But even the young Jews who gravitate toward Orthodoxy, rather than away from it, are still making individual choices about their beliefs and practices, picking among rituals and crafting lifestyles that fit their environments. And rules and rituals seem to have appeal. A greater proportion of Jews in their 20s and early 30s identify as Orthodox than do Jews over the age of 50; the opposite is true of every other Jewish movement. Many of these young people were likely raised Orthodox and have chosen to keep the traditions of their upbringing. But a small portion are baalei teshuva, a Jewish concept drawn from the Hebrew word for “return”: it denotes those who have become Orthodox as a way of “returning” to God. Like the rest of their generation, they are largely nonconformists—just traditionally minded, rule-bound nonconformists.
It takes particular chutzpah to choose Orthodoxy in the context of what one might call the “deep diaspora”—places like Houston, Texas, which has a long-standing and vibrant Jewish community but also sits squarely in the Bible Belt. In large, coastal cities like New York or Los Angeles, Jewish life is ambient and available; a slide toward ritual may well help young people fit in with a cultural community. But in a place filled with mega-churches and immigrants from all over the globe, Orthodox Judaism isn’t something young people slide into. It is an active choice.