Can the Reform Movement Stanch the Bleeding?
At the United Reform Jewry’s recent biennial gathering in San Diego, the mood was gloomy. “Reform Judaism tries for a ‘reboot’ in face of daunting challenges,” read the Jewish Telegraph Agency report. “Reform Movement, Seeking to Stem Decline, Eyes Religious Pluralism in Israel,” proclaimed the Forward headline.
Only the even more astonishing hemorrhaging of the Conservative Movement has obscured the decline of Reform movement. Until recently, Jews asked about their religious affiliation tended to use “Reform” as a synonym for “minimal.” So the numbers of Reform Jews appeared to be holding steady or even growing. No more. In the recent Pew study, the fastest growing segment of American Jewry consisted of those responding “None” when asked their religious identity.
The median age of Reform members is 54 years old, and only 17% of members say that they attend religious services even once a month. President of UJR, Rich Jacobs, lamented at the bicentennial that 80% of the movement’s youth are gone by the time they graduate high school. Even at the Reform convention, the area of the hall marked for those in their 20s and 30s was, according to the Forward, notably compact. Those who did attend were primarily training as professionals within the Reform movement.
More and more, the future of American Jewry appears to be Orthodox. According to numbers culled from the recent Pew Report, the majority of Jews who have married other Jews over the last eight years are Orthodox, and of children under five being raised as exclusively Jewish, the majority are being raised by Orthodox parents.
MUCH OF THE DISCUSSION at San Diego centered on what can be done to arrest the flight of young people from the movement. As reported by the Forward, the answer was clear: Place Israel at the center of the agenda.
But the emphasis on Israel puts the cart before the horse. Israel is not the reason for the Jewish people to exist. Rather the Land of Israel is important because of the existence of the Jewish people. True, only in the Land of Israel can the Jewish people flourish to the maximum extent and fulfill their national destiny. But the Jewish people survived in exile for two millennia without a land. But no Jewish community has ever survived for any period of time without Torah learning.
Trips to Israel can be a powerful emotional experience. But the power of that experience is usually directly proportional to the degree to which being a Jew is a primary aspect of a young Jew’s self-definition. And as the Pew study demonstrated, that is less and less true of most young American Jews. They are more likely to view a particular sense of humor or taste for certain ethnic foods – both qualities shared with many non-Jews – as central to their Jewish identity than any particularistic religious beliefs or practices.
Thus their Jewish identity is a trivial one. And if being Jewish is a slight matter, it does not really matter whether the Jewish people continue to exist. And if the continued existence of the Jewish people is insignificant of what importance is a state comprised primarily of Jewish citizens?
Israel works most powerfully on those who have, at minimum, been entranced by the Jewish story, who have wondered how this people alone of all the peoples of the world preserved their national identity removed from their Land for over 2,000 years. How did we survive? What did we find so important to preserve that we were willing to sacrifice so much to maintain our identity as Jews.
In any event, only a very particular aspect of Israel is to be offered Reform young people. And that aspect itself shows how tenuous is their Jewish identity to begin with. The emphasis, it was agreed, should not be on anything connected to the peace process, or the Palestinians, or Israel’s fight for survival in a very dangerous neighborhood.
On these issues, it was assumed that the views of young Reform Jews would be indistinguishable from those of the “progressive” community with which they identify. Thus focusing on these issues would only turn Israel into an embarrassment.
Young Reform Jews are not interested in hearing about “defensible borders” or why the 1949 armistice lines were called the “Auschwitz borders.” Nor are they curious about how the Palestinian government and official media continue to glorify murderers of Jews and have totally failed to educate their people for peace. That takes more effort and study than they can be expected to invest.
THE CONSENSUS OF THE REFORM CONVENTION settled on “religious pluralism” in Israel as the issue that will ignite Reform youth. “Pluralism is flying right now, and capturing the dreams and hopes of so many people,” David Saperstein of the Reform movements Religious Action Center told the Forward.
But that too is putting the cart before the horse. If Reform teens and twenty-somethings can’t be bothered to pray at home, why should they care about being able to do so at the Kotel? If your own religious rites have no intrinsic value in your eyes, what makes promoting them in Israel so important?
