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The Pew finding that only 48% of people who were brought up Orthodox remain Orthodox could explain the apparently small bump from 2000 to 2013 in the Orthodox share of the U.S. Jewish community. Yet according to Cohen, that number reflects bygone trends, and Orthodox retention is likely to get more robust as today’s young Orthodox grow older.
“I’m predicting that younger Orthodox will have much higher retention rates,” Cohen said. “Orthodoxy has raised the bar, so today’s version of what it means to be Orthodox is more compelling and cohesive than in previous generations.”
Data included in the Pew report shows that Orthodox retention rates are vastly lower among older people who were brought up Orthodox than they are among younger people. Just 22% of people 65 and older who were raised Orthodox are still Orthodox, while 57% of people aged 30¬–49 who were raised Orthodox are still Orthodox.
What’s clear from the data is that any growth in Orthodoxy will come from inside the movement. Despite massive and growing outreach efforts by Orthodox groups to non-Orthodox Jews, just 4% of people brought up Conservative and 1% of people brought up Reform are currently Orthodox, according to Pew.
Those findings won’t surprise Rabbi Ephraim Buchwald, director of the National Jewish Outreach Program, who says that Orthodox outreach has more or less stopped working over the past 10 years. “The amounts of money that are going into this are astronomical,” Buchwald said. “The return is very poor.”
Buchwald blames the shrinking of the Conservative movement. Young Conservative Jews, he said, had enough Jewish background to be susceptible to Orthodox outreach methods. Now, there aren’t enough Conservative Jews among the college students the outreach professionals target.
In Buchwald’s analysis, Conservative Judaism serves as a sort of backstop for the non-Orthodox. The movement played that role for Sandra Bergman, a woman in her 60s who grew up Orthodox, with Holocaust survivor immigrant parents, in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn.
Bergman stopped being observant in college and didn’t attend any synagogue for years. When she started going to Ansche Chesed, a Conservative congregation on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, she found something that her Orthodox upbringing had failed to offer.