Some Wacky Results about Orthodox Jews in the Pew Forum Report on Jewish Americans

…the survey informs us that 1% of Ultra-Orthodox Jews had a Christmas tree last year. I would be willing to bet that in the entire world there isn’t even one Ultra-Orthodox Jew with a Christmas tree, and 1% means at least a few thousand Ultra Orthodox households have Christmas trees. After adding in the Modern Orthodox, we are told that 4% of Orthodox Jews have Christmas trees. Being that the survey places the Orthodox at 10% of the Jewish population, and also tells us that there are 5.3 million adult Jews (another one the survey’s surprises), this leads to the result that more than 21,000 adult Orthodox Jews have Christmas trees in their homes.

Since these results are not just improbable, but impossible, it raises the general question of how reliable the survey is when it comes to the Orthodox. Can anyone believe the survey when it tells us that in the 18-29 age bracket the Modern Orthodox only account for 1% of the country’s Jews while the Ultra-Orthodox account for 9%, or that in the 30-49 age bracket, the Modern Orthodox are 3% and the Ultra Orthodox 10%. We are also are told that 24% of Ultra-Orthodox Jews handle money on Shabbat but only 19 percent of Modern Orthodox Jews do so. (Who was it that said the Ultra-Orthodox are frummer than the Modern Orthodox?!)

When you read results like these you can only wonder what went wrong, and I hope we get some explanation as to how such results were generated. (Professor Jonathan Sarna has written to me that all surveys have absurd results for various reasons, and “one is to look at broad trends and ignore absurdities.”) Perhaps there was confusion about the way the questions were asked. Such confusion is the only way I can explain that only 64% of the Ultra-Orthodox agree that a person can be Jewish if he works on the Sabbath. The truth is that every Ultra-Orthodox Jew knows that a person who works on the Sabbath is still Jewish (albeit a sinning Jew). I presume that those who answered “no” to the question understood it to be asking if one can be a “good Jew” and work on the Sabbath. (In case anyone has been wondering, I use the term “Ultra-Orthodox” since that is what the survey uses. I don’t know why no one told the survey directors that this term is no longer regarded as appropriate.)

Marc B. Shapiro, “The Pew Report and the Orthodox Community (and Other Assorted Comments), part 1”, The Seforim Blog (6 June 2014) []