Monday, February 21, 2011

The Decline of Conservative and Reform Judaism

Anyone following trends in Jewish affiliation, as I do, should read the following two pieces in the Forward describing the double-digit declines in attendance for American Conservative and Reform Jewish congregations over the past decade.

Liberal Denominations Face Crisis as Rabbis Rebel, Numbers Shrink
The Theological Roots of Reform Judaism’s Woes

I think the numbers speak for themselves, and the causes of decline, well known by many, are sufficiently elaborated on in the articles to exempt me from having to risk offending anyone's sensitivities. There is an unfortunate tendency among some in Orthodox and Hassidic circles to wax triumphantly over the decline in membership being experienced by more "liberal" denominations, particularly when contrasted with the growth of more observant communities. Partly, this is a reflection of and retribution for the low regard and disrespect with which many in Reform and Conservative communities have long treated their more observant coreligionists.

Such denominational factionalism and institutional competition, while understandable and often based on legitimate theological disagreements and long-standing grievances, misses the point. Some Jews leaving Reform congregations may gravitate towards more observant communities, but many, out of frustration, a lack of basic Jewish education of sheer indifference, are opting out of expressions of faith altogether. In no way can this be considered a positive outcome from any Jewish perspective that I'm aware of, to say nothing of Orthodox or Hassidic philosophy and values.

Observant Jews need to waste less time comforting themselves that the Reform and unaffiliated will "breed themselves out", as a trusted friend and Rabbi once told me, in a moment of uncharacteristic insensitivity, and do more to help reach out to Jews who, through a lack of proper education or circumstance, have not been given an opportunity to understand and express their faith in a way that's meaningful to them. Knowledgeable people don't need a lecture about their responsibilities towards fellow Jews (anyone who needs a lecture can email me directly). So, instead, for those who are listening, I'll make a renewed call to action and a note of encouragement, paraphrasing the Lubavitcher Rebbe, that words that come from the heart enter the heart.

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