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Orthodox burgeoning as the Jewish New Year dawns

Joshua Runyan with his wife, Tamar, and their eight kids. A recent Pew Center study suggests that Orthodox Judaism is now the fastest-growing branch of the faith in the U.S.
Joshua Runyan with his wife, Tamar, and their eight kids. A recent Pew Center study suggests that Orthodox Judaism is now the fastest-growing branch of the faith in the U.S. (Lloyd Fox / Baltimore Sun)

Joshua Runyan grew up with a Jewish mother in Dallas, but his family had so little interest in religion that when he chose to rebel as a teen, he did it by donning a yarmulke and teaching himself Hebrew.

Two decades later, Runyan, 34, is a Hasidic rabbi, a father of eight — and, in many ways, an exemplar of a current trend in his faith.

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Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish new year, begins at sunset on Sunday. As the Jewish year 5776 begins, the ranks of the Orthodox in the United States are growing, both in real numbers and as a percentage of the total Jewish population.

The Pew Research Center describes the Orthodox Jewish community nationwide as a rare area of growth in an aging population with otherwise low birth rates. Three out of 10 Jews in the 2010 Greater Baltimore Jewish Community Study, the most recent comprehensive survey of the community, identified themselves as Orthodox.

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That was a 50 percent leap over a decade, more than Pew found on the national level.

In other words, Baltimore reflects the growth of the Orthodox community — and then some.

"This city has had a substantial Orthodox community for a long time, but not to the extent we're talking about now," says Rabbi Shmuel Kaplan, director of the Maryland chapter of Chabad-Lubavitch, a worldwide Orthodox movement.

Some say the Orthodox, whose sociopolitical views skew more conservative than those of their non-Orthodox co-religionists, could mark a rightward shift in a Jewish population that has long been largely liberal. Others say the inward focus of many Orthodox communities will tend to limit their influence in the wider community.

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To many Orthodox, the growth of the community means more Jews are returning to a spiritual tradition that remains as relevant today as it was in the time when, they believe, God first etched its principles in stone.

Runyan began exploring Hasidic Judaism as a teen. The more he read within the tradition, he says, the more he felt that he was connecting to a collective past. He found his faith drawing out the best in him.

He attended yeshiva in Israel, became a rabbi, grew a beard and landed in Baltimore. Eventually, he says, he "ditched the polo shirt and khaki pants" for a long, dark coat and hat on the Sabbath.

He is now the first Orthodox rabbi, it is believed, to serve as editor-in-chief of the century-old Baltimore Jewish Times.

The will of God

Rabbis, scholars and believers say defining Orthodox Judaism can be a complicated — and possibly fruitless — endeavor.

To outsiders, the Orthodox are perhaps best known for their appearance — many men wear a full beard, a traditional long, dark coat and broad-brimmed hat; women wear long skirts or dresses and cover their heads. The styles, whose details can vary greatly depending on the Orthodox sect and the occasion, are meant to convey tzniut, the ancient Hebrew value of humility before God.

Runyan says such clothing is significant, but can obscure the larger point: One's actions must conform with the teachings of the Torah — and that can be challenging.

Nor is the community monolithic. In "A Portrait of American Orthodox Jews," published last month, the Pew Research Center focused on two major branches: the stringently observant Haredim, who make up 62 percent of the Orthodox community, and the Modern Orthodox — 31 percent — who seek to integrate Jewish law into modern society. Each comprises a number of subgroups.

"To try to talk about how this certain portion of the Jewish population is growing is tricky," says Alan Cooperman, Pew's director of religion research.

Orthodox Judaism holds that the Torah — the five Books of Moses, its 613 additional commandments, or mitzvot, and several volumes of subsequent scholarly commentary — constitute the word of God.

By following proper action as defined in Jewish law — attending services three times a day, for example, and refraining from work on the Sabbath — Orthodox believe their lives can become expressions of God's will.

"For the Orthodox, the entire day is suffused with religion," says Larry Ziffer, who heads the Center for Jewish Education in Baltimore. "Everything about what they do — their customs, their behaviors — is organized, regulated and suffused with significance and meaning. Many people say they enjoy being part of this 'unified field theory' of life."

In its 2013 "Portrait of Jewish Americans," Pew suggested that religion is a less unifying force within non-Orthodox iterations of the faith.

The 53 percent who identified as Reform or Conservative Jews, for example, were less likely to keep kosher, attend Jewish services, marry other Jews, raise their children in the faith or consider religion a core aspect of life, Pew found.

