The direction is clear, tragic and undeniable. Most American Jewish institutions will collapse. The liberal American Jewish population will continue to shrink dramatically while Orthodoxy continues to grow. The American Jewish future is Orthodox.
The Reform, Conservative and Reconstructionist movements have, in the last 30 years, rapidly devolved away from being rejectionists of traditional Judaism. These movements have now embraced a new religion with gusto. That religion is commonly called liberalism.
For many years Orthodoxy, in theory, embraced those who affiliated with these large movements, because all Jews are responsible for one another. Orthodox Jews recognized, if begrudgingly, that these movements had appeal for Jews who were Jewishly uneducated, or who couldn’t see themselves leading halakhic lives, or who understood their reservations about the God idea to mean they could not affiliate with Orthodox Judaism. To its own discredit, Orthodox Judaism did not and still has not committed itself to discovering more welcoming and appealing models without comprising its principles.
There used to be many common interests and values among Jews of all affiliations and forms of religious observance or lack thereof. A love of Jewish culture, the bond of recent immigrants, clear support for Israel among the laity, common cause against anti-Semitism and discrimination, a respect for ritual and tradition even if not practiced personally or driven by faith, and love of America for the safety and opportunity it offers us as a people. Plus a lot more and so ons and so forths.
This has changed. At least 5 tectonic shifts have unfolded with roaring and escalating energy in the past thirty years, all in the catastrophic range on the Richter Scale.
The first is complete illiteracy about Judaism, including Jewish texts, Jewish thought, Jewish ritual, Jewish history and the Hebrew language. I emphasize complete for all practical purposes. How can anyone have a compelling reason for embracing Judaism and passing it to his or her children if he or she knows approximately nothing? A big part of this illiteracy stems from the minimalism of the Reform, Conservative and Reconstructionist movements.
The second, which follows the first, is the colossal intermarriage rate among non-orthodox Jews. In parallel, the Reform, Conservative and Reconstructionist movements surrendered to intermarriage and then embraced it. Reform and Reconstructionist rabbis and cantors have become “marrying Sams.” The Conservative movement is actively playing catch up on intermarriage right now. The liberal Jewish leadership made this conscious choice, rather than looking in the mirror at their own role and the role of their philosophy in fomenting it.
It’s been easier for them deny their roles, blaming the centrifugal assimilationist forces of freedom, democracy and economic opportunity in the melting pot of American society. Now, at the end of the line, their claim that embracing intermarriage preserves a chance that the couple will choose a Jewish life has proven to be a statistical farce. It may bolster the membership rolls and dues income in the short run, but that will not change the direction of the intermarriage disaster. The traditional position – which is that clergy and lay participation in intermarriage ceremonies weakens Jewish identity by undermining the most basic halakhic norms – has proven true.
The third is that a plurality (soon to be majority) of Jews do not affiliate with any particular movement, do not belong to any synagogue, do not give charity to any Jewish organization and – let’s face it – do not meaningfully participate in Jewish life at all, publically or personally. Preceding this, almost all are
from families who affiliated with the Reform, Conservative and Reconstructionist movements, whose lay and rabbinic leadership cannot bear to look themselves in the mirror. Indeed, the leadership has doubled down on their lemming march off a cliff.
The fourth is the collapse in support for Israel among the Reform, Conservative and Reconstructionist leadership and laity, ranging from indifference to outright hostility. While those hostile manage to make a lot of noise, sometimes under a Jewish banner and sometimes not, it is the indifference among the laity that is far more widespread and consequential. This is a sea change, reflecting the dissipation of Jewish identity that inevitably follows Jewish illiteracy and assimilation.
And of course the fifth is the whole hog embrace of the religion of contemporary liberalism by the Reform, Conservative and Reconstructionist movements. So much of liberalism is so at odds with traditional Judaism it’s hard to know where to start. Moral relativism; multiculturalism, atheism; the rejection of religion; globalism; the elevation of the group over the individual; the exchange of inherent, natural, God-given rights for the idea of man-determined, government-conferred rights; the inversion of private property rights; the preciousness and even the existence of the soul. This is on top of contemporary liberalism’s rejection of the American idea (which has much in common with traditional Jewish outlook) and its vehement denial of the nature of islam.
One liberal value worth separate note is the diminution of not only the traditional family but of the concept of family itself. The ghoulish consequence is a radically low birthrate among liberal Jews, well below the replacement rate and among the very lowest of any ethnic or religious group in the United States.
