Tuesday, June 01, 2021

Conservative Rabbis and Outreach

Inspirational Havdalah ceremony at NCSY
Depressing. That is the only way to describe the latest Pew Research poll (2020) about that  state of American Jewry. The numbers are dismal.  But unfortunately not surprising. As noted in a JNS article by Rabbi Elliot Mathias and Jamie Geller (quoting from the survey): 

“two sharply divergent expressions of Jewishness appear to be gaining ground—one involving religion deeply enmeshed in every aspect of life [i.e. the Orthodox], and the other involving little or no religion at all [i.e. the unaffiliated].” 

Shockingly 27% of those surveyed had no Jewish religious beliefs at all referring to themselves as either ‘atheist, agnostic, or nothing in particular’. At best they might identify as culturally Jewish or Jewish by birth. But in essence lead lives with absolutely no Jewish content. At least none that differ significantly from non Jewish Americans. There is also a slight increase in the number of non Orthodox Jews intermarrying - up from 70% to 72%. 

I believe that by now it has been well established the heterodoxy has not worked. No matter what method was tried by their leaders. The younger the generation, the less likely their Judaism will mean to them. This is not for a lack of trying. If there is no uniquely Jewish content in those attempts there will be no motivation to change in any religiously Jewish way.  

The question then remains the same as it has been since this decline in numbers was first noticed in a major way back in 2013: What can we do about it?

I know what will work. Jewish education starting at a very young age and lasting at least through high school. Accompanied by willing parental support. Which implies adult education as well. 

What I don’t know is how to get the message across to those that need it. Most of whom aren’t interested. They are quite happy to remain ignorant about their religious heritage – seeing it as irrelevant if not an impediment to their lives and to the times. In some cases seeing religious education as counter to the modern ethos. 

The blessing that is America - is a double edged sword. While it gives us unprecedented freedom to practice our faith, it also gives many of us the freedom remove the ‘shackles of an ancient and irrelevant past’.  

This is of course not to say we shouldn’t try and reach out. We should and we do. There are a lot of organizations that are very good at it. But still - it’s kind of like spitting in the wind. Far more Jews are completely abandoning their religious heritage than are embracing it anew through outreach. 

We need to embrace what makes us unique as the best - if not only - means that will perpetuate our existence as Jews into the future. Which is the opposite of what most American Jews seek . To be no different than any other American. The less observant we are, the more alike we are - Americans that can enjoy the full panoply of what America has to offer. Anything about us that is identifiably Jewish is seen as an impediment to our freedom. And in some cases a contradiction to American cultural values. 

Perhaps it’s time to make a deal with the devil. There are a lot of Conservative rabbis that actually care enough about the future of American Jewry to collaborate with Orthodox outreach groups. I know for a fact that there are Conservative rabbis who are far happier to see a congregant embrace Orthodoxy than they are to see them abandon their Judaism altogether.  

Considering their failure to change the direction in which American Jewry is going with their own innovations, now might be the time to talk to them about getting their youth involved with Orthodox youth groups like NCSY. Which has been relatively successful at convincing their youth to switch from public high schools to religious high schools. Often with parental approval. 

These rabbis may very well be more open to this now than at any other time in the American Jewish history. We may not get all of of their youth to take the plunge. But we will  surely increase the pool of those that might and have the potential for a much greater impact than we have now.   

The bottom line for success is Jewish education. No Jewish denomination has been more successful at it than Orthodoxy. That is in large part why Orthodoxy is bucking the trend of intermarriage or assimilating out. I think the leaders of the Conservative movement would have to acknowledge that if they are honest. 

This of course doesn’t mean that every young Jew that ends up in an Orthodox day school or high school will become observant. It doesn’t even mean that all young people attending such schools that were raised in Orthodox homes will remain observant. Orthodoxy has its own problems there. But there is no doubt about the overall success of Jewish education with respect to perpetuating Judaism. If Pew shows nothing else, it shows we are growing rather than shrinking. 

I say all this knowing how heterodox movements are seen by generations of Orthodox religious leaders. Leaders as disparate as Rav Ahraon Kotler and Rav Solovietchik. They both rejected any religious cooperation with them – which would imply legitimacy. 

But I do not see collaborating with sincere Conservative rabbis for purposes of reaching out to be a form of granting legitimacy. I see it as an Eis La’asos - a time to act. It is a Hora’as Shah with existential overtones.  I don’t see how anyone can look at what is happening to American Jewry in any other way. If anyone knows of one, they sure aren’t sharing it. 

I think there is a lot of complacency among many of our religious leaders about outreach. Not sure exactly why. Maybe its because they don’t see it as important as focusing on our own spiritual development by spending ever more time in Torah study. Maybe they don’t think it is worth sacrificing time in Torah study for purposes of outreach. Maybe they just think its too late and there is nothing we can do about it. Or that collaborating with Conservative rabbis is  too high a price to pay for purposes of outreach. 

But I don’t think we have a choice. The current state of American Judaism is in desperate shape. Failure by dint of not trying to change that is not an option. If we can get Conservative rabbis to join us in that task, it might make all the difference in the world. And maybe the next time a poll like this is taken, the intermarriage rate will show a decrease, while the numbers of observant Jews will show an increase at an even greater rate than now. You never know unless you try.