Opinion

Like It or Not, the American Jewish Future Is Orthodox, and Deeply Conservative

Orthodoxy’s startling demographic growth means the tide is turning for the famously liberal values, voting patterns and communal life generally associated with the U.S. Jewish community.

Supporters of U.S. President-elect Donald Trump shout at Trump protesters in a demonstration area near Trump Tower in the Manhattan borough of New York, U.S. November 20, 2016.
Mark Kauzlarich, Reuters

No matter what some American Orthodox Jews might wish to imagine, they did not play a pivotal role in the election of Donald Trump. Still and all, a sizable number of them, according to polls, voted for him, and they were elated at the election’s outcome. After all, the Republican candidate campaigned on a number of issues – including school choice, abortion, Israel’s security, and the war on terror – in ways that resonated with most Orthodox. Among, it now seems clear, many other Americans.

What’s interesting, and significant, is the dovetailing of the incoming American administration’s apparent views on such issues and the remarkable demographic changes taking place on the American Jewish communal scene. Those developments may be heralding an American Jewish political and organizational future that will look very different from the current one.

Based on Pew Research Center data compiled over three generations, demographers have called attention to the startling growth of the American Orthodox community, made all the more noteworthy by the apparent decline of the rest of the non-Orthodox American Jewish populace.  Within two generations, according to sociologist Steven M. Cohen, the Orthodox fraction of the American Jewish population has more than quintupled; and more than a quarter of American Jews 17 years of age or younger are Orthodox.

The implications of an approaching new normal in the American Jewish electorate and social leadership are considerable.

Mindful of the Talmudic teaching that, since the destruction of the Temple, the only semblance of prophesy resides in children and fools, and well aware of my age, I won’t claim the mantle of a seer. But it does seem likely that, as a recent Nobel Prize awardee declared in a different context, the times they are a-changin’.

The changes, in fact, have been brewing for some time. Orthodox Jews have become steadily more active in political life – and they stand apart from the larger Jewish community, with 57 percent identifying as Republican and more than half identifying as politically and socially conservative. Among Haredim, nearly two-thirds call themselves conservative.

In the past, the Orthodox community was too small to have any political impact, particularly with most Orthodox Jews living in heavily Democratic districts.  With the demographic shift currently taking place, though, and with the aforementioned quarter of young American Jews poised to join the electorate, that tide seems destined to turn.

A supporter of Donald Trump, holding a sign that reads "Jews for Trump," stand outside Trump Tower in New York, October 8, 2016.
Eduardo Munoz, Reuters

Rabbi Abba Cohen, who has headed Agudath Israel of America’s Washington Office for decades, notes that the American Orthodox Jewish community has clearly moved “beyond mere ‘access’ to” public officials, “which it has had for some time.”

“Today,” he observes, “Orthodox advocates not only find open doors but are sought out and invited into the process.” As a community, he adds, “whose traditional values do not change with the prevailing winds, we are seen as reliable allies.”

Lawmakers, Rabbi Cohen notes further, “value communities – like the Orthodox – that deeply care about issues and that are engaged in legislation and public policy.” And many, of course are aware of the growth of the Orthodox population.

Some Orthodox concerns align smoothly with the Democratic Party’s agenda. Haredim in particular often depend on government-funded social services. But on other issues with their own economic implications, like educational vouchers provided to parents to use in schools of their choosing, the Republican stance resonates strongly. As it does with regard to concerns about the nation’s “moral climate.”

And, rightly or wrongly, Orthodox Jews, across the board, tend to see the Republican Party as more supportive than the Democratic one of Israel’s security needs.

It certainly seems reasonable to expect the shifting American Jewish demographics to yield, in the not too distant future, a very different “American Jewish community.”

And not only regarding politics. The Jewish organizational scene, too, might be expected to display a different face as the Orthodox community surges. Will the United Jewish Communities or local “Jewish federations” be able to maintain their current priorities as American Jewry metamorphoses? Such charitable endeavors’ dedication to providing for the needy and supporting Israel will not likely change. 

But other positions that many of them currently embrace – on things like “religious pluralism” in Israel, the gay community’s agenda, or abortion rights – will not resonate positively with Orthodox Jews.  Jewish organizations may seek to stand their religiously and politically liberal ground. But if they do, they will no longer be serving the “American Jewish” constituency they claim to serve.

Eventually, American Orthodox Jews might even become the movers and shakers in such organizations.  If they in fact assume broader communal leadership roles, they will need to resist the temptation to radically remake the Jewish organizational world in their own image. The rest of Jewish America, even as demographics shift, isn’t about to disappear. It will be critical that future Orthodox communal leaders summon empathy for other Jews with different religious and social identities. 

The ability to see things through others’ eyes even while remaining faithful to one’s own conscience sometimes seems missing today among some non-Orthodox leaders and organizations, who have on occasions dismissed, or at least ignored, the Orthodox community’s concerns and convictions.  As American Orthodox Jews take on new, prominent roles, their not following suit will be vital to forging a bright and robust Jewish future.

Rabbi Avi Shafran is a columnist for the American edition of Hamodia, blogs at www.rabbiavishafran.com  and serves as Agudath Israel of America’s director of public affairs. Follow him on Twitter: @RabbiAviShafran