This month we published an essay by our columnist Eli Spitzer about the rising influence of ḥaredi Judaism and what it means for the balance of power in the Jewish world at large. Eli’s essay has attracted significant attention, and so we thought we’d further the conversation by inviting him to discuss the ideas in it live on January 19.
He was joined by Alan Cooperman, the director of religion research at Pew Research Center, and Yehoshua Pfeffer, the ḥaredi rabbi and editor. The journalist Avital Chizhik-Goldschmidt moderated. And they answered questions from you, our readers and friends in the Mosaic community.
Watch the Discussion
Read the Transcript
We are convened today to discuss Eli Spitzer’s bold essay “The Ḥaredi Moment Has Arrived,” published in Mosaic on January 3rd, 2022. It’s our featured essay this month.
My name’s Jonathan Silver. I’m the editor of Mosaic. It’s a pleasure to welcome you to today’s discussion. In a moment, I’m going to introduce our moderator and discussants, but let me just say how gratified we are at Mosaic to convene such a group of writers and subscribers into this community of ideas. Thank you to each of you for supporting us with your subscription. We’ll try every month to deserve that support.
Now as for our purpose today:
The power of ḥaredi Judaism is rising. Soon enough, sooner than many think, pan-Jewish organizations everywhere will find themselves caught up in disputes, like the one experienced by the congress of the World Zionist Organization. How to resolve them will require a measure of understanding far beyond what liberal Jews, not to mention non-Jews, currently have, and that in turn will require a measure of access far beyond what ḥaredi Jews have heretofore offered.
Those lines are from the beginning of Eli Spitzer’s essay and they announce his subject: how to think about the consequences of the changing complexion of the Jewish community, where the Jewish community of the future can no longer afford to operate without the Ḥaredim. Eli Spitzer, of course, is a Mosaic columnist and the headmaster of a ḥasidic boys school in London. He’ll be joined by the director of religion research at Pew Research Center, a friend of Mosaic, Alan Cooperman. The two of them will be joined by a dear colleague in Israel, the founding editor of the ḥaredi journal Tzarich Iyun, Rabbi Yehoshua Pfeffer.
The discussion will be chaired and moderated by the writer Avital Chizhik-Goldschmidt, whose work has appeared in the Atlantic, the New York Times, and very recently, writing on Chaim Grade, in the Jewish Review of Books. Avital will host this discussion for about 40 or 45 minutes, and then around 1:15 or so, I’ll come back and we’ll welcome your questions. Now, Avital, I hand it over to you.
Thank you. Thank you, Jonathan, for that wonderful introduction. It is really an honor to be here with Mosaic and with these esteemed co-panelists. I was so excited to take part in this discussion today.
Eli, we’ll begin with you, the man of the hour. Your portrait of a community rising in power elicited many responses. I think it struck a nerve, as important writing does. The peg of your essay specifically was the congress of the World Zionist Organization, the vote. I think it was so excellent because that was something I was really waiting for someone to comment on, the meaning of the Eretz Hakodesh slate growing in its influence.
You wrote about the rising power of the ḥaredi community, thanks to shifting demographics, and whether the community can successfully integrate into legacy, pluralistic Jewish institutions, as well as the sort of information and tools needed for that to happen. Let’s begin with, if possible, a succinct summary of the main themes and the argument of your essay, and then I think we’ll move into a discussion.
Sure. Good evening here, good afternoon, and good morning to all Mosaic subscribers, to the Mosaic family. It’s a pleasure to be here. I’m sure some of you have skim-read the essay, and I’m sure some of you couldn’t be bothered, so I’m going to assume that some people haven’t actually read the essay and I’ll try to be as succinct as I can. I’m sure there’ll be some bits that I skip accidentally, and Avital or anyone else, if you think that I missed something important, let me know.
I open the essay using the example of the recent elections to the World Zionist Congress. I think actually the election results would’ve been probably, in my opinion, a bigger story in the Jewish world if it hadn’t been against the backdrop of the presidential election at the time in the United States, and obviously COVID, which has dominated everything at the time. This was actually pretty big, because for the first time since the inception of the World Zionist Congress, which of course predates the state of Israel, there is a new center-right to more right-wing-dominant slate or coalition which now constitutes a majority of the Congress.
One of the ways—it’s not the only factor—this has been made possible is by the appearance of the ḥaredi party called Eretz Hakodesh, committed to—if you see the tagline of what they stand for—pretty hardcore, pretty unapologetic in their very strict, Israeli-style ḥaredi politics: of the strict preservation of a halakhic and Orthodox religious attitude, the preservation of what they call the k’dushah [holiness] of Eretz Israel. I think there’s quite a lot of symbolism in referring to Israel as Eretz Hakodesh [the holy land], which is reclaiming the original name and so on, but they suddenly appeared.
Now usually you would expect a political movement to either be the fallout of a previous movement that has collapsed or some sort of slow process of a grassroot movement that slowly builds in prominence until it’s ready to make a big impact on a central stage. That hasn’t actually happened. The reason why Eretz Hakodesh was so successful in the most recent election wasn’t because Ḥaredim has suddenly quadrupled in size since the previous election, but it was actually because they decided to turn up.