That was also true of the 30 percent who claimed no denomination, and others who described their Jewishness as a purely cultural experience.

These "Jews of no religion" appeared to be growing in number, Cooperman says, adding that the data caused alarm in the Jewish community when the report was published two years ago. Far more people than he expected contacted Pew's Washington office to ask about the survey's findings on Orthodox Judaism.

The survey had focused more on finding facts than on analyzing their significance. If, as it showed, there were about 530,000 Orthodox Jews in the U.S. and their median age was 40, how quickly was the group growing, and how did its age compare to that of other branches?

The organization commissioned its "Portrait of American Orthodox Jews" to find answers.

Retention

As recently as a century and a half ago, virtually all Jews observed what we now call the Orthodox tradition, or something very much like it.

It wasn't until the mid-1800s that Abraham Geiger, a German rabbi and scholar, first posited that Jews should consider the Torah to be a set of wise ethical guidelines, not inviolable law. This gave rise to Reform Judaism, a movement that sparked a debate among believers that continues to this day.

The debate led in part to Conservative Judaism, which considers Jewish law binding but open to reinterpretation. By the time Jews started emigrating en masse to the United States in the late 1800s, the "Orthodox" — still rigidly observant, still dressed in Old World garb — had emerged as keepers of a tradition under threat.

In cities such as Baltimore, as traditional Jews established synagogues, started businesses and sought to gain a social foothold, many of their children gradually began rejecting the old ways as out of step with American life. By the early 1950s in Baltimore, there were only a handful of Jewish day schools to teach the traditions.

Kaplan, the Lubavitcher rabbi, came to Baltimore in 1974. He says things began to change in the early 1980s. More Jewish schools were founded, Orthodox Jews moved to the area from New York, and Orthodox synagogues were founded, sparking a resurgence that few had seen coming.

It helped, Kaplan says, that Americans in the 1960s and 1970s began accepting less conformity in dress. As Orthodox Jews wore traditional garb in the wider community, they felt less out of step.

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Before that change, Kaplan says, "you probably wouldn't wear a yarmulke in public. Today, you wouldn't have a shadow of hesitation."

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Sheftel Neuberger, the Orthodox rabbi who heads Ner Israel Rabbinical College in Baltimore County, says the vast majority of Orthodox children today attend Jewish day schools — a preference that has led to far stronger retention in the faith.

Kaplan estimates it's between 80 and 90 percent in Baltimore today — similar to the 80 percent Pew reports nationwide.

"The more you educate, the more observant people become," he says. "That's key to growth."

Abundant families

Runyan's experience does not reflect all the factors behind the Orthodox community's current growth phase, but it touches on some. The most prominent is probably birth rate.

Orthodox Jews have long held a special regard for God's command in Genesis that mankind "be fruitful and multiply," according to Nitzan Bergman, the Orthodox rabbi who heads WOW, an organization that aims to introduce young professionals to the faith's core religious teachings.

The result: Orthodox families skew large. Adults between 40 and 59 have an average of 4.1 children each, according to Pew, as compared to the 1.9 among non-Orthodox Jews.

Haredi Jews — sometimes called the "ultra-Orthodox"— have 5.5 children per family. Modern Orthodox average 2.5 children per family.

"When you talk about families that have an average of five or six children, and as many as 10 or 12, that can lead to dramatic demographic changes after one or two generations," says Ziffer, of the Center for Jewish Education.

Steven M. Cohen, a sociology professor at Hebrew Union College in New York, says the Pew Report confirmed several widely held beliefs about the Orthodox: They are more likely to marry, they marry younger, marry almost exclusively inside the faith, and have a median age about 12 years younger than non-Orthodox Jews.

All of those factors drive an increase in numbers.

"Their demographic growth demonstrates the success of a culture that is religiously passionate and socially sectarian," Cohen says.

Pew also found a trend of Jews from other branches converting to Orthodoxy. About 30 percent say they were raised in another denomination.

Runyan says he doesn't quite fit that pattern — his parents practiced no religion — but like many coming to Orthodox Judaism as the High Holidays begin, he has found an identity that blends the eternal and the day-to-day, just as it did in Moses' time more than 3,000 years ago.

The Orthodox "all trace all truth to the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai, but at the heart of Orthodoxy lies this idea that we must also discover truth," he said. "It's a path that calls for regular study, introspection, meditation and humility.

"We all have a role to play in creation. Our task is to determine what it is."

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