|Reform Rabbi Ammiel Hirsch (Stephan Wise Free Synagogue)|
“I don’t care what denomination you belong to, as long as you’re embarrassed by it.”
I hear that. Although I like to think my version of Modern Orthodoxy (Centrism) has the least to be embarrassed about, the hard truth is that all three major denominations have much to be embarrassed about. As often noted here.
The focus of this story was a recent conference of Reform Jews about a movement that appears to be at a crisis point:
In his keynote, Rabbi Ammiel Hirsch, senior rabbi of Stephen Wise Free Synagogue and one of the key planners of the conference, underscored those concerns:
What brings most of us here and now is a sense of urgency that we are at an inflection point in the history of North American Jewry and the Reform movement. That fundamental and rapid changes are unfolding before our eyes that have already and will increasingly challenge our vitality and well-being.
This story reveals a few interesting facts about where the Reform movement is, where it is going and what it should do.
One of the things I noticed is that contrary to popular belief, it seems their numbers are not growing but shrinking. I was surprised to see that. I has assumed they were growing - but since their definition of a Jew departs from the traditional definition - their growth was based on fiction rather than fact. But it appears that even under their own expanded definition motivated by the desire to enlarge their ‘tent’ - they are still shrinking.
This makes the trend of exponential growth of Orthodox Jews even more significant. While the notion that Orthodoxy is growing is often challenged by the fact that most of it is internal due to a high birth rate - that doesn’t change the fact that Orthodoxy is growing by leaps and bounds. All while the rest of American Jewry is shrinking by leaps and bounds.
As I’ve said in the past, we shouldn’t be patting ourselves on the back about this. This is not an occasion to gloat. On the contrary, the decline in the number of non Orthodox Jews in this country is staggering.
This is tragic. In the not too distant future what was once the quintessential assimilated proud American Jew whose observances were at most minimal - will no longer be. That’s because there is nothing that distinguishes them from their non Jewish neighbors other than to say that social justice is based on Tikun Olam - an originally Jewish concept. Pursuing social justice is not the sole province of the Jewish people. It is a universal good that all caring people pursue.
A few years ago, Reform leadership realized that reality and started encouraging a return to traditional Mitzvah observance albeit a voluntary basis. The motive in doing that was to give their people identifiable characteristics that are uniquely Jewish.
Ironically this is the exact opposite of the movement’s founders. They sought to erase any trace of Jewish identity from the Jewish people and instead to become fully assimilated Americans - living as equals among men. They have been extremely successful in that goal. Which is why so many of them are rapidly disappearing - and why the Reform Movement has changed course.
The conference is filled with suggestions along these lines in order to restore to their people the particularism that makes us who we are as a people.
(Ironically, with respect to Orthodoxy - Chasidim have taken particularism to the extreme and refuse to do anything that will be even remotely assimilationist. Which is why they dress and look the way they do. Meanwhile the extreme left of Modern Orthodoxy has gone the other way chasing down secular cultural values like 21st century feminism and LGBTQ+ issues to the point of minimizing or even rejecting traditional Jewish values. As I always say, extremism rarely has good outcomes. This is true at both ends of the Jewish religious spectrum. But I digress.)
What was notable to me is the following takeaway from the conference:
There is a hunger for Reform Jews — all Jews, actually — to be together, in real time and not as postage-stamp pictures on Zoom. There is a hunger to be in conversation, to study and to even engage in serious disagreement on key issues. The hunger was more palpable than any of us had realized.
This hunger is something that has been intuited by Orthodox outreach groups like Aish, Chabad, and NCSY. The modern assimilated American Jew no longer runs away from the religious ways of his parents and grandparents pursuing instead the American dream. A dream that means becoming fully assimilated and unfettered by Halacha. These are the grandchildren and great grandchildren of that generation who are ignorant about their Jewish heritage. They simply do not know enough about it to even try to find out what it is. They simply don’t care and don’t want to know.
Apparently there is some hunger out there by more than a few secular Jews that are seeking more meaning in their lives. This is a god sign. Something that the Reform Movement is grappling with.
Doing something about it may very well determine the future viability of Reform Judaism as a viable movement. None of this should be lost on those of us who care about fellow Jews. It is not unheard of for a Reform Jew to seek more than what his denomination can give him. to find it in Orthodoxy. I know a few people like that.
This is where Orthodoxy comes in. I think it is safe to say that most Orthodox outreach groups realize this and doing the best they can to reach out to as many of these Jews as they can. But in my view we need to all get involved.
We cannot afford to be isolationist and live in closed off societies the purpose of which is to prevent any semblance of secular culture from seeping into our lives. There is too much at stake to be that selfish. Besides not all of secular culture is evil. Much of it is quite appropriate Jewishly - even as some of it is not.
But even if you don’t feel that way, we nevertheless need to be proactive by integrating with secular Jews. Without preaching to them, we need to live together in the same community and become role models of Jewish behavior. I believe that we can do a lot of good that way.
One thing for sure, we cannot afford to leave this task to the Reform movement. Orthodox Judaism does not accept their voluntary form of Judaism. And in any case, they do not have a great track record in this endeavor.
It is up to us. Are we up to the task?