The recently released Pew Research Center survey has given American Jewish
leaders a whole lot of sobering statistics to reflect upon and analyze. True to
form, in bagel shops and bridge parlors, mavens all over are wringing their
hands over skyrocketing assimilation and plummeting synagogue
But there is some unmistakably good news in all of this, and
that is the marked decline in denominational self-identification.
less Jews are attaching denominational labels to their Jewish identities. They
view themselves simply as “Jewish.” And that is very good news.
break out the schnapps, wish each other l’haim and celebrate the beginning of
the end of Jewish denominationalism, because this may be a large piece of the
solution to the disengagement and disaffection of American Jews which has
plagued us for the longest time.
Our habit of defining ourselves by
denominational labels such as “Orthodox,” “Reform,” “Conservative” or anything
else is most unfortunate and lamentable – as heretical as this may sound to
some. It builds artificial walls between us and our fellow Jews. It erects
barriers between us and the richness that we can discover in Judaism if we would
only allow ourselves to freely explore it. We need to stop thinking
denominations and start thinking Jewish.
This is not a new idea. And it
isn’t my own. I had the privilege of listening to the Rebbe, Menachem Mendel
Schneerson of righteous memory, for hundreds of hours as he delivered his public
talks and discourses. I cannot recall a single instance when the Rebbe – who
Menachem Begin called “the great lover of the House of Israel” – appended a
modifier to the word “Jew.”
To him, the terms Reform Jew, Orthodox Jew,
Conservative Jew, etc., were altogether non-existent and terribly unhelpful.
There are only Jews – and we are all children of Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and
Rebecca, Jacob, Rachel and Leah. This is a cornerstone of Chabad’s embracing
To be clear, I am not downplaying the fact that real
differences exist between the various denominations. Those are very serious,
even fundamental, disagreements about core Jewish principles about God, Torah,
mitzvot and so forth, and they are largely irreconcilable. I would also agree
that denominational labels serve a purpose, not unlike alphabetical
abbreviations, in that they allow us to use fewer words when describing our
Jewish lives. But at what cost? Denominational labels stifle meaningful and
substantive discourse within the Jewish community. They divide the Jewish
people, they taint our conversations with partisanship, and they contribute to
the unfortunate dumbing down, Jewishly speaking, of generations of young
Let’s imagine a world in which our Jewish lexicon is free of
denominational labels. We would self-describe simply as Jews and do the same for
our fellow Jews.
Instead of highlighting our differences, we would be
emphasizing our innate kinship, our common heritage, our inextricable
Of course, we won’t be able to resist arguing with each other
about all sorts of stuff, and that is okay. Discourse is healthy and necessary.
But we would be arguing as brothers and sisters, not as strangers alienated by
Freed of the artificial security and restrictive
borders of denominational labels, we’ll be empowered to grow in our knowledge.
We’ll be open to more Jewish observance.
We might seek out adult
education offerings in our communities. Perhaps (gasp!) our rabbis will be
challenged to deliver more in their sermons because their congregants will be
clamoring for substance rather than partisan pep talks.
denominational lingo will also raise the level of our Jewish learning. We will
ask more insightful questions and probe for more meaningful answers. Our
conversations about Judaism with our families and our co-religionists will be of
a deeper, broader and more open quality.
Wouldn’t that be a blessing for
the Jewish people? So how do we do away with these divisive labels?
We stop using them. Let’s stop referring to our fellow Jews with
contrived denominational misnomers. Regardless of how diverse we may be when it
comes to “doing Jewish” or “thinking Jewish,” we are one and the same in our
“being Jewish.” We are all Jews. And that is what we ought to call
With that in mind, I would like to propose that we take the
following pledge, and that we encourage others to do the same: “I PLEDGE to
endeavor to identify myself and my coreligionists simply as ‘Jews,’ without
appending any denominational modifiers to that noble title. I do so in
recognition of our being one people united by a common heritage and
I realize that old habits will likely die hard. Taking this
pledge, if it accomplishes nothing else, gives expression to the oneness of the
Jewish people and to our abiding belief that regardless of all that separates
us, the underlying Jewishness of each of us is the same. And that is a very big
If you agree with these sentiments, then I urge you to take the
pledge and help spread the word to others. Do it for the sake of Jewish unity
and continuity. Do it for a more informed, engaged and inspired Jewish
You can take the pledge online by visiting:
May the day come soon when we will bid
goodbye and good riddance to divisive denominationalism. For once and for all,
and for the good of the Jewish people. Amen.The writer, a rabbi, is the
regional director of Chabad of Greater St. Louis.
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