An Orthodox woman of my acquaintance once told me of her experience sitting next to a newly-minted PhD. from Michigan on a plane coming to Israel. The younger woman told her that millions of dollars had been raised to sponsor students like herself. Asked what she would be doing in Israel, the young woman answered with excitement that she would be going to the Western Wall and putting on a shmatte (old rag). Noting the puzzled look on the older woman’s face, she acted out charades-style, putting on a tallit.
This young woman knew nothing about the Kosel other than that is once belonged to Jordan and was now under Israel control, and she could not even remember the word for tallit, but she was filled with excitement at the thought of riling up Orthodox Jews. Perhaps she felt that she had been born too late for the civil rights work in Mississippi circa 1963 and craved some of the same excitement. As Noa Sattah, speaking at the Reform gathering on behalf of Women of the Wall’s Anat Hoffman, put it, “Visit Israel, and make your visits count . . . . Less Roman ruins and more freedom rides!”
But once the frisson of causing Orthodox worshippers at the Kosel to gnash their teeth passes, what then? Where does that take one in terms of Jewish identity? Nowhere.
PROMOTING RELIGIOUS PLURALISM is just one more excuse to avoid the one thing that could make any difference for the future of young American Jews – presenting Judaism, in Jack Wertheimer’s words, as “a religious system with its own integrity . . ., rather than acquiescing in their [congregants’] every whim.” Wertheimer, former provost of the Jewish Theological Seminary (Conservative), describes in Mosaic Magazine to what absurd lengths the catering to every congregational whim has gone, often in the context of presenting a “welcoming” face for intermarried couples.
He reports of one rabbi’s surprise when a member of his synagogue’s religious education committee showed up on Ash Wednesday (a Catholic holiday) with a cross etched in ash on her forehead. Another rabbi was confronted after a sermon on Chanukah by a congregant who demanded to know why he had not given equal time to x-mas.
As reported by JTA, Reform rabbis in San Diego spent a good deal of time discussing their struggles competing with Chabad. On any given Shabbos, there are probably as many non-Orthodox Jews in America’s nine hundred plus Chabad centers as in Reform temples.
The question the Reform rabbis should have asked is: What is Chabad offering that we are not? The answer, I believe, is that they are offering an authentic Jewish experience. In place of combing the Torah for prooftexts that “the Jews thought of every progressive shibboleth first” or to establish that Judaism is congruent with the views of “liberal wing of the Democratic party,” they are offering the Torah as the greatest repository of wisdom for living and as an autonomous document requiring no outside validation because it is the word of G-d.
In his biennial address, Rich Jacobs expressed his belief that “young Jews are hungry, but not for a Judaism frozen in time.” But the facts are not with him. The PEW study found that over 110,000 American Jewish adults who identify themselves as Orthodox were not raised Orthodox. The old-time religion retains its power.
Those 100,000 plus Jews were looking for Judaism not gimmicks. The various Shabbat prayer services available in San Diego included Yoga Shalom: A Shacharit Embodiment of Prayer, a visual service with no prayerbook, and an Israeli service integrating prayer with pop music and poetry. Jacobs and Cantor Angela Buchdahl lead a Shabbat service “replete with singing, dancing, and interludes of ‘Storahtelling.'”
When he reached the Shema, Jacobs clutched his purple tallis made from fabric purchased in Darfur and grasped the ritual fringes, which he described as symbolizing people from the four corners of the earth – from Rio de Janeiro to Gedera to suffering civilians in Syria to the families of Newtown, while Buchdahl strummed her guitar.
Not, apparently, one word about Shema as the classical affirmation of Jewish faith, or what the unity of G-d means, or why hundreds of thousands of Jews have given their lives over the millennia with those words on their lips. Just a touchy-feely expression of what sensitive and humanitarian people we all are.
Jews are an endangered species. Progressives are not. The overwhelming majority of the faculty to which Jewish young are exposed and the media opinion they consume is reliably “progressive.” As long as they are told that being a Jew means only be a fine progressive fellow they will feel quite comfortable celebrating their true religion without bothering with the borrowed elements from the faith of their ancestors.
This article first appeared in the Jerusalem Post.
