Mark Trencher, of West Hartford, Connecticut, was a guest speaker at the Young Israel of New Rochelle on Shabbat Matot-Maasei, July 14. Trencher is the founder of Nishma Research, established in 2015. Nishma’s mission includes “conducting and often funding studies to promote better listening among the diverse strands of Judaism.”
Two presentations were made to the YINR community. The first session on Shabbat morning was titled “Understanding the Derech—and Why Some Leave It,” based on Nishma’s 2016 survey, “Those Who Have Left the Orthodox Community,” also known as the OTD study.
The OTD study included responses from former members of the Chasidic, yeshivish, Chabad and Modern Orthodox communities. Participants were recruited through social media and communal organizations serving this segment of the Jewish community in America.
In his remarks, he recalled his presentation to an Orthodox shul in Newton, Massachusetts, where the audience expressed displeasure with his use of the phrase “off the derech.” When he pressed them on which word was disturbing to them, there was an even split between “off” and “derech.” Trencher countered that his biggest difficulty was with the word “the,” which he views as limiting Jewish practice to one specific definition. He compared it to an eight-lane superhighway, a “derech” of sorts, where lane changes are not the same as crossing onto the shoulders, or leaving the pavement altogether.
This survey allowed for some detailed responses, with personalized answers. Researchers for Nishma then grouped these comments to determine whether these Jews were “pulled” out of their communities by external influences versus internal issues that “pushed” them out. Factors that led to these departees from their prior religious practices included religious, philosophical, sociological and personal ones. However, most still identified as Jewish, even if just as a cultural or ethnic description. The most prevalent reasons for going OTD included intellectual conflict, judgmental behavior, lashon hara and the role of women in communal life.
In his other session, Trencher addressed the “10 Surprising Findings About Modern Orthodoxy,” based on the 2017 Nishma Research Profile of American Modern Orthodox Jews. The questionnaires were disseminated through 30 Modern Orthodox shuls in the most identifiable communities in the USA, and supplemented by the Rabbinical Council of America’s recommendation to its members to encourage their congregations’ participation. Almost 4,000 responses were tallied in the report; 2,000 others were disqualified, having come from non-American and/or non-Modern Orthodox submissions.
The survey allowed five levels of self-description of modern Orthodoxy. Ninety-three percent responded, as Open Orthodox, Liberal Modern, Modern, Centrist and Right Centrist/Heimish leaning. These results followed a bell distribution, but the 11 percent Open Orthodox rate may be higher than their actual representation. No official definition delineates the other four categories.
When asked what aspect of observance brings the most joy, the sense of belonging to a community was the most popular response. At the same time, a high percentage felt isolation was a communal concern.
Participants were asked to compare their current practices to those of 10 years prior. Most noted a major change in either direction and very few declared themselves the same as before.
Trencher included an almost universal concern of costly yeshiva day school education, as well as the cost of maintaining an observant lifestyle among the significant findings in his report. The support for female leadership, both as congregational presidents and clergy, was concerning but not necessarily supported by those surveyed. The agunah crisis was also a major concern.
Many also declared their children’s levels of observance as different from their own. The more right leaning among the Modern Orthodox had children whom they felt were “more religious” while a higher percentage of Open Orthodox considered their children to be “less observant” than themselves.
Trencher is an ordained rabbi who participated professionally in chinuch for a brief time at the Ezra Academy in Queens. He then worked for several decades as a research and marketing executive, prior to his formation of Nishma. In his West Hartford community, he served as president of the Young Israel, and currently leads the Kashrut Commission of Greater Hartford. He also has taught business statistics and operations research at the graduate and undergraduate levels at Rutgers University and the University of Hartford
By Judy Berger