That’s a separate essay in itself of how that was even made possible. Let’s just say there were some movers and shakers behind the scenes: a coalition, a partnership led by Yitzḥak Pindrus, who’s an Israeli member of the Knesset, a Ḥaredi, working closely together with Rabbi Pesach Lerner from America, and together they launched this party and they’ve decided that, for various reasons, that they want to engage in mainstream Jewish politics outside of Israel, and that has produced a stunning election victory.
Now, I then move on in the essay to explain that there has been a steady shift—and this, of course, Alan will describe and explain, and explain what I got wrong in this as well—but there has been a steady demographic shift where Ḥaredim in general have stopped being a tiny fringe minority that will probably cease to exist in a decade or two and to their actually growing in prominence, growing in size.
In Israel, of course, they now constitute between 12 and 13 percent of the population. Britain, I think, is a particularly interesting case study because I think it will be the first Jewish community, currently it’s on track to be the first Jewish community where Ḥaredim will be a majority. The JPR, [Britain’s Institute for Jewish Policy Research] currently projects that by the beginning of the next decade, the majority of Jewish births will be ḥaredi, and then at some point in the second half of this century, they project—well, it’s difficult to project so far down the line—but Ḥaredim might be a majority.
The real point that I then make in the essay is that, actually, it doesn’t really matter whether Ḥaredim become a majority, whether that happens in 2080 or if it never happens. What the World Zionist Organization target demonstrates is that Ḥaredim have not only got growing numbers, but they’ve also got another advantage, which is commitment, and I quote Samuel Heilman here, to “things manifestly Jewish.”
That gives them an added advantage compared to other demographic groups within the wider Jewish tent, which means that they punch above their weight. They, for example, in a very short period of time were able to mobilize something like 20,000 people to vote in the congress elections, despite the lack of years of building a movement or anything like that, because again, someone managed to run a very good marketing campaign to convince everyone that this is important.
This can be seen as a model of what might happen in other major Jewish institutions and organizations going forward. The growing prominence of Ḥaredim, combined with their change of attitude to engagement with non-ḥaredi organizations for various reasons—usually pragmatic reasons, not ideological reasons—will mean that major Jewish organizations will very soon have to confront some questions. What does the growing prominence of the ḥaredi community mean for them? Does it mean that they have to find a way to collaborate with Ḥaredim? Does it mean that they have to find a way actively to oppose them? I think, in my view, what is certainly not an option, and this is the argument I make in the essay, is to ignore all this and pretend it isn’t happening.
I then move on to say that in order for this engagement and this collaboration to happen—which is what I would like to see—it takes two to tango, and on both sides, a lot needs to happen. This essay wasn’t about what Ḥaredim need to do exactly. That wasn’t the focus of the essay, but very briefly I point out that Ḥaredim at the moment have a skill shortage because of the educational model in large sections of the ḥaredi community. There’s simply, in my view, a shortage of people who are inclined and skilled and trained to take up managerial, administrative, and leadership positions—lay leadership positions, that is. Also, I don’t think there is the maturity in the ḥaredi community at the moment needed to think strategically.
In terms of what non-Ḥaredim need to do, I think they need to start with understanding Ḥaredim better. As a Ḥaredim, as someone who grew up in the ḥasidic community, Yiddish-speaking community in Stamford Hill, London, where I still live today and where I raised my family, over the years, I have noticed a consistent lack of understanding across academia.
I’m not an academic, but I read quite a lot. I read Hebrew literature on Ḥaredim and English literature on Ḥaredim, and I believe I’ve identified certain consistent missteps and failures and flaws in that literature, which I’ll get into in a minute. And then I argue that this has a strong influence on media portrayal of Ḥaredim as well. The direct link is hard to establish, but I do think that somehow it starts at the top, in the Ivory Tower, and that has a way of cascading down to the popular portrayals of Ḥaredim.
I then move on to provide a bit of a survey of what the current academic treatment of Ḥaredim looks like—the sociology of Ḥaredim. This is where I should point out that by no means, I don’t think that would even be possible, but certainly, I’m not pretending that this is an exhaustive survey and that every angle and every department and every piece of work ever produced on Ḥaredim was surveyed.
This is, rather, a reflection of what I believe is the mainstream narratives, the patterns that I have seen from leading sociologists. I think that, at the moment, I’ve identified three major issues, one of them being that there is either a focus on members, what I call the OTD [off-the-derekh] community, people who have left the community who are overrepresented, possibly because of the ease of access. There is also on the other side and overemphasis on people who are the most extreme, most pious, the most religiously observant, with the rank and file, ordinary Ḥaredi in the middle being overlooked.
Another flaw is their focus on Israeli Ḥaredim and failing to see—and I know that Yehoshua might want to take me up on that later—but what I view as the failure to view the ḥaredi community as a transnational community. In order to fully understand the ḥaredi community, it is important to understand that the dynamics of the ḥaredi community are not limited by geography and are not limited by any country in which this particular community exists.
Finally, I just argue that there isn’t enough of sociology of ḥaredi life. I think Jewish-studies departments have got the resources. Something which is so important for the future of the Jewish people just deserves more attention.
Finally, I move on to setting out what I believe a research agenda, a research program of what I believe this new sociology could look like. Of course, because it’s new or because I believe that there should be something new, we don’t know exactly what it will look like. But I’ve identified four myths, four areas where there are consistent failures in understanding the dynamics of the ḥaredi community. I’ll very quickly list them.