There is no one named Rich Jacobs. His name is Rabbi Rick Jacobs.
I think the leaders of Reform Judaism are making the common error of assuming their audience is like themselves (at least, themselves as they were at that age). They care about Reform Judaism, and therefore about pluralism in Israel. So they assume that pluralism in Israel would matter to the young people they want to retain.
They’re in a very difficult situation. How would you make Judaism relevant to people who don’t want to be observant?
Your article was most fascinating and raises many interesting and very valid points. However, there are some things I do take issue with. It seems like your article comes from a place of “Orthodox triumphalism”. Personally, I see the decline of more liberal movements as very troubling. For all their disregard for Halacha and tradition, they do a very valuable service for the Jewish community at large. They provide an outlet for religion to Jews who otherwise are totally unaffiliated. I have tremendous respect for the kiruv industry and I wish groups like NCSY and Chabad only the strongest success. But the fact is, no matter how hard you try, and regardless of how much money you pour in, you will never succeed with everyone. Many people are not interested in the strictures and rigidity of an Orthodox life. They are however not totally disinterested in Judaism. Thats the population the liberal groups serve. With their decline, all those people will not turn to the Orthodox for religious expression. They might turn to Chabad, but in all likelihood they will go nowhere.
Also, a friend of my wife’s who’s husband is a very well known kiruv professional told me that they find that its much easier to convince a reform Jew to come for friday night dinner than an unaffiliated Jew, because thee reform Jew has a vague idea of what shabbat is.
And regarding the point about “young Jews not wanting a Judaism frozen in time” you argue that it is clearly false because there are 110,000 orthodox jews who did not grow up orthodox. That is certainly true, and I have baalei teshuva in my family. But it ignores the fact that the chassidish and chareidi communities are losing members to modern orthodoxy and just to ally “going off the derech”. Even in the more liberal, modern orthodox community, you still see plenty of people leaving the fold, so I’m just not sure how false that statement is.
The question the Reform rabbis should have asked is: What is Chabad offering that we are not? The answer, I believe, is that they are offering an authentic Jewish experience. In place of combing the Torah for prooftexts that “the Jews thought of every progressive shibboleth first” or to establish that Judaism is congruent with the views of “liberal wing of the Democratic party,”
That is exactly the question that many Conservative and Reform Rabbis ask. The answers they usually give iiuc are very different, having to do with financial commitment and requirements prior to a bar mitzvah.
Well said. The only thing I wonder is, what can be done to convince progressive Jews to affiliate Orthodox? For a progressive American religious conservatives (such as evangelical Xians) are their political arch-enemy. I would that that a normal progressive American Jew, if asked, would say that becoming Orthodox (while staying liberal politically) would never occur to them and is the last thing they’d ever do. Yet it does happen. What would it take to make it a more widespread phenomenon? Would standard kiruv strategies, such as describing the demographic facts behind the assertion that only Orthodoxy means Jewish great-grandchildren, be enough? Or do they need to understand both that becoming Orthodox is compatible with or an expression of their progressive beliefs (multiculturalist anti-assimilationism for example), and that traditional Judaism offers a value system that gives them something special and important and essential that they would not otherwise get from secular liberalism?
My heart bleeds for the millions of good Jews who love their Jewish identity who have no Jewish grandchildren. Intermarriage is only part of the problem, no marriage is a large part of the problem. Frum people get married and have families, all too many young Jews do not get married or get married late and have few children. The Reform Movement has never had long term retention, it has always been a gateway to greater assimilation and intermarriage, this did not start recently. The Reform Movement exists because of those raised more traditional who have become less observant but still want to belong. Nowadays, belonging is no longer a social requirement and they just don’t join, don’t pay dues and don’t feel a need to perpetuate the Jewish people. Today’s re-creation of Judaism which is very new historically cannot attract the vast majority of Jews. If the orthodox world continues to move in the direction it is going, it may become numerically larger but only because of high birth rate. We are tragecally bereft of visionary leadership . We have become more and more insular and our growth comes from chassidim and chareidim who will not attract most other Jews . The Judaism of the future may not be one that we recognize but it is what it is.
