The "Return" to Traditional Judaism in the United States, Russia, and Israel: The Impact of Minority and Majority Status on Religious Conversion Processes
M. Herbert Danzger
The process of religious conversion has been studied by many researchers (see, for example, Kilbourne and Richardson 1989; Lofland 1977; Lofland and Stark 1965; Snow and Machalek 1984). However, none has considered whether there is any difference between the process of choosing a religion that is part of the mainstream of one's society and choosing a minority religion. This chapter will show how these differ. It examines the impact of majority/minority status on the conversion process, focusing on Jews who choose the Orthodox tradition of their religion and who make that choice in three different countries. In two of these countries, the former Soviet Union and the United States, Judaism has a minority status. In the third, Israel, it is the majority religion.
Jewish identity involves components that are ethnic and religious. Ethnic Jews who are not religious are called "secular Jews." Religious Jews are grouped in three main denominations: Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform. In the United States, roughly 60 percent of Jews are not affiliated with any synagogue. Among those who are affiliated, about 35 percent are Reform, 41 percent Conservative, and 20 percent Orthodox ( Kosmin et al. 1991). Reform Judaism is the least traditional of the three, Orthodox Judaism is the most traditional, and Conservative Judaism falls between the other two. This denominational structure is unique to the United States. In Israel, Reform and Conservative Jews constitute only a tiny portion of the Jewish population. The Dati (roughly equivalent to the U.S. Orthodox) constitute about 38 percent of the population. About 20 percent identifies as "secular." The rest consider themselves "somewhat observant" ( The Jewish Week, December 5, 1997). In the former Soviet Union, Orthodox Jews constitute a small percentage of the Jewish population, and Reform and Conservative Jews are even fewer in number. The rest are secular. (There are no hard data.)
"Conversion" to Orthodox Judaism may be made from the Conservative or Reform traditions or from being a secular Jew. Conversion is often referred to as "return," since Orthodoxy represents the most traditional option.