The first one is the myth of the all-powerful leader: the assumption that there are powerful leaders at the top or some village elders who direct and instruct the community. This was very common during the coverage of COVID non-compliance in the ḥaredi community, where so much of the coverage was all about which rabbi or which rosh yeshiva did or didn’t issue directive to do this or that.
It is true that there are very powerful, charismatic ḥaredi leaders and rabbinic leaders, but I argue that the fact that so much of the ḥaredi community functions without recognized leadership, and the fact that you can be a full-fledged member of the ḥaredi community without being affiliated with a specific rabbinic leader suggests that there’s something else—something more important—going on about the power dynamics in the ḥaredi community.
The second myth was that the ḥaredi economy is dysfunctional. Now, this is something that I believe happens a lot. It happens both in Israel and also outside of Israel, and even in academia, where people confuse either the fact that people are heavily reliant on the welfare state or the fact that the standards of living are not as high as it is in the secular world, or the fact that Ḥaredim don’t pay as much tax or anything like that with a sense that the economy is dysfunctional and that inevitably it will implode.
Now, in a value-neutral way, my argument is that I haven’t been convinced that that is actually the case. I haven’t seen the evidence that’s the case. I can understand why people would argue that it’s unhealthy, that it’s immoral, that it isn’t good, but from an economic point of view, I think there’s a lazy assumption that this doesn’t match with our understanding of how a modern capitalist society should function, and therefore, it’s inevitably going to fall apart.
In a way, the biggest proof is that, if you go back to the ’50s, the ’60s and the ’70s, those predictions of the ḥaredi economic model falling apart were consistently proven wrong. It is not a new thing that commentators argue that the ḥaredi economy is on the brink of collapse. Now what exactly is sustainable and isn’t, I don’t know, but this is another area that I feel a myth that needs to be addressed.
The third myth that I’ve identified—and this is something that I wrote a separate column about in Mosaic—is that the ḥaredi education system is failing. Now, this is, I believe, a myth driven by appraising the ḥaredi education system by using the terms of reference established in mainstream education.
Now, I don’t argue with the fact. I certainly don’t. Literally what I do for a living is promoting standards of secular education in the ḥaredi community. This is something that I’ve done throughout my working life. But that’s not the same thing as saying that because Ḥaredim fail to prepare their children or often fail to prepare children for the 21st-century market economy their education system is a failure.
I think there’s a consistent failure to recognize that the ḥaredi education system is something that serves a very important function, and does that very successfully: i.e. initiating and socializing their little Ḥaredim into people who will be loyal to and committed to the ḥaredi community when they grow up.
Finally, the fourth myth, and perhaps the hardest myth, is that the ḥaredi community is a religious movement. As I say in the essay, this the hardest myth to debunk, because Ḥaredim themselves often will describe themselves as first and foremost a religious movement. Why are you ḥaredi? That’s because my level of commitment is the ḥaredi level of commitment.
Actually, I think there are core dynamics and social norms that bind together an entire spectrum of Haredim, from the most observant and the most pious ones to the ones who are really not as committed and questioning, but who are at the same time just as committed.
Ultimately, I finish off the essay by saying I think that these things are fascinating in themselves. But even if they weren’t, I still think that it’s crucially important that—in order for a future partnership, a close collaboration between Ḥaredim and non-Ḥaredim, to flourish, for policymakers to make the right decisions, for leaders of institutions to make the right decisions—a better and improved understanding of Haredim needs to happen. It’s unlikely to come from within the community itself in the near future, and therefore, academics, it’s over to you.
I can’t call myself an academic, but I’ll take journalist. Thank you so much, Eli. That was very comprehensive.
Oh, and to you, too, to journalists, too, by the way.
That’s right, and we’ll get to that. I think there were two threads in your essay, if I may boil it down: the external steps and the internal steps necessary for the integration of this community. I want to begin today’s conversation with the internal steps necessary, and then we’ll zoom out.
You write, Eli, about how ḥaredi society needs this new class of lay leaders and professionals who have both inclination and ability to navigate institutions of civil society, as well as the heft to overrule the advocates of unmoderated sectarianism. Those are the words that you use, but I would maybe just simplify it as extremism. You note that traditionally the ḥaredi community has coped with its lack of such a native class either by outsourcing its tasks or by leaning heavily on ba’alei t’shuvah, people who choose to become ḥaredi, who bring those skills with them. I think that’s a very astute observation.
You also note that this will not be enough and that Ḥaredim will have to adapt to their own internal education system to generate that elite with a background in law and finance and business management and other fields that are needed to manage competently and to maintain large institutions. I think this is a really important subject and it’s a question that I am perhaps biased towards as a daughter of a ba’al t’shuvah, as someone who’s come myself into the community.
One of the pitfalls here is that, that model as you say doesn’t really work well. Because a ba’alei t’shuvah by definition tends to be insecure about his status in society, which may hinder his abilities, I think, to lead well and confidently. We need the insiders to do that work, as you suggest, but the problem is, while they may have the social status, they may have the clout, they also lack the tools to do so.
When I say tools, I don’t only mean formal education, though that is essential, but actually a certain, I think, social nativity and etiquette in the wider world. I often see, anecdotally as a journalist, as a frum journalist, I see Jews who may have figured out maybe how to use Twitter but who have no sense of how they look in the eyes of a secular audience and often will end up doing more harm for the community than good.
