The realigning of American Jewry

Historically American Jews identified with three classical denominational concentrations: Reform, Conservative and Orthodox.These groupings are undergoing major change.

A VIOLINIST and beat-boxer duo perform at Temple Emanu-El in New York City last week as part of ‘Dusk’ – an after-work party aimed at engaging and inspiring young Jews. (photo credit: ANDREW RAUNER)
A VIOLINIST and beat-boxer duo perform at Temple Emanu-El in New York City last week as part of ‘Dusk’ – an after-work party aimed at engaging and inspiring young Jews.
(photo credit: ANDREW RAUNER)
Twenty-two years ago, in the wake of the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s passing, many Jewish academics and pundits predicted Chabad would weaken significantly. What has happened is the opposite: worldwide there is hardly a Jewish community without a vibrant Chabad presence. From Bozeman, Montana to Beersheba Chabad is a vital part of Jewish life. The most intriguing change has been in the United States, where Chabad’s growth has been the unprecedented.
Historically American Jews identified with three classical denominational concentrations: Reform, Conservative and Orthodox.
These groupings are undergoing major change.
Orthodoxy is growing, while on the other hand the liberal movements are facing significant challenges. In recent decades the Conservative movement has lost upwards of 40 percent of its members. The Reform movement is standing at a demographic precipice, with its membership aging and high intermarriage. More and more Jews are rejecting the classical denominational boundaries and identifying as “just Jewish” – Jews who do not feel connected to any specific movement but still retain a Jewish identity.
Today there are more Chabad centers in the US/Canada than either Reform or Conservative temples. While the liberal movements are consolidating, and in some cases closing congregations, Chabad is booming and building.
The vast majority of those attending Chabad centers are not the classically observant Orthodox.
The network of just under a thousand Chabad centers in North America are populated by Jews of all stripes, backgrounds and levels of observance. A new paradigm is emerging: the realignment of American Jewish life into three new groupings.
On one hand there is the Orthodox observant, ranging from the haredi community to the centrist Orthodox. In a variety of permutations they share a commitment to the same core value of observance, belief in Torah and tradition. On the other hand are the liberal movements, the Reform, Conservative and the Reconstructionist.
They share much more than what divides them. In some communities we see consolidation between synagogues of varied movements, cooperation on communal goals. It’s doubtful they will merge, but as Reform makes steps toward tradition and the Conservative steps further away, a greater commonality is emerging.
Chabad is becoming the new Jewish middle, where Jews of varied levels of observance find a spiritual home, and many others active in other segments of the community participate.
The recent demographic survey by the Greater Miami Jewish Federation reveals the monumental shift that is underway. 27% of all local Jews are active in Chabad, while among Jews who are 35 and younger the number skyrockets to 47%.
What is most amazing is only 20% of those active in Chabad self-identify as Orthodox.
Clearly a realignment is happening.
Today the number of Jews who attend Chabad centers regularly is on par with either of the liberal movements. Many Jews who are members of Reform/Conservative congregations dabble in Chabad, attending adult education and holiday events, with their children attending camps, schools and Chabad campus centers.
Funding for Chabad does not come from Brooklyn but from local Jewish communities. Jews are voting for Chabad with their checkbooks and their feet. They are underwriting the building boom of Chabad centers nationwide and the expansion of programs.
This move of Jews to Chabad has vast implications for the Jewish future. The core message is profoundly different than what most American Jews have been hearing for decades. Rabbis are teaching classic Jewish values. They nurture Jews in their observance and learning. Jews attending Chabad are on a train headed toward a stronger Jewish identity where Torah learning and mitzvah observance are paramount values.
When a rabbi tells the family, “Of course I would love to officiate at the wedding but it needs to be kosher” or “lets buy your son tefillin for his bar mitzvah” it prods Jews to be more observant.
It’s a monumental effort to roll back multiple generations of assimilation. Most young Jews today need to reach back over a century to find an observant ancestor. The move to Chabad represents a fundamental change in direction, a return to tradition.
This shift has vast implications for the broader community. Chabad educational programs stress a connection with Israel that is based on it being the spiritual and historical center of the Jewish people. Chabad’s extensive network of campus centers, its leadership in Birthright, and new initiatives for Millennials, will ensure a stronger bond of the next generation the Jewish homeland. While Chabad’s focus has never been political, it’s has always put the security of Israel as a top concern. The arena of adult Jewish learning has been emboldened with the growth of the Rohr Jewish Learning Institute to over a 900 cities worldwide. The growth of Chabad is impacting the broader Jewish community. In the debate over communal priorities in Federation board rooms across the country Chabad is advocating for a greater focus on Jewish education and the spiritual core of Judaism. Chabad is even having a trickle-down effect on liberal congregations as Dr. Jack Wertheimer wrote recently in Commentary. Members of non-Orthodox congregations bring back a message of strong tradition after participating in Chabad programs.
There is no question that American Jewry has major challenges. Significant numbers are disengaging and existing communal structures are being tested. Still the emergence of Chabad bodes well, it creates a vital avenue of engagement, welcoming all in a non-judgmental fashion.
Chabad growth represents a strengthening of classic Jewish values, bonds to Israel and will be a catalyst for a more vibrant community.
The writer is a rabbi and author of The Secret of Chabad – inside the world’s most successful Jewish movement. He is a Chabad emissary in California.