Is it really that important that as Orthodox Jews we spend time criticizing Reform and Conservative. I certainly don’t agree on much of the theology, but I think the Orthodox world has a lot more to worry about than spending its energy on this topic, once again! How about focusing on too much literal interpretation of Tanach, Midrash, Aggadatah, etc., which infecting our minds and psychology daily. Kabbalistic thought is becoming the meat and potatoes of our learning in some corners. Our hashkafah tends to delve into the Zohar, not the best halachik source. How about the Orthodox world start cleaning its own house from sexual abuse to financial crimes. While the media has certainly an eagle eye for what’s wrong, our leadership has not answered the call. We have plenty of narcissism and other mental issues in the Rabbinate that need some weeding and pruning. Yet little or nothing is done. We have too much affinity crime, because we’re talk to be foolishly naïve instead of cautiously optimistic. Our own lives and that of our children are at stake here. The hypocrisy that are kids see is what jades them and sends them for the exits. If our leadership is creating true Torah value, then people will come. Shticky marketing of programs isn’t going to cut it. Misleading seminars given by outreach professionals will turn away people on a dime or others will slowly question premises later. That’s not good business. The people becoming ba’alei teshuva tend to be more often than not people not educated enough to ask all the right questions. They tend to be searching for something, because they haven’t found it. When is the last time any kiruv professional was actually able to convince a strongly rational minded person to take on observance. What are the stats on that? I can only guess that they are written off as someone who has been poisoned by the well of public school education and other western thought. If you have a product that is grounded, it shouldn’t be hard to sell. If you’re selling stories that sound mythical and magical like a children’s story, you’re going to fail with adults miserably. It’s time for some serious critique and less wishful thinking.
I wonder if the chareidi world that you inhabit, is approaching perfection so that your attention can turn elsewhere? last I checked, a word of encouragement for greater observance in the reform might have been appropriate.
while clearly the non-Orthodox modes are not thriving, the attempt to present an anti-egalitarian [or at least non-] and anti-homosexuality dictum will remain a daunting task… if the torah lifestyle was an easy sell, this would have been resolved long ago… with the combination of anti-traditional and libertine PC thinking the societal norm, it will continue to get more difficult….
only in the Land of Israel can the Jewish people flourish to the maximum extent…
I wonder, if while still in an exiled state, we say that about Eretz Yisrael anyway. Many mitzvos are much better observed and appreciated here, but I can’t say that in our times every Jew would achieve the highest purpose for his own life only in Israel.
The head of an institution for which we Jews have historically had a rather deep revulsion has spoken recently in a way which could teach us something. I am speaking of the pope. He has been saying, rather than pound dogmas and norms and castigate the world for not believing them and not living according to them, start with love. If you want to criticize me for bringing a non-Jewish, idolatrous example, of course I could bring a kosher Jewish one. But I wanted to show an example of that approach having an immediate world impact and being noticed by people far from his particular perspective. Just as we talk about both kiruv and our own youth at risk in terms of unconditional love, we have to relate to the unaffiliated world in the same way. In an open situation we have to be prepared to accept whoever shows up and be able to talk about the universal values of the Torah, because any group which is not Torah-observant is liable to contain non-Jews. The litmus test for the non-observant Jew may be in how we relate to the stranger. The reform congregation is full of non-Jews, both those who do not consider themselves Jews at all but are married to Jews, and those who have undergone halachically invalid conversions. The joke is that if you walk through the corridors of the reform religious school and find a kid named Greenberg, he is likely to be Gentile, whereas the kid named Christiansen is most likely Jewish. I would appreciate input as to how to relate to this problem from those who have encountered it.
Our only concern in this matter should be to impart a love of Torah to their rank-and-file.
I am a Conservative Jew who was at the moving, spirited, upbeat and innovative Biennial of URJ so I have no idea what this disrespectful, ridiculously slanted article is about. Gloomy mood??? Was the writer actually in attendance? This was one big lovefest of Judaism. What WAS gloomy was the feeling this article evoked in me as a Jew on behalf of Klal Yisrael.