So let’s talk about the necessary education. You write that the ḥaredi education system is more about immersing children in certain mores and identity rather than calculus and grammar. Part of that immersion is a culture which ideologically does deride academia, which does shirk any discussion of secular integration, which then eventually causes some of those community-wide challenges that are faced, that you are pointing out, and that inability to successfully integrate.
How do we get around that? One of the readers asked about this specifically about exposure to cultural forces on college campuses. Education is necessary, yet identity can then be threatened from the ḥaredi point of view. What are the concrete solutions here for attaining the necessary education while preserving that identity? Are there any good models for this currently that you can point to?
It’s a great question. For me personally, it’s a question that has occupied me for a good number of years now. It’s something that I’m a little bit obsessed with, because at the heart of the question, it’s very easy to say: Ḥaredim, just maintain everything you’ve got. It’s all lovely and beautiful, but why can’t you produce 100 to 150 lawyers a year, plus a couple of dozen bankers and then a few accountants, academics, and then we have it all?
Because of course, as a conservative, as a Burkean, I don’t want to mess with a system that I don’t fully understand, but it’s theoretical. These are not things that I’ve actually tested and that I can say that I have applied and they work, but this is what I would suggest. This is something that I’m actually thinking about. You understand that children, teenagers, adolescents in the ḥaredi world, once they go through their formative stage in life, you don’t want to tamper with their education system too much.
I totally sympathize and understand the view of the mainstream average ḥaredi parents who wouldn’t want their eighteen-, nineteen-year-old son or daughter going off to college because they will be socialized into something which is the complete opposite of what they want their children to be socialized into. I think the focus should be on adult learning.
I think that the target should be mid-twenties or early twenties, where there should be some method of trying to groom or identify people with real potential to contribute to communal leadership, putting programs in place that combine Torah studies and academic studies. Israel has got plenty of these programs. Yehoshua will definitely know more than I do about what has worked, what hasn’t, what the pitfalls are, but I can honestly say that I don’t think that, outside of Israel, these programs have been tried properly.
If you look, for example, in the States, I don’t know it that well, but I understand there are programs, whether it’s Touro College and similar sort of institutions, that facilitate careers for members of the ḥaredi community who perhaps have gone through an unconventional route to qualification. That’s great, but there’s little focus from what I’ve seen on creating, generating future leaders.
I think that should be the focus, but with the understanding that conventional models of higher education or of training for leadership, which involves starting in high school or attending college in your late teens and early twenties, might not be the way forward, probably isn’t the way forward, and therefore putting together custom-made programs that actually would suit the needs and the requirements of the ḥaredi community is probably the way forward.
Thank you. Yehoshua, would you mind sharing perhaps? I know this is some of your work at Tzarich Iyun. You write quite a bit about education as well, and you are coming from Israel, so you have I think a firsthand view of some of these programs that have worked.
Certainly, I have a lot of experience with many of these programs. One of the great challenges with these programs and also with the general issue which is raised in this article isn’t just the level of education, isn’t just the question of the skillset and so on, but it’s really the mindset.
It’s the way that ḥaredi society sees itself, the way that ḥaredi individuals look at themselves and look at their Judaism. What does it mean? It’s a question the article specifically says is not the issue, but I think that’s the main issue. The major issue is what does it mean to be a Jew, a frum Jew, an observant Jew, somebody who cares about God’s will in the world.
I think there’s an inherent tension in the article about this issue, which is so relevant for what’s going on in Israel. The tension is as follows. On the one hand, we have the sectarianism problem. Now that problem of isolationism, extreme isolationism, is a problem of identity. It’s a question of, am I first and foremost a ḥaredi person? Is that my basic identity, or am I basically Jewish, or, to give a broader definition, a Jew who is faithful to the Torah? Is that my basic identity?
For ḥaredi society, which Eli writes is the most successful adaptation of Judaism to modernity, that might be the case, but then the question is, what’s the price? As ḥaredi society expands, the price becomes much more prominent, and the price is that Ḥaredim—many, not all—they see their basic identity, their basic loyalty to the Torah through the lens of a ḥaredi identity. They fit into this multicultural society in this bubble. Even when they lose their ḥaredi identity, they also often lose their religious observance, because these things go together. You keep mitzvot not because God says to, but because you belong to the ḥaredi club.
The deep tension in the article, I feel, is that by encouraging this sociological study of the Ḥaredim as if they were the Amazonian tribe that Eli references, then what we’re doing in fact is we are strengthening, entrenching this understanding of ḥaredi identity not just from the ḥaredi side, but also from the non-ḥaredi side. I think this is potentially disastrous. Ḥaredim have a certain mechanism, a certain strategy for preserving their religious observance. It’s a decent strategy, but once this strategy becomes the main thing, whether it’s from the Ḥaredim themselves or whether it’s from the sociologist, then we’ve lost it.
I think that it’s very, very significant, very important within ḥaredi society and outside of ḥaredi society not to look at Ḥaredim like Amazonians. They’re not. They’re a bunch of Jews, or they should be, trying to perform the divine will by maintaining observance of Torah and of mitzvot and so on. The way in which this will improve is by means of the popular culture. The popular culture was there a long time before the sociologists came along, so I think that it’s pretty independent.
If we look at the popular culture, let’s say, in Israel series such as Shtisel and Shababnikim and others that actually try to present a decent portrayal of Ḥaredim, now that’s a positive on the one side because it facilitates a certain coming together, but it’s also in my eyes something of an issue that we need to treat with some concern in the sense of, okay, who cares? Each one will just do what he wants.
