and rabbeim would be helping the neshamas of their drop-outs if they would refrain from deligitimizing Centrism-Modern Orthodoxy.

At 2:45 PM, Blogger avakesh said...

There is a third road, a bypass that returns some dropouts to some version of Orthodoxy. There are rest stops and lodging places along that road and many of the return travelers stay a while at these locations. Some are caleld MO, others Carlebach etc., even Jewish Revival. Some travelers never move all the way back. The important thing is that the traffic is back toward the destination and that the movement not cease.

At 2:15 AM, Anonymous Steve Brizel said...

EJ's comment has much merit to it-I discovered in my surfing that many dropouts from the Charedi world do not believe that MO would constitute a valid option. Yet, the anecdotal evidence is there that many such individuals in fact may wind up with MO attitudes and in MO shuls.

At 10:25 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

In big families all over the world, the *girls* end up taking care of the younger children almost always. I have seen 5 year old girls made responsible for their toddler siblings while mama has an infant, and the toddler ends up bonding more with the 5 year old than with mama.

But note I say *girls*. In big families, boys are nearly always "spoiled" and over-valued while their sisters just learn more babycare. Now in OJ, you have the excuse that boys should not be distracted from learning Torah, and indeed by high school, the boys' schedules are very demanding. But a girl with a lot of little siblings isn't going to be much besides a babysitter. She just won't have time.

At 4:06 PM, Blogger Ben Bayit said...

I know it's an old post, but I had to throw this in - if only so that you have the information. In Israeli "Chardal"/Settler circles there is a budding trend to keep "intellectual dropouts" within the system. A few High schools have been started that offer NO (that's right NONE) limudei kodesh, and offer the teens the options of studying for only the bagrut (matriculation) subjects they are interested in. Most of the kids are doing 5 units math, 5 physics, 5 english - you get the picture, these are smart kids, not people who will become bus drivers. The kids have figured out that most of HS (and the "system" as a whole) is BS and they just want to do what they have to do.

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