I’m sure that many of us saw the article in the New York Times last week about the demographic state of American Jewry. (The full report from the Pew Research Center may be found here.) The major findings are the kinds of things that set off alarm bells and rounds of hand-wringing in certain quarters of the Jewish community. For example:
- 22% of American Jews now consider themselves “Jews of no religion,” and that figure is higher for younger cohorts
- 72% of non-Orthodox Jews marrying in the last 13 years married somebody who is not Jewish
- Affiliated Conservative Jews now account for 18% of American Jews (cf. 35% Reform and 10% Orthodox
- The Conservative movement is now, on average, the oldest movement (median age of members is 55 years) and the one with the fewest children living at home (0.3 per family)
And so forth. There are plenty more where those nuggets came from.
Now it is very easy to let ourselves get agitated over this, and of course the Times loves stories that get Jews agitated. (Arnold Eisen, the Chancellor of JTS, invoked a classic joke in his blog post on the subject: One Jew sends a telegram to the other: Start worrying. Details to follow.)
But, like Chancellor Eisen, I’d like to suggest that we let cooler heads prevail here. The essential message that we should glean from this report is this: we have to read this not as a threat, but as a call to action. Allow me to explain by illustrating a point in Parashat Lekh Lekha.
Our newly-minted everyman hero, Abram, whom we just met at the end of Parashat Noah, is instructed by God to pick up and leave his home, and move to some other place:
וַיֹּאמֶר ה' אֶל-אַבְרָם, לֶךְ-לְךָ מֵאַרְצְךָ וּמִמּוֹלַדְתְּךָ וּמִבֵּית אָבִיךָ, אֶל-הָאָרֶץ, אֲשֶׁר אַרְאֶךָּ.
God said to Abram, “Go forth from your land, and from your homeland, and from your father’s house, to the land that I shall show you.
Abram does not know where he is going, but he trusts God, and so he picks up and leaves his homeland and his father’s house to head out to what we know will some day be called Israel. This is his Lekh Lekha moment, where Abram (according to a midrash), goes off in search of himself, primed to be the father of a new nation.
Ladies and gentlemen, we in this room, who are among the most committed American Jews, and in a wider sense the Conservative movement, we must go off in search of ourselves. And to do that, we have to leave the comfort of our homeland, of (dare I say it) Rabbi Waxman’s house. And I mean that in both the tangible and spiritual sense.
I was on a conference call this week with Dr. Jonathan Sarna, the prominent professor of American Jewish History at Brandeis University, to put the Pew survey into perspective. He pointed out that (א) studies like this pop up from time to time, broadcasting dire predictions and precipitating much communal angst, and (ב) that they have also spurred the major movements into action, and have even succeeded in helping turn them around.
Dr. Sarna pointed out that this is not the first such seeming statistical low point. In his book, American Judaism (Yale University Press, 2004, pp. 224-5), we read that in 1919, the American Jewish Year Book offers that less than 23 percent of the Jewish population was “regularly affiliated with congregations.” (That is far less than today, percentage-wise.) In 1926, the US Census of Religious Bodies found that “average length of stay in a Jewish school” was two years total. The San Francisco of 1938 had an 18 percent affiliation rate. In Brownsville, Brooklyn in 1935, only 8 percent of men regularly attended synagogue (and the women even less), and ¾ of young Jews in all of New York City in had not attended services AT ALL in the past year, including High Holidays. And so forth.
Dr. Sarna noted that in the 1930s, Reform Judaism was seen by most American Jews as a small movement with limited appeal, and would soon disappear. But in response, Reform reinvented itself, and is today by far the largest movement. Similarly, he noted that his teacher, the sociologist Marshall Sklare, predicted in the 1960s that Orthodoxy would soon languish away. But Dr. Sklare was wrong, and Orthodoxy is thriving today, even though it only accounts for 10% of American Jews.
While news outlets have been quick to point out that the numbers look especially bad for Conservative Judaism, these kinds of surveys have spurred movement-wide change before, and this should be our call to action. This may be our Lekh Lekha moment.
We are living in an age in which fear/mistrust/dislike of institutions is rampant. Government. Corporations. Organized religion (although I’m not sure why anybody would call Judaism “organized”). Indeed, the very concept of “religion” is alienating to many people today; such is the hazard of living in an open, secular society. But that’s why we have to leave our comfortable surroundings, the physical and the metaphorical, and extend ourselves, to reconsider what we do and how we do it.
For decades, and especially through the periods of dramatic growth that the Conservative movement and Temple Israel experienced in the middle of the 20th century, we did not have to work to attract adherents. It was enough for congregations to hire a brilliant rabbi and a cantor with a soaring voice, set up a Hebrew school, and voila! In came the Jews.