This narrow Orthodox triumphalism is a doomed view. I have no problem visiting other streams of Jewish life and admiring what they do right. The energy of being in a Shabbat service with 5,000 Jews at the San Diego convention center was one of the most powerful and indelible experiences of my life. There is a lot that Orthodoxy can learn from the sincere, egalitarian, heart-focused worship of Reform Jews. I certainly was moved to tears, especially at the singing of Debbie Friedman’s Lecha Dodi, which I believe was her final composition.
Reading this article just made me sad. Here’s a proposal: why doesn’t Jonathan Rosenblum worry about staunching the bleeding from Ortho-Veneer Judaism, that is, Judaism which claims to be frummer than its practice? It’s all around us: people who only daven in Orthodox shuls and yet behind closed doors break one mitzvah after another. There is a LOT of bogus Orthodoxy…and not just because of the ethical shenanigans. What I mean is that the real practice of many so-called Orthodox Jews is not more Torah-true than Conservative, Reform or non-affiliated Jews. What happens behind closed doors — from watching Netflix on Shabbat to texting to far more serious “aveirot” is just hidden from public view.
To all those critics of Jonathan: so as a chareidi/Orthodox, he is forbidden from writing anything about the heterodox movements? Or, as Dr. Bill alludes, only non-Charedim should be able to make these comments (which I see from other commentators they won’t anyway, to avoid any hint of triumphalism). And if he does, its Orthodox triumphalism? Why can we frum Yidden look at what’s goin’ on with the heterodox and see where its going? We can make obvservations and we can only do so when our house is in order? Does nobody grasp what is actually going on, that Reform and Conservative are imploding? This is a seismic change on the North American jewish radar!
To address Marty Strauss: you can label what Jonathan wrote here as “Orthodox Triumphalism” and note how these movements provided a service to Jewry and their decline is sad. However, I think its valid to point out that they no longer provide this “service” you write of. In fact, their decline and their failure to attract young Jews shows exactly what they are made of. Their service was time-limited and only was good for a few generations and a different period of time in North American Jewish history. The fact that they are losing numbers and fast should show everybody what they are – a stop-gap measure that in their essence actually lead to the intermarriage and assimilation by showing that organized religion, no matter how much it tries to adapt and keep up with the latest cultural trends, cannot compete. Orthodoxy shows (in the main) that you can be strong and not try to compete.
I do agree with Marty Strauss that Orthodoxy is not for everybody. However, what is the alternative? Open Orthodoxy and keeping up appearances as being Orthodox why going along with societal changes to families, gender, and marriage? I shudder to think if that is the alternative.
Rabbi Yehoshua Friedman: “The reform congregation is full of non-Jews, both those who do not consider themselves Jews at all but are married to Jews, and those who have undergone halachically invalid conversions. The joke is that if you walk through the corridors of the reform religious school and find a kid named Greenberg, he is likely to be Gentile, whereas the kid named Christiansen is most likely Jewish. I would appreciate input as to how to relate to this problem from those who have encountered it.”
Ori: If you treat George Greenberg differently from Charlie Christiansen, you will be seen as insincere. George and Charlie are good friends, and they see no reason why one should be treated differently from the other. They may understand, intellectually, that you consider Charlie Jewish and George a gentile. However, emotionally they don’t feel they are very different.
If you want to teach them about Halacha, teach them about the Noahide laws. They apply to both, and might interest Charlie enough to get him moving towards greater observance (or George enough to get him moving towards conversion).
I agree with the general direction of Ori Pomeranz, that when you have Jews and non-Jews in the same social setting, you have to show similar respect and warmth to the non-Jew as to the Jew, otherwise you are going to turn off the Jew. The master of that was, of course, R’ Shlomo Carlebach z”l. In a Reform Jewish context talking about the Noahide Mitzvot might work, but the Noahide movement itself has failed to take off because the Christians see it as a step backward to a less intimate relationship with the Almighty and the Torah. The Noahides are often prickly because they feel they have been had by the Christianity that they have seen through to be bogus, and they knock it, thereby alienating those who are still Christians. And since the Reform Jews are mixing with everyone under the sun, that might create a problem pitching to them as well. I don’t know. The feel on the ground is important.
“Or do they need to understand both that becoming Orthodox is compatible with or an expression of their progressive beliefs (multiculturalist anti-assimilationism for example)”.
