For many years Orthodox Jews recognized, if begrudgingly, that the Reform, Conservative and Reconstructionist movements had appeal for Jews who were religiously uneducated or did not affirm Jewish law, or whose agnosticism meant discomfort with traditional Judaism. To its own discredit, Orthodox Judaism still has not committed itself to discovering more welcoming models without comprising its principles.
There used to be many common values among Jews of all affiliations. A love of Jewish culture, the bond of recent immigrants, clear support for Israel, common cause against anti-Semitism, a respect for ritual even if not practiced personally, and love of America for its liberty, acceptance and opportunity. Little of this endures.
At least 5 tectonic shifts have occurred, all catastrophic on the Richter Scale.
First is near complete illiteracy about Judaism, including Jewish texts, thought, ritual, history and Hebrew. How can anyone have a compelling reason for embracing Judaism and passing it to his children if he knows approximately nothing? A big part of this illiteracy stems from the minimalism of the three movements.
Second is the colossal intermarriage rate among non-orthodox Jews. The three 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. The leadership made this conscious choice, rather than looking in the mirror at the foment caused by their own roles and philosophies. It’s been easier to blame the assimilationist pull of the American melting pot.
The claim that embracing intermarriage encourages couples to choose a Jewish life has proven a statistical farce, although it may bolster membership and dues in the short run. Indeed, the leadership has doubled down on their lemming march off a cliff even though the traditional position — that participation in intermarriage ceremonies weakens Jewish identity — has proven true.
Third is disaffiliation. A plurality (soon to be majority) of Jews do not join any synagogue, do not give charity to Jewish causes and — let’s face it — do not meaningfully participate in Jewish life at all, publically or personally. Almost all are from families who affiliated with the three movements.
Fourth is the collapse in support for Israel among the three movements’ leadership and laity. While those hostile manage to make a lot of noise, it is the widespread indifference among the laity that is far more consequential. This dissipation of fidelity inevitably follows Jewish illiteracy, assimilation and disaffiliation.
Fifth is the whole hog conversion to the religion of contemporary liberalism. In the last 30 years, the three movements rapidly devolved away from being rejectionists of traditional Judaism. For some time they have embraced their new religion, liberalism, with gusto.
So much of liberalism is so at odds with traditional Judaism it’s hard to know where to start. Moral relativism; multiculturalism; rejection of religion; globalism; elevation of the group over the individual; exchange of God-given rights for government-conferred rights; inversion of private property; casting aside the preciousness of every soul. This is on top of contemporary liberalism’s rejection of the American idea 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 the Jews of liberalism, well below the replacement rate and among the very lowest of any ethnic or religious group in the United States.
These 5 tectonic shifts have led to a tsunami of self-immolation. With its high intermarriage rate and low birthrate, American Judaism is now in a demographic free fall.
The Jewish communal structure is dramatically contracting. JCCs, Federations, synagogues, youth movements, Hillels, social service organizations and advocacy groups face closure or struggle for relevance. Donations for American Jewish communal life will continue to decline sharply. The donor base has already shrunk dramatically and the number of Jewish constituents to participate and serve is evaporating before our very eyes. Both liberal and religious Jews lose.
When the dust clears, what remains is a large majority and high birth rate Orthodox American Judaism. What’s left of the rapidly contracting liberal movements will be a residual of social justice warriors, a dwindling intermarried constituency and, as always, lapsed Orthodox Jews. We dream of a growing percentage of all Jews moving to Israel … but don’t count on that.
If I may make some belated suggestions, broad brush, incomplete and unlikely to be widely adopted. Hope springs eternal.
To the rabbis, cantors and educators of all three liberal movements, rather than emphasizing social action and critique of Judaism, make it personal. For those among you who believe in the God of Israel, foster a personal relationship between your congregants and God. Highlight texts that teach about family, modesty and relations between man and his neighbors. Reveal the time honored centrality in Judaism of personal conduct, prayer and Israel.
Telling congregants that a good Jew advocates for abortion, welfare, gun control, feminism, gay rights, gender fluidity, business regulation, socialized medicine, affirmative action and immigration isn’t working for the Jewish future. Have you noticed? If you sing a new tune perhaps a few Jews will be salvaged from their otherwise inevitable drift to Jewish oblivion.
To the Reconstructionist and Reform, put Judaism 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 of the theology-texts-history-heritage that generates the mission in the first place?
To the Reform, 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 leadership, stop following and start leading. Teach Torah for what it is trying to say to us, rather than intellectualizing its origins and historical context. Highlight its profound lessons rather than endless revisionist critique. Who would want to be a part of a movement that afflicts its own 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?”
Would it kill you to carve out time for the broader Jewish community? Is it best for you to leave 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.
As a first step, enrich your communities by proudly broadcasting you are there for all Jews regardless of background. Encourage congregants to earnestly welcome less observant families and singles. That is the way of a refined Jew. Run a concurrent learning service on Shabbat mornings. In addition to Talmud study, offer classes and programs accessible for Jews elsewhere on the ladder.
With all the upsides and issues of Orthodox hegemony in American Jewish life, we’d rather have our Jews back. With profound regret, millions of Jewish souls are being lost to the Jewish future. Many are being misled from their rightful inheritance and many are dropping it on their own. And many are neither being led nor making a choice. They just don’t care.
I assert all this with great sadness. There are counterpoints, 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 President of Technology Information Corporation. He holds an M.A. in Middle East Economics and International Business Policy from Harvard University. Prior to moving to Israel, he was a member of Beth Sholom Congregation and Har Tzeon Congregation in Maryland. He was bar mitzvahed at Temple Beth Elohim near Boston.