Wednesday, November 13, 2013

The Sky is Falling

The Future of Judaism - Photo credit: Getty Images via the Forward
It’s all over but the shouting. The Pew Research Center has banged another nail into the coffin of American Jewry. Not all of American Jewry. But all of Jewry that is not Orthodox. No I am not gloating. Nor am I God forbid happy about it. But this is being recognized even by non Orthodox Jewish leaders.

I am not saying that non Orthodox American Jewry is dead. Far from it. Non Orthodox Jewry still contains the lion’s share of Jews by miles. It isn’t about what is. It’s about what will be… the direction we’re going. And it seems to be that except for Orthodox Jewry we are headed for oblivion.

The Forward reports about a revised look at the Pew Report about American Jewry. The revision is in the form of looking at a specific demographic and upping their numbers from the previous estimate. From the Forward: 
The Orthodox population is growing even faster than earlier reports from the Pew Research Center’s recent survey of American Jews suggested. A new analysis of data from Pew finds that 27% of Jews younger than 18 live in Orthodox households. That’s a dramatic jump from Jews aged 18 to 29, only 11% of whom are Orthodox. 
The handwriting is now clearly on the wall.  Look at what non Orthodox leaders are saying about this: 
“Orthodox birthrates in just the last few years have been soaring,” said Jewish sociologist Steven M. Cohen, who requested the new data from Pew. “The sky is falling for the rest of the population.”
“There is a trend afoot, and in the next big population survey like this, we will see the beginning of a switch, whereby Orthodox Jews will eventually likely be the majority of American Jews,” said Sarah Bunin Benor, a professor of Jewish studies at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. She, like Cohen, was a member of the Pew study’s advisory committee. 
Yes, that is the prediction. Orthodox Jews will be in the majority at this rate. Non Orthodox Jews are going in the opposite direction. That can only lead to one place. The end of the Jewish line for millions of American Jews.

The obvious questions are how we got here and where do we go from here? How did Orthodox Jewry whose demise was predicted many decades ago by sociologists end up with such huge growth while the other denominations are ending up with shrinkage?

There are a lot of reasons. One is the high birth rate of Orthodox Jews. Another is that accommodating too much assimilation - which was the approach of heterodox movements - is counter-productive to retaining Jewish identity. These are just two of many reasons. But I think they are important ones.

Both Reform and Conservative leaders know this now and are trying to turn the trend around. But as I have said in the past it’s too little too late. Telling their completely assimilated members to do more Mitzvos - who have no clue what that means or interest in finding out - is not a viable solution in the vast majority of cases.

Even as Orthodox Jewry is growing internally, it has as of yet not been all that successful at growing externally. At least not in any significant number. If I understand correctly there are at least as many Orthodox Jews dropping out of observance as there are Baalei Teshuva (newly observant) coming in.

Some, perhaps many Orthodox Jews might say that since Orthodox Jews are growing so fast and will soon be the majority - why sweat it? The future of Judaism is indeed in the hands of the Orthodox as they continue to write their own destiny. The rest of Jewry, well yes we should try to reach out to them - but realistically we should just write them off.

As I have said in the past I am not one who subscribes to that philosophy. Kol Yisroel Areivm Zeh LaZeh. All of us are responsible for each other. We cannot ignore this spiritual ‘Holocaust’ and allow it to just ‘happen’ without doing something about it. There are a lot of very good outreach organizations that do good work. But they are not enough. There needs to be new initiatives.

There has never been a more opportune time than now to do more. We need new avenues; new approaches. What might those be? I think we need to look at what heterodox leadership is saying and doing now about their dire circumstances.

In the past the ideologues of Reform and Conservative Judaism believed that their philosophies paved the way for Jewish continuity. They believed that participating in matters of Tzedakah and Tikun Olam which they identified as particularly Jewish values would be enough for the non observant to retain their identity as Jews. But charity and Tikun Olam causes like social justice are not the exclusive domain of Judaism. They now seem to realize that.  Both movements now emphasize Mitzvah observance and are even happy to see their members become Orthodox. They consider it a victory of their own outreach.

We ought to seize this opportunity.Instead of fighting them, we ought to partner with them in matters of outreach. Not in any theological sense. But in a practical sense. Not on a stage. But behind the scenes. There are things that we can do together that will encourage Jews to become more observant. Even if that does not mean full observance, it will at least motivate them to identify as Jews… and prevent them from marrying out.

What about the fear of legitimizing other denominations? I don’t think that fear is realistic anymore. And in the face of the spiritual Holocaust we now face I think it is sinful to not utilize every avenue of outreach we can.

Center: Rabbi Rick Jacobs, Head of the Union for Reform Judaism
Along those lines I have to give credit to what Chabad did recently. Chabad leader, Rabbi Yehuda Krinsky invited Rabbi Rick Jacobs, head of the Union for Reform Judaism to their recent Kinus Shiluchim. That is a convention where all their outreach people meet and brainstorm about how to improve upon what they do. I applaud Rabbi Krinsky for inviting Rabbi Jacobs.

Does honoring the head of the Reform Movement by inviting him to their Kinnus Shiluchim legitimize Reform Judaism? I don’t think it does but in any case I’m sure that this is the furthest thing from their minds. They have only one goal. Reaching out to as many Jews as they can to become more observant.. Their success rate speaks for itself.

What about Open Orthodoxy? As I've said in the past among the problems I have with them - I believe they go way too far in their interactions with heterodox movements. And their penchant for pushing the envelope of Halacha as far left as possible to accommodate sociological trends puts them in philosophical if not theological harmony with the Conservative movement. It is therefore hard not to see them as theologically allied to - and thus approving of views we consider Apikursus. It is one thing to work with them. It is another to get up on a stage and publicly embrace them as religious equals.

That said, I think Open Orthodoxy has a better sense of the need to reach out to fellow Jews than does the rest of Orthodoxy. They want to do more and are finding unorthodox ways of doing it. (No pun intended.) While I don’t agree with their methods, I agree with their motives and applaud their sense of Arvus – their sense of responsibility for their fellow Jew. This is missing from far too many other branches of Orthodoxy.

Which reminds me of something I have mentioned many times: The book jointly written by Orthodox Rabbi Yosef Reinman and Reform Rabbi Amiel Hirsch. Referring to the one and only appearance they made together promoting the book, Rabbi Reinman said that he felt he was connecting to a world of Reform Jews that he would never otherwise encounter. But he was told by members of the Agudah Moetzes to cease and desist as that was tantamount to legitimizing the Reform Movement. I did not see it that way. And with respect, I thought their decision was a mistake. It ended a tremendous opportunity for outreach.

All segments of Orthodoxy ought to re-think how to reach out to our fellow Jews so we can stop - and perhaps reverse the 70% intermarriage rate. If we don’t do something big, I think we will have a lot to answer for in the world to come.