A Brief, Sociological Sketch of the Modern Orthodox in America

Organizing their family lives far more traditionally than do their liberal counterparts, the Modern Orthodox tend to marry earlier and to maintain a fertility rate well above replacement level; only small percentages intermarry. In order to insure the transmission of their religious commitments, they enroll nearly all of their children in the most immersive forms of Jewish education. Their synagogues, unlike most of those in the Conservative or Reform orbit, are teeming with regular worshipers every day of the week. Many sizable ones offer multiple prayer services every morning, afternoon, and evening, accommodating the busy schedules of individual worshippers. They also report rising numbers of men and women participating in study classes, and even of teenagers seeking out opportunities to learn on Sabbath afternoons. In a reinforcing loop, as one rabbi notes, “more intensive learning has created greater levels of observance.”

Synagogue life is further reinforced by the life of school and summer camp. Day-school attendance from early childhood through high school has become de rigueur for Modern Orthodox families. According to Pew data, 90 percent of those between the ages of eighteen and twenty-nine have attended a day school for at least four years—a much higher figure, incidentally, than the one for their parents or grandparents. The figures for summer camps are comparably impressive.

None of this would be feasible without financial resources. Nationally, according to Pew, 37 percent of Modern Orthodox households have incomes of over $150,000, a figure not matched by any other Jewish denomination. In the metropolitan New York area, home to the largest concentration of Orthodox Jews of all stripes, the Modern Orthodox contingent shows the largest proportion earning $100,000 or more and $150,000 or more.

This relative affluence makes it possible for some in the community to support key institutions with generous donations, including scholarship assistance for day-school families. It also means that a large majority are able to shoulder the costs of Jewish living. Only those with resources—and commitment—can afford to live within walking distance of synagogues, purchase kosher food products, pay membership dues and building-fund assessments to synagogues, and, most expensive of all, cover K-12 tuition costs in day schools and send their children to Orthodox summer camps. Despite this heavy financial burden, there is no evidence that significant numbers have opted for public schools—or decided to limit the size of their families.

Finally, none of this comes at the expense of active participation in American society. Just like their counterparts elsewhere in the Jewish community, the Modern Orthodox attend college and earn advanced degrees at far higher rates than most other Americans. Both men and women go on to work, as we have seen, in the more lucrative sectors of the American economy. Some rise to positions of great distinction in their fields of endeavor, including in American public life (e.g., Jack Lew, the current Secretary of the Treasury; Michael Mukasey, former U.S. Attorney General; and Joseph Lieberman, former Democratic nominee for the Vice Presidency).

Jack Wertheimer, “Can Modern Orthodoxy Survive?”, Mosaic (August 2014) [http://mosaicmagazine.com/essay/2014/08/can-modern-orthodoxy-survive/]