This native Nu Yorka makes no claims to being prophetic, but if someone had asked me 25 years ago to predict the demographic profile of the Jewish community of New York City in the future I could have nailed it. The UJA-Jewish Federation of New York recently published the findings of an in-depth demographic profile of their community; the results are enlightening but not surprising.
Some of the key findings of the study include: After decades of losing population, the NY metro Jewish community is growing again. It now stands at 1.1 million. That growth is in large measure attributable to Haredi Jews (Hasidim/Yeshiva world) who shun birth control. Orthodox Jews of all stripes, modern, centrist and Haredi now make up the majority of Jews in city itself. The number of Reform and Conservative affiliated Jews continues to decline while the number of Jews who don’t identify with any religious denomination continues to grow.
The Haredi world’s disapproval for higher education has resulted in the New York City Jewish community becoming significantly less educated and is experiencing an ever higher level of poverty. The increase in poverty poses a real challenge to the Federation and Jewish social service agencies which have for decades depended upon well-educated, affluent New York Jews to support the annual campaign. A poorer community means less in the way of donations and a greater demand for human services.
But what is the significance and implications of the continuing slide in the number of people affiliated with non-Orthodox synagogues that we are seeing not only in New York, but across North America?
As a serious, observant Conservative Jew myself, I realized decades ago that the vast majority of people affiliated with Conservative synagogues didn’t really have a clue what Conservative Judaism was all about. So why did a majority of American Jews in the mid 20th century affiliate with Conservative synagogues? There are many possible answers to that question:
1st and 2nd generation American Jews wanted to belong to non-Orthodox synagogues that had a traditional flavor. (Bare-headed men and church-like choirs and organs in Reform “temples” scared more people away from Reform Judaism than anything else.)
People joined Conservative synagogues because of geography: synagogues were conveniently located with lots of parking! People may have joined because the liked the rabbi; they liked the mixed seating, they wanted their daughter to have a Bat Mitzvah.
And while not necessarily observant, many 1st and 2nd generation American Jews appreciated the more traditional, predominantly Hebrew services of Conservative synagogues.
Conservative synagogues have been abandoned in recent decades by 3 groups of former affiliates:
1. Now that Reform services have incorporated many traditional elements, many people who grew up in Conservative synagogues feel as much if not more comfortable in Reform temples where religious services tend to quite a bit shorter and can be just as meaningful for someone who indifferent about whether or not Musaf or a full Torah reading is part of Shabbat morning services.
2. Many non-practicing, a-spiritual Jewish adults who grew up in Conservative synagogue feel no inclination to belong to any religious institution as adults.
3. Former Ramah campers and USY’ers who want to be a part of more observant communities, have opted for membership in either Orthodox shuls or non-denominational independent minyanim.
Does the fact that the Conservative movement has fewer members today than 50 years ago suggest that it has failed in its mission to nurture observant, traditional Judaism that has the capacity to make appropriate changes in doctrine and practice based on changes in society? No. The loss in membership has little or nothing to do with doctrine or theology.
If I had to identify the number one cause for the ever decreasing membership in the non-Orthodox world it would be the failure to create vibrant, vital, passionate communities of practicing Jews. The proof for this thesis? How many kids from non-observant, Conservative affiliated families have willingly and joyfully participated in USY and Camp Ramah programs over the years at which they were required pray 3 times a day, observe Kashruth and keep Shabbat? If you’ve ever attended a USY convention or visited a Camp Ramah during the summer, you can attest to the existence of flourishing, happy, but unfortunately, all too temporary observant Conservative Jewish communities.
Make no mistake about it, if the Conservative movement could have provided its children with the kind of year-round experiences that they had in the movement’s youth programs, the movement would be 50% larger today instead of being 25% smaller. Speaking as a former USY professional, I know all too well how successful we were at turning our kids on to being observant Jews for a few hours, days or weeks only to send them home to lives that for the most part, did not include spiritual, positive daily Jewish experiences. Conservative Judaism didn’t fail them; their enthusiasm for Jewish tradition was suffocated by family and social realities beyond their control.
So should schools not bother teaching a child about good nutrition if we know that he or she is going home to an unhealthy diet of fatty meats, excessive amounts of carbohydrates and sugary drinks and snacks?
Orthodox Judaism is not flourishing exclusively because its membership is intellectually committed to a fixed-finite approach to Jewish law and tradition. It is flourishing because it has the capacity to effectively address the basic human need for meaningful spiritual experiences in communities where values and practices are reinforced by family, friends and neighbors.
Take it from me, it’s hard making Shabbat by yourself. It’s hard experiencing God, Torah and tradition in communities devoid of other people who are not on the same spiritual plane as you.
The answer? For non-Orthodox Judaism in general and Conservative Judaism in particular to flourish, we must create observant communities of like-minded people for whom liberal Judaism is a way of life, 24/7. Those committed communities may be established through havurot in our synagogues or independent minyanim in our communities.
Yes, serious non-Orthodox Jews need to come to terms with the fact that our high affiliation rates of decades ago were disingenuous, they were not a reflection anything we were doing right, but a reflection of the journey that so many of our brothers and sisters were on in trying to reconcile the traditional Jewish world of the immigrant experience with modern life in America.
Given a choice, we should be appreciative of the fact that while we may no longer be able to extol quantitative successes, we have much in the way of quality successes to build upon. For example, while 50 years ago, only a tiny single digit percentage of Conservative affiliated homes were kosher or Sabbath observant, we can should celebrate the ever-increasing numbers of families who are incorporating Jewish traditions and practices into family life.
I, for one, welcome the potential of non-Orthodox synagogues changing from their primary historical role of being way-stations for less religiously inclined people on a generational journey to becoming “Jewish by genealogy only,” into becoming possibly smaller, but much more successful, thriving spiritual communities of enthusiastic, committed, practicing Jews.
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