Nishma Survey Implications Part I

The Nishma Study:

 A Wake Up Call for Modern Orthodox Educators

Part I 

by Rabbi Perry Tirschwell

What does the recently published groundbreaking survey of the religious beliefs and practices of American Modern Orthodox Community have to say to those of us who teach their children? I believe that there are a number of important lessons for our yeshiva day schools leaders. 

In this post, I will examine the study's findings about adults' general shmirat hamitzvot and their implications for educators. 

Learning: The Good and Bad News- I was positively surprised by the numbers regarding Talmud Torah, though I personally find the differential of men learning daily (35%) versus women (15%) upsetting.  

I suggest that teachers give assignments which include listening to shiurim on topics of their choice online. Once students are familiar with the numerous apps and websites, they will realize how enjoyable, accessible and relevant a resource they are.

Don’t Portray Gemara as the High Road- Though in yeshiva, rebbeim spent much more time learning gemara, it’s important that they realize that Tanach is more accessible, and halacha and mussar are more relevant to their students. 77% of adult men are learning Tanach and Mussar as opposed to 43% learning gemara. The gap for women is even greater- 66% learn Tanach and Mussar vs. 10% Gemara. Though Aramaic and a self-contained system of logic make mastery of Gemara a time-intensive endeavor, we need to honestly examine the subliminal messages our schools give about the importance of Chumash, Navi, Halacha, etc. I believe that this will also help us close the gap between men and women learning daily as well.   

Women’s Leadership Is Easier for Schools- This is much less of a political football for schools to address than shuls. Teaching students that they must stand for a female teacher or administrator, having both girls and boys give divrei Torah and make announcements, creating student leadership positions for both boys and girls, and mechitzot that evenly divide shuls side by side in co-ed schools is easy. Even Bais Yaakovs have all girls tefilla lead by a chazanit. Religiously-inspiring women should be invited as guest speakers.  

Meaningful Davening- Taking into account that 34% of the survey’s respondents only began to identify as Orthodox after age 18, it’s impressive that 82% are comfortable following davening. However, it’s troubling (though not surprising) that only 42% find prayer meaningful. Though approximately 20% of the Judaic part of the day school schedule is dedicated to davening, davening is a much more significant percentage of an adult’s religious life. The recently-published age-appropriate childrens and teenage siddurim are a great step forward. Even in an age where it seems you can control everything from your cellphone, there is so much uncertainty about frequent natural disasters, rogue states with nuclear arms and random terrorist attacks. As often as possible, we need to suggest to our students new and relevant reasons to daven.

Why They’re Orthodox- 42% percent of respondents said that “community” is why they are frum (the #2 response was Shabbos at 22%!). Explaining to teenagers who believe that they are invincible that they need “community” is a difficult sell. It is doubly hard in this era, when young adults’ idea of interpersonal relationships is sitting at home and texting their friends. In terms of Shabbos, adults appreciate the break from the 24 hour texting/email world MUCH more than teenagers, to whom it’s a huge challenge to stay unconnected for so long. 

Perhaps social actions and service learning projects for victims of hurricanes, forest fires, terrorist attacks, and local tragedies will send the message to our children that they are members of a caring community which will be there for them in their hour of need.  

Relevance of Community Rabbis- We need to bring them in to do Q&A sessions and address issues relevant to our students. The fact that only 42% of respondents felt that their congregation’s rabbi’s decisions and guidance reflect an understanding of modern life means that many will not turn to their rabbi for guidance. In the short term, our schools will be rewarded by having high profile advocates who witnessed first-hand our excellent schools.     

Redoubling Our Emunah Efforts- Hashgacha Pratit, Torah MiSinai, the authority of Torah SheBal Peh and G-d’s creation of the world all require a leap of faith. However, the numbers that believe fully in these pillars of faith are surprisingly low. The emunah pshuta of a first grader will likely not suffice for a naturally-skeptic high school senior. The trend of schools dedicating time to ikarei emunah must continue.  Based on his high school classes, Rabbi Chaim Jachter’s recently published “Reason to Believe” is an important contribution to this field.   

In my next post, I will share suggestions addressing the survey's specific questions about day schools.    


  1. Unfortunately, the great and oh so praised Gush Etzion turned away a student because he had such philosophical questions. Besides Rabbi Jachter, who is really dealing with this issue? Not a single rabbi I know.


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