US Jewry is changing and it’s heading in two different directions. That is what’s clear from the new Pew Report.
The number of Jews who don’t identify with religion is rising, with many on a trajectory away from Jewish life. But on the other side, there is a spiritual rebound. Orthodox Judaism is continuing to grow and successfully retain its youth. And, with large families being the norm, it will become a larger segment of the community over the decades. This is coupled with the rise of Chabad, now equal in size to either the Reform or Conservative movements.
The Chabad emergence, documented in this Pew Report, is a game changer for American Jewish life. The numbers are startling: 38% of all US Jews have engaged in some way with Chabad programs. 40% of those are active on a regular or semi-regular basis. 75% of those who are involved with Chabad do not self-identify as Orthodox. The younger the segment, the more connected they are with Chabad.
This is clearly a result of Chabad’s massive expansion in the three youth sectors: teens, college students, and young professionals. The shift of millennials has been documented in a series of local Federation studies that reveal that more Jews age 35 and younger are involved with Chabad than any other Jewish group. At the rate it’s going, Chabad’s role in the US Jewish community will only expand in the years to come.
On the other side of the ideological spectrum, we see the opposite. There are 37% who identify with Reform and 17% with Conservative, but identification is not affiliation. It does not mean those who identify are truly active in those movements. In fact, according to the 2013 Pew Study with similar stats on identification, the numbers of actual membership in the liberal Jewish movements are dramatially lower. That study found that just 14% of US Jews are members of Reform congregations and 11% of Conservative.
And a second vital statistic shows that many of those members are older. As age drops, so does involvement in liberal movements. This is reflected by synagogue closures, since the 2002 Synagogue Survey, nonorthodox congregations are closing and merging. The Reform has downsized by 180, and the Conservative by over 350. In the same time frame the number of Chabad Centers has tripled.
Chabad has created a new paradigm in modern Jewish life, reversing trends of over a century of Jewish disconnecting from orthodoxy as they became less observant. Today’s Jews, many of whom are not fully observant, choose Chabad as their point of affiliation. They are open to more tradition.
This historic realignment of the community has major implications for US Jewry and Israel.
THE MESSAGE of Chabad – Jewish learning, spirituality and observance of tradition, all rooted in Ahavat Yisroel, unconditional love and acceptance of every Jew—has resonated profoundly. While others are lowering Jewish standards in the hope of attracting the next generation with their open-mindedness, their success is limited. Chabad is taking the opposite strategy, balancing retention of tradition and openness to all. Clearly, it’s working. Just look at the Birthright trips to Israel where Chabad is a top provider. US students, 95% of whom are not Orthodox, are choosing to experience Israel with Chabad, which focuses more on the historical and spiritual connection of the Jews to their homeland than other tour organizers.
Another reason Chabad is so attractive is because they are focused on teaching Torah and staying out of politics. People are tired of hearing politics preached during services. The whole Jewish community can learn from Chabad that Jews respond positively to congregations that are focused on the core values of Torah study, mitzvah observance, community, and concern for others. And while Judaism does have a message to the broader society about justice, dignity and compassion, replacing the deep spiritual lessons of Torah with political activism does not necessarily engage more Jews.
Chabad has also introduced a new business model. Jewish communities have historically had a “pay to pray” policy. Join a congregation, pay membership, and you can become part of the community. Chabad’s approach is “get involved.” If you like what you see, you can partner with and support your community. But as a Jew, you are automatically part of the brotherhood. Each Chabad center is financially autonomous and the rabbis and rebbetzins take stronger leadership roles and engage more personally with the community. They are invested in it because they are staying for life. They are not on a career track to larger congregations. Also, the rapid openings of new centers means they are each catering to more specific, niche demographics making it easier to find a community that resonates with you.
Chabad’s growing leadership is good news for Israel. Chabad’s support has always been unequivocal. Its schools emphasize the centrality of the Jewish homeland and its rabbis are unafraid to speak up in support of Israel’s security. At the same time, Chabad stays clear of engaging in Israeli politics and instead strives to be the voice of historic tradition that connects all Jews to Israel.
THIS BECAME clear during the hostilities in Gaza. While many in the Jewish community hunkered down, fearing antisemitism, or wondering about the righteousness of Israel’s cause. Some even criticized Israel. Chabad rabbis acted, speaking out strongly in support of Israel.
The Pew Report shows that it’s time for the Jewish establishment to be more open to and welcome of Chabad and its agenda of Torah and tradition. This has begun to happen in some communities and on a national level, such as with Jewish Federations of North America. I have been honored to be the first Chabad shliach (emissary) to serve on the board of the Jewish Agency and have encountered a remarkable level of acceptance. But there’s still a way to go.
Many Jewish community organizations are still resisting a greater inclusion of Chabad. Some local Federations do not allow for Chabad representation on their boards or support their programs, in particular those on campus. Others resist the agenda of unabashed Judaism and unflinching support for Israel’s security.
This week I’m in Israel with a solidarity mission of Chabad rabbis. One suggested to his local community leaders that he conduct a zoom session from an army base. He was told that might upset some in his city who questioned last week’s military tactics.
There are also Chabad leaders who hesitate to engage with the Jewish establishment. Sometimes this is due to a sense of parochialism, others due to discriminatory policies of the past and, at times, also during the present. Whatever the case, it is time for Jewish philanthropists, foundations and organizations to recognize Chabad’s success and appeal, and be open to supporting its agenda.
No longer can the liberal Jewish movements claim to speak for the majority of American Jews. Yes, they represent an important segment. Their actual members make up only 25% of US Jews. They are overshadowed by the Orthodox and Chabad in one direction and, in the other direction, Jews claiming no religion. The classic cookie-cutter descriptions that divide US Jews into the three neat pie segments of Reform, Conservative and Orthodox are no longer relevant. Chabad is at least as equal in size to those movements and its growth is outpacing them. And in many ways, it is more inclusive, transcending the classical divisions and bringing together Jews of all backgrounds and affiliations in a common community.
The writer is a rabbi and a Chabad shliach in California, He can be reached at: email@example.com