The result of these 5 tectonic shifts, and others, is a tsunami of self-immolation. With its high intermarriage rate and low birthrate, American Judaism is right now in a demographic free fall. The Jewish communal structure serving and supporting the non-orthodox and orthodox alike is dramatically contracting or dissolving. JCCs, Federations, synagogues, temples, youth movements, Hillels, fraternal organizations, sororal organizations and advocacy groups face imminent closure or struggle for redefinition in order to survive and offer relevance. While some will note the emergence of a creative alphabet soup of new American Jewish organizations, there is no doubt that the decrease in donations for American Jewish communal life will continue to decline sharply, that the donor base has already shrunk dramatically, and that the number of Jewish constituents to participate and serve is evaporating before our very eyes. We are all the worse for it. Both liberal and religious Jews lose.
When the dust clears, what remains is a large majority and growing Orthodox American Judaism. There will be a sprinkling of Schechter graduates striving to do their thing within the demonstrably unsustainable paradigm bequeathed to them. What’s left of the rapidly contracting Reform, Conservative and Reconstructionist movements will be a residual of social justice warriors and a dwindling intermarried constituency. There will, as always, be those who go off the derekh, many of whom will affiliate with what remains of liberal Jewish movements. Let’s hope a growing percentage of all Jews make aliyah….but don’t count on that. And finally, a well deserved hat tip to the Chabadniks, who will continue to remarkably chug along.
If I may make some belated suggestions, necessarily broad brush, incomplete and not likely to be widely adopted. Hope springs eternal.
To Reconstructionist and Reform rabbis, cantors and educators, put Judaism first and foremost and social action second. If you believe that Judaism calls us to social action of a particular orientation, why do you suppose that calling can continue without knowledge and understanding of the theology-philosophy-texts-history-heritage that generates the mission in the first place?
To the Reform, illuminate the small and as yet ineffectual rumblings within the movement for an increased emphasis on ritual. I urge an added step: Teach Jewish obligations. You might be surprised how many people are inspired by them and how few flee if you discuss them.
To the Conservative rabbis, cantors and educators, oy vey. Lead your membership. Stop following and don’t lead from behind. Teach Torah for what it is trying to say to us, rather than intellectualizing its origins and historical context. Highlight its sweet beauty and deep mussar rather than endlessly offering revisionist critique. Geez, who would want to be a part of a movement whose own adherents afflict its religion with continuous criticism and unceasing revision?
To the Orthodox rabbis, cantors and educators of all stripes, I will quote my own rabbi: “How bad does it have to get before us Orthodox rabbis declare an emergency? Who said that Orthodox rabbis should be rabbis only to Orthodox Jews?”
Considering the pace at which we are losing Jewish neshamas forever, would it kill you to carve out some time for depth of engagement with the broader Jewish community – the local Federation, JCC, JCRC, Hillel and the like? It is really best for the Jews for you to leave kiruv, outreach, to Chabad and Aish HaTorah, terrific as they may be? Your dearth of initiative was a large factor in the creation of the recent non-Orthodox splinterette, often called Open Judaism. Why does this not catalyze a reckoning?
As a first step, build upon existing Orthodox models of welcoming shuls. There are some good ones out there to learn from, with successful track records. Make it widely and proudly known that your shuls are there for all Jews regardless of background. Foster among your congregants an earnest welcoming when less observant families or singles come into the building, for that is the way of true erlicher Yidden. Run a concurrent learning service on Shabbat mornings. In addition to Talmud study, offer classes and programs accessible for Jews elsewhere on the sulam. You’ll see your communities profoundly enriched by such efforts.
With all the upsides and issues of Orthodox hegemony in American Jewish life, I speak for most by saying we’d rather have our Jews back. With profound regret, millions of Jewish souls are being lost to the Jewish future. Many Jews are being misled away from their rightful inheritance by the liberal Jewish leadership. Many Jews are choosing to give it up on their own. And, at this stage of the game, many are neither being led nor making a choice. They just don’t care.
I assert all this with great sadness. Yes, there are counterpoints to much of what I’ve written above, there is a wealth of data to cite and there is a lot to talk about. Still, the direction is clear, tragic and undeniable. Most American Jewish institutions will collapse. The liberal American Jewish population will continue to shrink dramatically while Orthodoxy continues to grow. The American Jewish future is Orthodox.
(Martin Ingall is the father of three children and one grandchild. He is the President of Technology Information Corporation and previously served as a lobbyist at AIPAC. Prior to making aliyah, he was a member of Beth Sholom Congregation and Har Tzeon Congregation in Maryland. He grew up in suburban Boston, where his parents played leadership roles at Temple Beth Elohim.)