No, we want to have a real conversation. What does it mean to be Jewish? What does it mean to have a Jewish state? If Ḥaredim will only develop a mindset that incorporates real responsibility for not just what’s going on within the ḥaredi ghetto, so to speak, but rather within the Jewish people as a whole, the state of Israel and so on, then that will facilitate just a lot of these projects, programs, education, and so on follows the mindset. It follows the way you identify yourself and the way others identify you.
If there’s one point I want to make about the article, then it’s that one. Lots more stuff to discuss, obviously, but I’m going to leave it for the questions, and of course for you, Avital, to develop.
Thank you. I think this question of sociology in a ḥaredi community is interesting, and I think it’s certainly changing. There’s been some really interesting work done in this area, whether you look at English writers like English academics Ayala Fader, who’s done some ethnographic research on ḥasidic girls’ upbringing, or Michal Raucher, whose book on reproductive agency among ḥaredi women I thought very thought-provoking. She really offers a new lens. There’s of course, in Israel, a plethora. Nechumi Yaffe has done some really interesting work on the glorification of poverty and the way that wealth may influence gender roles.
I asked a friend of mine in preparation for today: who is doing the interesting new academic work by Ḥaredim about Ḥaredim in Israel? I expected her to just text me two, three names, and then she sends me a spreadsheet of dozens and dozens of young ḥaredi scholars at Israel’s top universities doing work on subjects as broad as shanah rishonah, the first year of marriage for ḥaredi women, the micro-politics of ḥaredi education, STEM education and training of educators in the frum community, at-risk youth among children of ba’alei t’shuvah, ḥaredi cults, you name it. The list goes on and on.
I think part of that is because, to my mind, it seems, as someone who dips in and out of Israeli ḥaredi culture, you do have a culture there where there is more access, I think, to social studies and liberal arts because of those programs that we mentioned earlier. To me, that is a cultural issue that is not going to be easily solved in the Diaspora.
Israeli Ḥaredim, as you note in your essay, are in some ways more integrated into wider society. Every year, you have more men joining the workforce, you have more men joining the army. At this point, if you’re a median member of society, you know of a ḥaredi man who has or will serve in the army, and I think that’s a new development that may have not been true twenty years ago.
Also in Israel, I find Ḥaredim are native speakers of the local language. Before you suggest that in America or the UK people are fluent in English, let me just say that my husband grew up in Russia, spent ten years studying Israeli ḥaredi-issued books, but he always says that it was in Lakewood, New Jersey that his English deteriorated. I think, Eli, you may have written about that struggle yourself.
I’m wondering about the cultural differences that allow for maybe that serious internal sociology to be done in Israel’s ḥaredi community versus elsewhere. I want to also ask Alan, if you can weigh in a little bit about the differences between quantitative and qualitative research on the ḥaredi community. Is there a conflation of the two? Maybe you could start us off on that.
Thank you, Avital. This is a fascinating conversation. Let me say at the outset that I don’t pretend to be an expert on Ḥaredim especially in the UK or in Israel, but also not in the United States—and also that on many of the very important issues being raised here, I really don’t have an opinion. I’m not knowledgeable enough to have one, and the other panelists and speakers and Eli himself know far more about education in the ḥaredi community and the identification within the ḥaredi community than I do.
Let me say a couple things about what we know and don’t know from the point of view of a quantitative researcher. Ḥaredim are defined broadly both in Israel and the United States, and I suppose probably similarly in the UK, to include both ḥasidic folks, including Lubavitchers or Chabad, if they identify in certain ways, plus the Mitnagdim, Litvish, yeshivish, etc. Ḥaredi is in one sense a very broad amalgam of a whole lot of different smaller identities.
If we take that whole group just amalgamated up and call them ḥaredi, as Eli said, that’s something like 13 percent of the population in Israel. You can do an enormous amount of quantitative research on a portion of the population that’s 13 percent of the overall population through surveys and other kinds of research.
But in the United States, Jews as a whole—all Jews, not just Ḥaredim—all Jews make up only about two percent of the U,S. population. Ḥaredim, roughly speaking, make up something like 5 percent of all Jews there. We’re talking Ḥaredim are in the neighborhood of one-tenth of 1 percent of the overall U.S. population. In studies that draw a random sample from the U.S. population, it’s almost impossible for those studies to get sufficient numbers of Ḥaredim to be able to discuss Ḥaredim in a serious way, much less trying to look at subgroups like yeshivish and Litvish or heymish or whatever. It’s not going to be enough.
Qualitative research, ethnography, for sure can do that, but it’s very difficult in the United States to be able to talk with any reliability from national studies about the size and characteristics of Ḥaredim. In fact, I think it’s incumbent on researchers like me to acknowledge that and to be really humble, and so I would like to say that when Eli says that we don’t know enough about Ḥaredim, I 100-percent agree. About the demographics, the size, the characteristics in the population—if we need to know these things in a quantitative, statistical way through scientific statistical studies, like the Pew Research Center study of American Jews, we just do not have the ability to do that. Thus the restraint that researchers use in saying, “We just don’t know enough,” is not evidence of ignoring Ḥaredim.
