Broad surveys of the American Jewish community fail to capture the concerns and opinions of the Orthodox community, Congregation Sha’arei Torah heard at their Scholar-in-Residence Shabbat on Jan. 10-11 with Mark Trencher, founder of Nishma Jewish World Research. Nishma surveys this under-researched community on issues that concern them, so that institutions can make decisions based on accurate data.
Nishma, which means “listen”, identified the top two concerns of Modern Orthodox Jews as the cost of Jewish education and the plight of agunot (“chained”: women who may not remarry without obtaining a get (divorce) or proof of the husband’s death), according to handouts distributed at the discussions. These topics are not typically included in broad surveys of American Jews.
Nishma capitalizes on the high rates of synagogue affiliation in the Orthodox community to identify and contact survey participants. With the support of the Rabbinical Council of America, they reached out to Modern Orthodox synagogues varied in location, denomination, and size to obtain a representative sample of the community.
Their discoveries included the interesting data that the top issues for members of the Modern Orthodox community who want change are the roles of women and LGBTQ acceptance, but these are also the areas that generate the greatest opposition to change. Nishma cites 34% of their respondents agreeing “there is no longer a single Modern Orthodox community. Modern Orthodoxy should acknowledge this and would perhaps be better splitting into separate camps.”
Other data found that Orthodox Jews say they get the most joy from their sense of community and belonging (42%). Shabbat, family, observant children, service and learning were all cited next, each garnering between 18% and 22%. Nearly half (51%) said they handled conflict with secular society by standing firm religiously, while approximately a third (30%) said they sometimes compromise, most often in matters of kashrut and Shabbat observance.
A surprising finding was that the once near-universal attendance at Orthodox Jewish day schools might decline, since 14% of respondents agree (and 17% somewhat agree) that they might consider public schools. Nevertheless, 55% agree that Orthodox schools are important for the continuity of the Orthodox community into the next generations; 63% identify people leaving Orthodoxy as a major concern, which community leaders are perceived (67%) not to have addressed adequately.
Finally, Nishma has noted that the agreement of 42% of their survey respondents with the statement “The tefillah (prayer) is meaningful to me” has provoked mixed reactions; some commenters expressed surprise that the number was that high, while others found it surprisingly low. This statement elicited similar responses from men and women, but younger respondents (ages 18-34) were significantly (34%) less likely to agree with it.