But we are no longer living in those days. We cannot expect that people will just walk in the door and join us. Yes, that is true for a few people (we welcomed a bunch of new families this past weekend with a special welcoming ceremony). But many Jews today think that the synagogue experience is not for them; many Jews think that they just don’t have time or money or interest for shul, that they can’t manage the Hebrew or synagogue choreography, and are therefore intimidated or bored. Reaching those people will require that we go out to them, and provide avenues for involvement that are not solely focused on ritual. And here is where we can take some cues from Chabad.
Where do we usually encounter Chabadniks? On the street with lulav and etrog. On campuses offering free Shabbat meals and a welcoming home. Holding big, splashy programs with wide appeal for families. They go to where the Jews are, and they attract them with free offerings, a judgment-free, friendly environment, and the promise of an authentic Jewish experience.
But we have some things that Chabad does not. We are egalitarian, counting women and men as equals in Jewish life. We welcome dissenting views and incorporate history, science, and scholarship into our understanding of Jewish texts. We think and approach Judaism like contemporary Americans. And it is for this reason that we cannot cede the realm of outreach to Orthodoxy: we need to be out there where the Jews are, too.
A Reform colleague, Rabbi Leon Morris of Sag Harbor, offered the following in an opinion piece in Haaretz:
“... the troubling results of this survey actually underscore the urgent need for non-Orthodox Judaism to be successful. If a case needed to be made that the vast majority of American Jews will never become Orthodox, this study makes the case clearer than ever. The synagogues that have the greatest potential to reach the growing number of “Jews of no religion” are the non-Orthodox ones. If American Orthodoxy cares about the survival of Jewish life in America, the results of this study should in fact encourage American Orthodox leadership to work together more closely with the Reform and Conservative movements. Those movements are the shock troops for deepening Jewish life for the most endangered Jews described in this study.”
We are on the front lines, ladies and gentlemen, but we’re all looking the other way.
Dr. Sarna pointed out a few encouraging statistics: that a whopping 83% of the “Jews of no religion” say that they are proud to be Jewish, and 46% of them believe in God! And then he indicated another group: 36% of American Jews are in the “Other” category. They are not affiliated with a mainstream denomination, or describe themselves as “just Jewish.” These are the people, he says, that we should be going after. To this end, Dr. Sarna suggests a few things. We should...
- feature musical Friday night services at a fixed time each week
- reconsider the de-funding of Koach, the Conservative movement’s arm on college campuses
- refocus our energies on promoting day schools - making them affordable as well as the best educational option for Jewish children
- meet the technology challenge - not only to use the new tools of social media better, but also to stop telling people to turn off their phones in synagogue. (And let me assure you that this is a hard thing for me to accept.) People used to come to synagogue to be connected to others; now when they arrive they are told to disconnect
I think we could even come up with our own creative new approaches. There are things that we do already that are so creative and engaging and work on so many levels, but most of them are small programs that reach only a select few people. The things that I think work the best are those that create holy moments outside of the formality of synagogue services, where it is easier to make personal connections: tashlikh, the Sukkah-building workshop, the new members’ welcoming ceremony that we did last Sunday, the Youth House trip to Israel, the retreat at Camp Ramah that we led for Vav class students last spring, and will be doing again, the new groups like Temple Israel Bonds (for parents with children in the Religious School) and the EmpTInesters group.
Along these lines, we should have more retreats, more creative services that are held outdoors, more social groups that bring like-minded people together. We should have meet-ups in Kings Point Park where we learn Talmud, say. We should reach out through Facebook to gather people for a surprise, late-night qiddush halevanah (blessing over the moon), maybe with cocktails. We should organize a volunteer staff of community outreach coordinators, who keep an eye peeled for newcomers to Great Neck and reach out even before young couples sign up to bring their kids to Beth HaGan, or sign up for High Holiday seats.
The point is, we have to think outside the sanctuary. We can’t rely merely on the Bar/Bat Mitzvah process to capture and hold people, especially when so many can easily avoid our “requirements” and fees by going elsewhere.
In two weeks, I will be attending a training session at JTS about implementing the community organizing model, a workshop for rabbis that will help us in building our communities, and I hope that it will give me fresh ideas to bring back to Great Neck.
But it cannot be just the clergy; we have to work harder as a community as well. We cannot sit idly by, even here in this beautiful sanctuary, as 22% becomes 30% becomes 50%. If we want this community to grow, we have to find those “other” Jews, the 36%, invite them in.
So this is a call to action, and an opportunity. There are plenty of people, right here in Great Neck, that might well join our community if we can reach them and offer them appealing points of entry. Our Lekh Lekha moment has arrived - we may need to leave our current model, but we will do it knowing that the Promised Land is at the end of our journey.