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
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
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
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.
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.
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
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?
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
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
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
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
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.