Think Again: Can the Reform Movement staunch the bleeding?

"In the recent Pew study of American Jewry, the fastest growing segment consisted of those responding “None” when asked their religious identity."

Union for Reform Judaism 370 (photo credit: Union for Reform Judaism)
Union for Reform Judaism 370
(photo credit: Union for Reform Judaism)
At the Union for Reform Judaism’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 Telegraphic 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 the 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 of American Jewry, the fastest growing segment consisted of those responding “None” when asked their religious identity.
The median age of Reform members is 54, and only 17 percent of members say that they attend religious services even once a month. UJR president Richard 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 movement.
More and more, the future of American Jewry appears to be Orthodox. According to numbers culled from the 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 in 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 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 continues 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, 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 their Jewish identity is 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 movement’s Religious Action Center, told The Forward.
But that, too, is putting the cart before the horse. If Reform teens and 20-somethings can’t be bothered to pray at home, why should they care about being able to do so at the Western Wall? 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 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 Western Wall, other than that is once belonged to Jordan and was now under Israeli 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 worshipers at the Western Wall 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 to their [congregants’] every whim.”
Wertheimer, former provost of the (Conservative) Jewish Theological Seminary, 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 Hanukka sermon by a congregant, who demanded to know why he had not given equal time to Christmas.
As reported by JTA, Reform rabbis in San Diego spent a good deal of time discussing their struggles competing with Chabad. On any given Shabbat, there are probably as many non-Orthodox Jews in America’s 900-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 an authentic Jewish experience. In place of combing the Torah for textual proofs 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 God.
In his biennial address, 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 led a Shabbat service “replete with singing, dancing and interludes of ‘Storahtelling.’” When he reached the Shema prayer, Jacobs clutched his purple tallit 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 the Newtown massacre, while Buchdahl strummed her guitar.
Not, apparently, one word about Shema as the classical affirmation of Jewish faith, or what the unity of God 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 people are exposed and the media opinion they consume is reliably “progressive.”
As long as they are told that being a Jew means only to 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. The writer is director of Jewish Media Resources, has written a regular column in The Jerusalem Post Magazine since 1997, and is the author of eight biographies of modern Jewish leaders.