I think indeed that Orthodox Judaism has been identified as equivalent to the Republican right-wing ideology, and this bothers jews who have a non-conservative ideology.
When one looks at the views of many chareidi publicists one sees a common thread: every political position that is not conservative is viewed as socialist/communist like in the 50s, anything to do with social solidarity/welfare is totally rejected and the “other” is viewed with suspicion.
If one looks at websites of far-right European parties, the similarities are striking. Same for the chareidi press in Israel (with one difference: welfare is promoted).
To Shira Dicker: While I don’t disagree with you about misplaced Orthodox trimumphalism, your complaint with the article is not necescarily with Jonathan Rosenbloom, but with the sources upon which he based his article. The impression the news articles left was of a gloomy meditation on the decline in Reform Judaism. If this is what the papers reported, one would come away with that impression.
In 1997, Rabbi Nisson Wolpin and I put together an article for The Jewish Observer on the first conference on Feminism and Orthodoxy, based on the reports of 4 or 5 news articles. Rabbi Wolpin received a letter from one of the participants criticizing us for basing it on news reports when we were not there. Although our article cited every news source we quoted, I thought the criticism had some validity. In 1998, I attended the second conference, taped the sessions I attended, and purchased tapes of sessions I did not attend. Between personal attendance and tapes, I listened to about 40% of what went on at the conference. The article that resulted was far more vehement than the article based on news reports.
I doubt you would have liked what someone from our camp would have written had he or she “been there.”
Rabbi Yehoshua Friedman: “In a Reform Jewish context talking about the Noahide Mitzvot might work, but the Noahide movement itself has failed to take off because the Christians see it as a step backward to a less intimate relationship with the Almighty and the Torah. The Noahides are often prickly because they feel they have been had by the Christianity that they have seen through to be bogus, and they knock it, thereby alienating those who are still Christians.”
Ori: True, bashing on Christians would be a bad idea. I don’t think there are any there, but there are certainly people who have Christian friends and family. It might be best if Jews teach Noahism is such an environment, rather than Noahides.
I too would like to echo the opinion of some here that we need to adjust the radical right wing tea party politics that too many orthodox Jews believe in order attract our more liberal reform brothers.May I suggest some areas where we easily can change our views accordingly: fully support same gender marriage including sanctions for any clergy who won’t cooperate.allow end of life decisions to be made by HHS sec Sebilius and not by family members irresponsibly clinging to halacha.support abortion on demand, even partial birth ,fully funded by all taxpayers .end tax deductions for charitable donations as the govt can use the money more effectively than individuals.abandon all attempts at school vouchers as this harms the teachers unions a core democrat constituency.Denounce the aparthied State of Israel and insist full surrender to all Palestinian demands including the return of millions of refugees.Increase welfare payments and food stamps to all deserving oppressed groups as this is a proven method to lift people out of poverty.Stop the islamophobe war mongering with Iran and allow them full nuclear capabilities.Support huge tax hikes on all wealthy people(those making more than 50 thousand a year regardless how much they selfishly spend on tuition)in order to fund extensive environmental projects needed to ward off the effects of global warming .
I think Jonathan should have explored more deeply the resolution of the Reform to bring their battle to Israel. Having failed to succeed in the USA, they and the Conservatives have banded together to take on Israel. And if they are not stopped in their tracks, they just might be successful in importing and then cultivating their losing theology among secular Israelis and traditional Israelis who abhor the Haredi and have significant political clout. If we on the Orthodox side could ever come together in response to this threat we would obliterate it and discredit it. But alas we are too busy Shteibelizing our culture and creating walls between our various Hashkafos. We have no leadership which could galavnize our actions and unite us.
The three core elements of Jewish continuity have always been, are, and will always be Torah, Avodah and Gmilus Chasadim. A Shabbos meal, the Jewish family, meaningful Tefilos, exposure to Talmud Torah in its depths, as opposed to kitschy “solutions” and Chesed are IMO the core elements of successful kiruv. While the Torah observant community has its share of those who deviate from normative halachic standards, one cannot dismiss the Torah observant community by logic that can best be described as “throwing out the baby with the bathwater.”