We are used to hearing the contemporary return to Judaism by the unaffiliated over the last 50 years referred to as a movement. If we are to define a movement as something which provides a grand idea that has a life of its own and is then picked up by all kinds of people and organizations – then indeed the baal teshuvah phenomenon is a movement.

It is difficult to pinpoint when exactly the baal teshuvah movement began, but it was certainly no later than the early 1970s. Since then, the pathways leading to teshuvah have changed, and changed again.  

The range of institutions dedicated to outreach is much broader, with campus organizations, community outreach kollelim, as well as programs geared to schools, teenagers and young professionals. In New York alone one can find organizations dedicated to Israeli yordim, Russian immigrants, Bucharim, Syrians, teenagers, young professionals and more.  

And yet, the feeling is that we are throwing more and more resources at a problem with decreasing returns.  Most of the baal teshuvah yeshivot and seminaries in Israel are struggling with numbers, and some local outreach organizations can go for years with hardly a single baal teshuvah to show for their efforts.

Yes, it is true things did get harder, a lot harder. This is because of four primary reasons:

  1. The collapse of the Conservative Movement.
  2. The breakdown of shared values between Judaism and the Western World.  
  3. Financial pressures.
  4. The approach to life of Millennials.

I have heard a fifth reason proposed, that we no longer have the great giant mekarvim of the first generation. We lack their vision and we lack their Torah. I do not find this claim credible. The quality of today’s mekarvim, their dedication and their vision, are all fabulous. The leaders of NCSY, Aish HaTorah and Meor are people with enormous vision. The global expansion and drive of Olami’s Aaron Wolfson, Elie Horn and team are staggering. Ohr Someach and Neve Yerushalayim are still being led by their founders, Rabbis Nota Schiller and Dovid Refson respectively. While this generation of mekarvim may lack some of the attributes of the earlier generation, they bring a whole new set of qualities to the table as well.  

So let’s look at what has really made things tougher:

  • The Collapse of the Conservative Movement.

From the 1970s and for the next 30-35 years, most baalei teshuvah came from the Conservative Movement. The Conservative Movement had two major assets. It was the largest movement in the USA for the entire 20th century, averaging in the mid-thirty percentile.  It was quite traditional, so that those who got involved sometimes had their appetites for Torah wetted through the Conservative movement, leading them to seek out more authentic versions of Judaism. But today, the Conservative Movement as we know it has collapsed. In the age group that a large portion of kiruv organizations are targeting (those below the age of thirty), Conservatives are no more than twelve percent of the population. The movement itself has become very watered down, so that it no longer inspires people to search for more. In Neve College for Women (which I run), only one in about fifty students who comes to study in our beginners programs is from this movement today.

The net effect of this is that the middle is falling out of the Jewish nation. The Reform is the largest group while the biggest growth groups are the Orthodox and the unaffiliated. Those exploring their Judaism are doing so from further and further away. They may feel that Jewish is important to them, but their parents also taught them that it is low on the totem pole.  As Naomi Schaeffer Riley (Got Religion) points out: “Parents make their children crazy about getting good grades, honing their athletic prowess, and getting into top colleges. The parents are much more likely to sign the kid up for a SAT preparation class than a synagogue youth group.”

  • The breakdown of shared values between Judaism and the Western World.

Thirty to forty years ago, secular Jews had much in common with Jewish values. They valued marriage and the nuclear family, most of them had grown up in homes with two Jewish parents, they were liberal but generally pro-Israel, and, although not all were committed to marrying a Jew, they certainly would have preferred it.

The situation is different today. The concept of the Jewish nuclear family has considerably weakened. This breakdown has two major faces: Intermarriage on the one hand, and marriage and divorce on the other.

Anyone on the front-lines of outreach will know that the intermarriage rate is no mere statistic. It is not that, somewhere out there, 72 percent of the non-Orthodox are intermarrying. Today, our outreach involves a goodly percentage of those with non-Jewish fathers, (and all kinds of other yichus challenges), and they come with a lot more sensitivities and alternative viewpoints. (If we factor divorce into the picture, it appears that no more than half of our attendees have two Jewish parents living together.)

They also come with a lot less Judaism, in some cases not knowing about candles on Friday night, not knowing that Shabbat extends into Saturday, never having experienced a Pesach Seder and so on.

The second issue is that of the concept of family itself. Overall, Millennials have a weakened commitment to marriage. In 2012, a whopping, 47% of births to women in the millennial generation were non-marital.  The median age of first marriages is now the highest in modern history—29 for men and 27 for women. Aggregated data from Pew Research Center polls show that among adults under 30, married people are more likely to have a religious affiliation than are unmarried people. So, with increasing unmarrieds, we can expect less involvement in Judaism.

The result of this is that many Jewish Millennials do not have that natural sense of Jewish family values, so characteristic of the earlier generations of baalei teshuvah. We have seen young women in their twenties showing up at Neve saying that they never intend to get married and have no interest in bearing children. I have seen adults inspired by a talk about chesed, and not being able to think of a single way that they might apply this. We sometimes have to explain what it means to be a Shabbat guest and a Shabbat host. None of this is because these students are selfish, but rather because the world they are coming from is just so different.

