Losing Their Religion

Bucking Trend, Israeli Jews Becoming Less Religious, New Study Shows

While percentage of ultra-Orthodox will continue to increase due to high fertility rate, that growth will be tempered by large number of religious Jews turning secular

Ultra-Orthodox school children walk to school in Jerusalem's Haredi Mea Shearim neighborhood in Jerusalem.
Sebastian Scheiner / AP

Contrary to popular belief, Israel’s Jewish population is becoming less religious, not more so.

According to a study published Thursday, the number of religious Israeli Jews leaving the fold is much greater than the number of secular ones turning religious.

The study, published by the Taub Center for Social Policy Studies in Israel, based its findings on an analysis of the breakdown of children among the country’s three Jewish school systems: state-run secular; state-run religious; and ultra-Orthodox (or Haredi).

It compared the breakdown in practice to what would have been expected based on fertility trends in the three communities.

The state-run religious schools are attended by the Israeli equivalent of modern Orthodox Jews in the United States.

Based on these fertility trends – Israeli modern Orthodox women tend to have more children than their secular counterparts, and Haredi women tend to have many more children than their modern Orthodox counterparts – there should have been more children in the state-run religious and Haredi schools, and fewer in the state-run secular schools than there are in reality.

The co-authors of the study, Alex Weinreb and Nachum Blass, attribute this discrepancy to a weakened commitment to religion among a growing number of parents who grew up religious. These parents now prefer to send their children to nonreligious or less religious schools.

“These findings are quite stunning,” said Blass. “They show that despite widespread perceptions to the contrary, the religious commitment of Jews in Israel has weakened over the years rather than strengthened, and that secular Israelis are far from a breed in danger of extinction – as some have warned.”

Ultra Orthodox students at the Kehilot Yaacov Torah School in Jerusalem June 24, 2010
\ RONEN ZVULUN/REUTERS

Still, he noted, the share of Haredi Jews in the total population is expected to continue to grow because of high fertility rates in this community. (Haredi women have on average twice as many children as modern Orthodox women and three times as many children as secular women.)

However, Blass said this growth will be tempered by the growing tendency among religious Jews to leave the fold.

Based on current fertility rates, the Central Bureau of Statistics has predicted that the ultra-Orthodox would account for 50 percent of the Jewish population of Israel by 2059.

Taking into account the trend of weakened religiosity, though, Weinreb and Blass estimate that their share of the population will be no higher than 35 percent by that year. (It currently accounts for about 15 percent.)

Their study was based on data collected on Jewish school children in first grade through eighth grade between 2001 and 2015. It found that the number of children studying in the state-run secular school system was 5.9 percent higher than would be expected based on fertility rates among secular Jewish women.

By contrast, in the state-run religious school system, the number was 8.2 percent lower than would be expected, and in the Haredi school system, it was 7.7 percent lower.

The study also found that among children who began attending state-run religious schools in first grade, 16 percent of the boys and 12 percent of the girls completed eighth grade in secular schools.

Among children who began attending Haredi schools in first grade, 9 percent of the boys and 6 percent of the girls completed eighth grade in less religious schools (60 percent of them in state-run religious schools and 40 percent in state-run secular schools).

All told, between 2001 and 2015, approximately 50,000 children moved from religious schools to less religious schools, with the shift most pronounced within the modern Orthodox community.

The authors also estimate that at least 2,000 adult women, and a similar number of adult men, leave the Haredi and modern Orthodox worlds every single year.

Based on these trends, the authors estimate that the share of modern Orthodox Jews in the total population will decline in the future, while the share of secular Jews – despite predictions to the contrary – will grow, albeit slightly.

The findings are in line with a first-of-its-kind study published two years ago by the U.S.-based Pew Research Center on the religious commitment and attitudes of Israelis.

That study found that only about half of Israeli Jews (54 percent) who were raised modern Orthodox and two-thirds who were raised traditional still identified as such.

Blass attributed the move away from religious commitment in Israel to the effects of modernization.