One difference I have with Eli’s article is that at one point, especially in the initial version which also misstated the methodology of the Pew Research Center study of American Jews in 2020, said that the study’s failure to talk about Ḥaredim shows that the American Jewish community doesn’t recognize Ḥaredim, doesn’t think Ḥaredim are important, and I just don’t think that’s true.
I can’t speak for the American Jewish community, but the study doesn’t speak about Ḥaredim because we just don’t have enough data. We sampled 60,000-plus people, interviewed 60,000-plus people in our 2020 study of American Jews. We ended up with about a sample—through oversampling—of about 4,700 Jews of one sort or another. That included 206 people who identify as ḥaredi, again, either as yeshivish, Litvish or as ḥasidic or related. That’s just 206. Given the kind of oversampling that we did, that’s just not a significant sample.
On the other hand, you take a book that Eli praised, and I do think it’s an excellent book, Schneuer Zalman Newfield’s book Degrees of Separation, that whole book is based on 74 interviews. Those are in-depth interviews, but that’s 74 interviews, and he does a whole book about it, qualitative interviews. I’m saying I can’t speak with authority about Ḥaredim based on 206 interviews.
I would like to make one or two other points. I don’t have any position about which parts of the American Jewish spectrum are most important. To me, they’re all important, and I study them all. I think they’re all interesting. One could certainly make a good case that Orthodox Jews, including Ḥaredim, but also including Centrist and Modern Orthodox Jews, are a quickly growing group.
The Orthodox population, people tend in that population to get married at higher rates, so higher rates in marriage, younger marriages and larger family sizes. Now the differences within that group between ḥasidic or Litvish, I can’t speak to, and even Ḥaredim versus Centrist and Modern Orthodox, given the statistical power and the number they have, very hard to say, but it makes sense, it’s plausible to suggest the Ḥaredim are a fast-growing group, possibly even within the Orthodox.
So there really is an argument, as Eli has said, for the demographic vitality of the ḥaredi population in the United States, but it’s not the only growing part of the Jewish population. In fact, one could also make an argument that the fastest-growing part of the U.S. Jewish population is at the extreme opposite end, what we in our reports call “Jews of no religion,” people who identify as Jewish, be it culturally or ethnically, but not with the Jewish religion.
You might think those people would be assimilating. You might say, they’re all not going to be Jewish where their children or grandchildren aren’t going to be Jewish. But just as Eli’s pointed out, some decades back people used to say, “Oh, Ḥaredim, they’re disappearing. They’re going to be a declining share of American Jews.” It didn’t turn out to be the case, and it’s not necessarily the case that Jews of no religion are declining.
In fact, what we see and what other studies show is that they’re rising. They make up 29 percent today of all U.S. Jews and four in ten of younger Jewish adults. Again, one could plausibly argue that there’s growth for different reasons. Fertility on the one hand and movement in and out on the other hand, different at both ends of the spectrum.
The last point I want to make is about people going in and out. Eli’s argued that too much attention is paid culturally to people leaving ḥaredi communities. From my point of view, as a researcher, though, the share of people leaving ḥaredi communities is an unknown and a very important unknown, as is the share people of entering them.
If we really want to understand the growth dynamics of ḥaredi communities or of any other part of the Jewish population in the United States, we need to understand all these factors. We need to understand the age structure of the population, how many men, how many women, their fertility rates, their mortality rates, immigration and emigration, but you’ll also need to know who’s coming in, who’s going out. Let me just say that the numbers may not be exactly what you think. We know these communities or we’re part of them, we think we know these things, but we don’t always really know. We’re all in our bubbles about this.
Let me just say about the Orthodox that the retention rate of the Orthodox overall in our figures is about the same as the retention rate of Reform Judaism. It’s about two-thirds of people raised as Reform Jews are still today Reform Jews. About two-thirds of people who say they were raised as Orthodox Jews are still Orthodox Jews. Fully a third of people raised in each of those camps are no longer Jewish.
Now again, Ḥaredim specifically may have a higher retention rate, but I don’t know how much higher. If I had to guess—again, based on not-great statistics that I’m very uncomfortable speaking about—I would guess that it’s somewhat higher, but maybe somewhere in the realm of eight and ten, about 80 percent, but that would still mean that 20 percent of people raised as Ḥaredim in the United States no longer identify as Ḥaredim.
To be sure, the vast majority probably still identify as Orthodox and certainly still identify as Jewish, but the numbers coming and going are really important, and we can’t guess those just by the people that we know. Leaving these communities is hard. The numbers who leave may be somewhat understated rather than overstated. Thank you very much.
Thank you, Alan, for that. I feel like I want to take a whole course with you in the work that you do. I think we’re running a little bit over time. Just wanted to know that we are watching the clock. I think we have time for just one more question internally on this panel that I will pose to Eli. Feel free to respond to any of the points raised until now. Then we will open up to the chat, the Q&A that some of the audience members have posed.
While the community is growing, there are also aspects of the community that are shifting inside. There are internal changes, both in Israel and the United States. I think we saw this most recently, of course, with the Chaim Walder saga. The establishment may not want to acknowledge this, but we saw massive tensions between grassroots and leadership. There are of course economic factors to this, but I think some of them are informational. The Internet has had a huge effect. Social media, WhatsApp have transformed the community, especially the younger generation. People can mobilize and have unfiltered conversations en masse, and those conversations can apply serious pressure on those in power.
