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Israel will not be the focus of this year's High Holiday sermons, according to a new survey that offers an outlook on the concerns of American Jewry for the coming year. While synagogues are packed on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, rabbis intend to address participation in Jewish life beyond the High Holy Day services, when Jews are less likely to be involved, the survey finds.
The National Rabbinic Leadership Survey: Vision 5768, released Monday by Synagogues: Transformation and Renewal (STAR), a national foundation dedicated to innovation and leadership development in synagogues, offers a rabbinic perspective on concerns of the Jewish community, goals for the coming year and initial thoughts about presidential candidates.
The denominational affiliation of the rabbis surveyed was almost equally divided between the Conservative (42%) and Reform (45%) movements, with significantly lower participation from Orthodox rabbis (4%).
Almost half of the 187 rabbis surveyed are optimistic about the future of American Jewry (47%), but they are less positive about synagogue growth. Over the next three years, 28 percent expect an increase in synagogue membership in the US, compared to the 34 percent that were as optimistic last year.
High Holy Day sermons will largely reflect this perception, the survey predicts. In terms of sermon themes, participation in Jewish life beyond attendance at High Holy Day services ranked first at 45%, followed by forgiveness at 41%.
Last year, the holidays came on the heels of the Second Lebanon War and support for Israel was ranked the top priority at 72 percent, followed by creating a better future (42%) and forgiveness (37%).
Mirroring these topics are the top three sermon goals: to inspire congregants with a compelling vision of Jewish life (66%), to bring the congregational community closer together (11%) and to increase the level of moral and ethical behavior (9%).
Despite recent concerns that attachment to Israel is declining among young American Jews, as indicated in another recent study, only 7 percent of the surveyed rabbis mentioned Israel-related issues, including advocacy and education for Israel, when asked about the most pressing issue facing the Jewish community in the US, as opposed to last year's 32 percent.
But Rabbi Hayim Herring, executive director of STAR, said Israel continues to be "the major focus of congregational life."
While the rabbis surveyed have strong attachments to Israel, Herring said "we will have to see in the future whether they are able to maintain a balancing act, between outside causes and Israel, and balance their personal attachments and those of their congregants."
While the overwhelming majority of rabbis (88%) said they promote giving to organizations or groups focused on Israel-related causes and 81 percent said their synagogues raised money for Israeli charities in the past year, these numbers declined from 97 percent and 94 percent, respectively, last year. Donations to global emergency causes, such as relief for Darfur, surpassed Israeli causes, as the number one focus of charitable giving.
The vast majority of rabbis (92%) pointed to a need to reach out to segments of the community that have historically been less involved, such as gays and lesbians, interfaith couples, single parents and singles.
On the political front, Israel continues to be a key factor. Eight in ten rabbis (82%, the same as last year) said they are more inclined to back political candidates who are pro-Israel. Almost half (49%) said there is no difference between the parties in terms of support of Israel, 21 percent point to the Republican party as more supportive, down from 35 percent last year, whereas 16 percent cite the Democratic party, a slight increase from 14 percent last year.
Forty-one percent of rabbis said they were still unsure as to which presidential candidate is most supportive of Israel, but almost a quarter (22%) ranked Senator Hillary Clinton as most supportive, followed by former New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani (16%) and Senator John McCain (3%).
"The findings indicate that Israel is still in the hearts and minds of rabbis, but they are looking at broader issues as well," explained Herring. "The battle to keep Judaism relevant may be more of a concern right now, but as the presidential election gets under way and global issues heat up, it is clear the US Jewish community will be ready to act on behalf of Israel and the synagogue is perhaps the key venue for Israel activity, education and advocacy."