We are now going into the third generation since the beginning of the baal teshuvah movement in the 1970s.  Three generations ago, most of those who did teshuvah had grandparents or great grandparents who were at least marginally observant. Today, that is no longer the case.  In those days, Jews who would get involved would show a picture of some very Orthodox family member they knew, or at least knew about and could talk proudly about. Today, this is no longer the case. Then, Jews knew they were Jews. This did not mean that they would marry other Jews, but they would have liked to if they found the right partner. Moreover, they felt guilty when they did intermarry. Many remained highly supportive of Israel and the Federations are full of such Jews including some of their top leadership, all dedicated to the Jewish people in their way. Today, Jews know that their parents are Jews, but don’t know why they should be. Increasingly, they don’t belong to any Jewish institution, don’t identify with any stream of Judaism, nor feel any particular closeness to the State of Israel.      

  • Financial Pressures

In the olden days, students expected to live better than their parents did. They were able to view optimistically their current impecunious state, knowing that they were not only going to make it, but that they would have a bigger house and a better car than their parents. They were not in a hurry. The green light at the other end of the bay would wait for them. This started changing at the turn of the millennium, long before the economic downturn of November 2009, which exacerbated things significantly.

The downturn created a permanent change in headspace, whereby university students are frantic about getting jobs and very pressurized about their student loans. Taking time off to study at a yeshiva or seminary is to lose opportunities to do internships, or to be viewed by a future employer as not serious about life.   

The net effect of this is not that less people are coming to yeshiva and seminary (as is perceived) but that they are coming for shorter periods of time.  In Neve, for example, we had 473 students pass through our doors over the last year, yet our average traffic is around sixty students at any one time, for stays on average of three to four months.  

And students who do not have a job lined up feel the pressure to go and find one. As one student said to me, “I know that this is an opportunity of a lifetime (studying in Neve); but I have a message ringing inside of me that says that every day that I am not making money to be self-sufficient, there is something wrong with me.”

  • The Approach to Life of Millennials

The overall profile of Millennials (Jews and non-Jews) impacts on the difficulty of getting Jewish youth more involved with their Judaism.

Millennials are less trusting of authority. They are more individualistic and do not want to be categorized nor be tied up with a single identity. They are less interested in joining formal communities and groups and they don’t trust them as much. They would prefer to create their own communities on-line or in informal groups.

They are more open to crossing racial boundaries in marriage. They attend services less and say that formal religion is less important in their lives, in part because they see it as aligned with conservative politics whereas the unaffiliated are more aligned with liberal positions. They see religious institutions as too concerned with money and power (70%) and too involved in politics (67%). All of this increases the distance between a formalized, community-orientated Judaism which looks to great rabbis for leadership and the students of today. They often see Judaism as reflecting unacceptable positions on gays, women and the environment. They see it as reflecting formalistic communities, as anti-individualist and somewhat authoritarian, all things that they are averse to.  

Millennials provide a tougher buy-in to what Judaism has to offer for other reasons as well. They are more averse to commitments than their elders. The explosion of products and endless choices in our day, and the fact that the next offer is just a click away, means that they know that something better is always out there, and somebody else has got it. Hence, they worry that their choices will be too permanent.  

None of this is good for the kiruv process.  The implicit or explicit message inviting them to embrace Judaism is seen by Millennials as a challenge to their independence.

Even after Millennials have walked through the door into a shiur, they are more skeptical about the rabbi or the rebbetzin as an authority figure. They want to know where your sources are from. They are not just fact-checkers; they are idea-checkers as well. I have had numerous students – even ones who have committed to Torah and mitzvot – come to me first thing in the morning saying that they were in crisis mode because they had been Googling alternative views the previous night.  Millennials find it hard to give Judaism an exclusive. They want to take a little bit from everywhere, as they do with their news, and other on-line activities.  

  • Other Factors

There are additional factors making things so difficult: the negative press highlighting certain high profile cases of theft or abuse within the Orthodox community; the ongoing perception of the Chareidi community in Israel who are portrayed having  dropped out of contributing to society; the association of the settler movement, who are perceived as far right-wing, with Judaism); the failure of Orthodoxy to make their voices heard on issues like the environment or universal health care, which matter very much to most Millennials.

Grounds for Optimism.

Larger organizations like Olami and NCSY, that track their results closely, have shown that Jews are returning to Judaism in numbers that may be larger than at any time in the previous 45 years. The quality of these students is, by the accounts of those on the scene, are as high as at any previous time. How do we reconcile the fact that things have gotten so difficult with the type of results that Olami and NCSY are seeing? For one, the scale of resources – people, money, types of projects – that are being invested into kiruv today is far greater by many factors than even fifteen years ago. Hence, the job is getting done, but it costs more and requires greater effort than in previous years.

But there are other factors at play.

Sociologists and historians have been predicting the end of religion in America a least since the 1950’s.  But this has not happened. Although there are trends towards secularization in America, it is slow and it is not certain.

When it comes to personal spirituality, the latest Pew study found that two-thirds of Millennials believe in God. The majority (58%) describe themselves either as religious (18%) or as spiritual (37%). Of the religiously unaffiliated, around 77% believe that religion is a force for good.

This means that although Millennials don’t like formalized religion, that does not mean that they are proportionately less spiritual.  They believe in God, in life after death and in miracles at the same level as their elders. Roughly a third (36%) say the phrase “a religious person” describes them very well.  The percentage of those who pray every day has even gone up slightly (45%) to young people of the 80’s (41%) and 90’s (40%). Moreover, they are happy that the society around them is a religious one.

Let’s remember one thing. We are an Am Segula, which means that we operate according to meta-historical rules. It is dangerous to predict demographic and sociological trends when it comes to our nation. The whole baal teshuvah movement defied predictions to begin with. The Rambam has paskened lehalacha: The Jews will only be redeemed through teshuvah. And so it will be.


Leave a Reply

  • (will not be published)