When we’re talking about the ḥaredi community rising in power, this is likely not going to be the community that may have been ten years ago or twenty years ago. It will look slightly different. I’m wondering, Eli, how you think that may factor in here, and any other thoughts responding to the points mentioned until now, we would love to hear it.
I’ll start by trying to answer your question, and then I’ll maybe make a couple of comments on what Yehoshua and Alan have said. I haven’t got a crystal ball. I don’t know what the future would look like. I think the smart money is on at some point further down the line that using the word Ḥaredim will become untenable. I don’t think that that is a term that will stand the test of time. I think it is already being stretched to its limits. I think that you struggle to find two people with the same definition of what is or isn’t considered a ḥaredi. I have wracked my brain for way too long to the point of giving up to come up with my own test.
In the future, further down the line, I don’t know whether different groups will emerge in the same way. If you think back to the turn of the 20th century, when you could just about define Orthodoxy as a single movement, then slowly this neo-Orthodoxy emerged and the militant Hungarian Orthodox emerged, and then the Polish Agudah movement, which shares the Hungarian approach to religious observance but is more engaged in politics and so on. These different strands emerge, and then the major event of the Holocaust comes along and disrupts all of that, and then it took a couple of decades, I think, for different groups to reestablish themselves and so on.
I would say that I, and in a way this is a bit of a response to what Yehoshua was saying earlier as well, the purpose of this essay was to take a step back and look at the sociological features of the ḥaredi community. For the purpose of this conversation or of this essay, at least, that was the only element that I was interested in, not on the moral standing of the community, not on what is right or wrong.
When I mentioned in the essay that it was the most successful adaptation to modernity. I mean that in a Darwinian way. From an evolutionary perspective, it was the most successful adaptation. I don’t mean that it is the most perfect and ideal adaptation. I know Alan, as a demographer and a statistician and a researcher—people of his kind, whenever I’ve met them, always, always push you back, be careful, don’t make assumptions, and he’s right—but I’m not a statistician, and therefore I will make assumptions based on my experience. There is no question that the growth of the ḥaredi community is phenomenal. The birthrate is significantly higher than any other demographic in the Jewish community. I don’t think that’s debatable. The retention rate, Alan is 100-percent right, this is one of the biggest unknowns, but again, that ties back into the definition of what is ḥaredi and what isn’t to know what is considered retained and what isn’t considered retained.
The point is, Ḥaredim have been phenomenally successful from a sociological point of view and surviving and thriving. I’m not saying they’ve been successful in satisfying all of their adherence or on being morally superior. Let’s leave all of that to the side.
There was an article, actually, I think it was published yesterday in one of the American online Jewish websites, I forget which one, and I think the title was “How Kiryas Joel Has Used Liberal Methods to Build an Illiberal Theocracy,” something like that. I don’t know if you’ve come across it. You can Google it and you’ll see what I mean. I think that David Myers and someone else wrote that piece. It’s about a book that’s about to come out. That is an example of how Ḥaredim, Ḥasidim especially I should say, have deployed highly sophisticated tools.
I’m not saying this is all designed in advanced and calculated, but I’m saying Ḥaredim have ended up using highly advanced sociological tools in order to sustain themselves. Yehoshua is right, self-preservation shouldn’t be the only concern. Responsibility of the Jewish people, whatever else you want, is a separate conversation.
For me, what the future looks like, I don’t know. It could all fall apart, it could all diverge into three or four different strands, but at the moment, it is on track to continue growing and to continue to dominate.
Eli, we have eight zillion questions from members of the audience and Mosaic subscribers. Ora has been waiting patiently with her hand raised. Can we elevate her so that she can ask a question?
Hi, everyone. I’m not sure if I’m able to turn my video on, but hopefully you could hear me. Thank you so much for this really interesting discussion and article.
As I read it, I was really compelled by the overall point that you were making. Once you hit the specific examples, I was waiting and waiting and waiting for something that didn’t ever come, and I’m wondering about what I perceive to be an oversight in your four areas of power dynamics, economy, education system, and religious commitment, because there was no explicit mention anywhere in the article about women and the role that particularly ḥaredi women play in sustaining the economy in the rapid population growth that’s been mentioned numerous times in this conversation.
They have a particular kind of education system that’s different than men’s yeshivas, but also I think asks the same kinds of questions. The question of women is also super-present in questions of power dynamic in the way the ḥaredi community functions and women’s religious commitment also looks strikingly different in the ḥaredi community than men’s. I’m wondering if you could maybe speak to the unique questions and roles that ḥaredi women play, and maybe talk a little bit about bringing that lens into this conversation, which I believe up until this point has been somewhat lacking.
Am I going first?
Eli, please. Ora, thank you.
Ora, thank you for the question. You’re right, it is an oversight. Probably to be expected because I’m a man. You are 100-percent right. The ḥaredi woman is a fascinating subject in itself. The role that the ḥaredi woman plays in propping up this entire show can never be overstated.
I haven’t got a particular insight into a certain flaw in the academic treatment of the role of ḥaredi women. That is probably the biggest reason why it doesn’t feature as one of those myths. I have identified the list of key areas where research misguided or misplaced, whereas when it comes to the role of the ḥaredi woman, I think you’re right that not enough work is being done on discovering that.
You’re also right that it is definitely a key dynamic, but first of all, it makes up 50 percent of the ḥaredi community, let’s start with that, but also, it obviously is incredibly important, and for all sorts of reasons. In Israel, I would say mainly economic reasons, but of course, as Avital alluded to earlier, reproductive agency, all of those dynamics, and whether different trends there might affect the growth and the birthrate in the ḥaredi community going forward.
It’s definitely a fascinating discussion. I would, if I could plug my blog, there is an article that I wrote on my blog a while ago, and the title is “A Woman of Valor, Who Can Defame?” That is about one angle of the role of women in the ḥaredi community, specifically my community in Stamford Hill where I explore one angle there. But yeah, maybe that’s one for another column.
I think we need to organize a panel devoted to this topic alone.
Eli, take notes for future columns of yours. Eli appears in Mosaic regularly. This is a subject of inestimable importance that we should be thinking about. Eli, there is a question here about the responsibilities that you feel are felt by the ḥaredi community for the larger Jewish community as a whole. Is there any way to demonstrate that such responsibility would be welcomed and sustained by the ḥaredi community?
I don’t know. I’ve discussed this with Yehoshua before, and Yehoshua alluded to this earlier. Of course, this is a key area, and more importantly, it is probably the first question that most non-Haredim who are committed to Jewish people or to Jewish tolerance, that’s the first question they ask is, where have you ever demonstrated that you care about me, that you expect me to care about you?
Again, let me just say that when I say I expect non-Ḥaredim to care about Ḥaredim, what I mean by that is to care about the phenomenon of Ḥaredim. Whether they need to like them or dislike them, that is not for the scope of this essay.
I would say this is something that I’ve actually discussed with someone a while ago, there’s one thing that I have picked up on. It is not big. It could be anecdotal. When it comes to Jewish questions, Ḥaredim are, in my experience, quite dismissive of anything non-ḥaredi. By the way, that extends to modern Orthodoxy as well. It’s not only non-Orthodox movements. But when you remove theology, ideology, or halakhic observance from the equation, I think there are quite some remarkable examples of Ḥaredim being deeply committed to Jewish peoplehood.
If you look in Israel, I think this is quite common. You look at the welfare organizations, those charities who deal with lending medical equipment. I think, Yehoshua, you can probably correct me if I’m wrong, but I think the majority of Hatzalah volunteers in Israel are ḥaredi. I think when it comes to volunteering on a welfare, on a social-support, social-network level, I think there’s some very good and encouraging and heartwarming examples of Ḥaredim demonstrating their ability to engage in the am eḥad [one people] concept.
Where of course the major challenges are is that ḥaredi identity and ideology is rooted in the rejection of non-ḥaredi or non-Orthodox approaches to Judaism. Ḥaredim generally struggle to conceive of a Judaism that isn’t committed to halakhic observance and seeing it as a legitimate expression of Judaism. Those are big challenges, and we’re certainly not going to solve them here, but we should try.
Eli, there is an enormous number of questions that we’re not going to have time to answer. We are now at the end our appointed time, but let me press on for just another minute, trying to group together a number of the questions that I see, which I think, when you look at various questions that I’m reading here, scrolling through about education, about the economy, if I can try to summarize them and distill it, I would ask you this question in the name of many subscribers here.
When you look at the comparative advantage of different sectors of American Jewry—this is a very crude overstatement, but I’ll put it crudely so that you can react to something—one thing that non-ḥaredi Jews have is money, and one thing that ḥaredi Jews lack is money. How do these two work together?
I struggle to relate to that. I think that that probably stems from a bit of a misunderstanding of A, the amount of money that exists in the ḥaredi community, and B, the ability of the ḥaredi community to make money go extremely far. Put it this way: far less money is spent in the ḥaredi community on research, on compliance, on health and safety, on abstract, long-term visionary things, and money in the ḥaredi community tends to go directly to the front line. I think you take a tour in Borough Park, Williamsburg, and Monsey, I think you’ll be blown away by the number of institutional buildings, schools that crop up all over the place.
From a communal point of view, I think, Jon, I may have misunderstood, if you’re referring to individual Ḥaredim who struggle financially because of being denied the opportunity to pursue careers, that is a serious discussion and one that we should definitely have, but at a communal level, it’s not really something that I can relate to. I don’t see lack of money. There might be less of it than there is in other parts of the Jewish community, but I don’t think there isn’t enough for them to be able to grow and thrive.
Yes, if I may on this. It’s actually the opposite. Ḥaredi wealth is becoming a very popular topic inside the community. You see this in editorials, you see this in rabbis’ speeches. Just recently, there have been a few big lectures and articles that were going around inside the community. Someone noted a very interesting distinction which I think really, really represents the way the community has moved that, I think it was in the 1970s, there was a responsum from Rabbi Moses Feinstein on whether a man can take a subway to work on Shabbos.
There was a recent question posed to Rabbi Asher Weiss on whether a woman, a person can fly on a private jet with a pilot of the opposite gender. I think the differences between those two questions really shows you the way that the community has gone. Obviously, no, most people are not flying on private jets, but there is much more, I think, aspiration towards wealth. Now the way it is used, as Eli just noted, there’s much to debate about what could be improved, but there is a massive amount of wealth in the community that I think is often not understood outside.
Avital, thank you so much for chairing this discussion. Alan, Yehoshua, thank you, Eli, for this terrific essay and for your time and insights. I’m grateful. Ladies and gentlemen, with that, we adjourn.