When the German-Amerika Society in Bad Segeberg asked me to address them on the History of American Jewish Life and prospects for the future, I responded:
I can do a credible job of reviewing the history of Jewish life in America, but the future comes with a question mark.
The official outlook—as the widely publicized two-year-old Pew Study makes clear—is bleak.
While Orthodoxy is growing, and while Orthodox families are producing lots of babies to fuel that growth, non-Orthodox movements—with birthrates at or barely above replacement are shrinking.
The fastest growing “movement” among Americans born Jewish is the “nones,” those who claim no specific religious affiliation.
Change has marked Jewish life since biblical times. I would argue that our ability to change is what has allowed us to survive.
Rabbinic Judaism looked very different from biblical “Judaism” (if that word were even appropriate to describe biblical Israelite religion), Medieval Judaism was different than in the rabbinic period, and the modern period has seen sea changes in the ways Jews live and practice.
The Reform Jewish services that I have witnessed in the past four years in my visits to more than 70 communities in the United States and around the world bears very little resemblance to the Reform Jewish services I attended as a boy in New Jersey.
There is also no doubt that the pace of change is accelerating at comparative warp speed due to the Internet speed at which people can exchange ideas and adapt innovations.
The sociological changes in recent years in non-Orthodox Jewish movements have been huge as well.
The first female rabbi in the American Reform movement, Sally Priesand, was ordained in 1972. I remember not long thereafter a very prominent member of the Hebrew Union college faculty said to me, “No one will ever allow a female rabbi to conduct a funeral.” Now it will not be long before half of our spiritual leaders are female, and they occupy top positions of leadership in non-Orthodox movements and congregations.
The open embrace of gay, lesbian, bi-sexual and transgender Jews into the community has been for me a very welcome development. The head of the Reconstructionist movement and the President of the (Reform) Central Conference of American Rabbis are both lesbians. At last we have proclaimed our understanding and acceptance of the fundamental principle on which all of Jewish life stands:
All of us are created ”in the image of God,” and that only our ability should determine our suitability for leadership roles.
Today most Reform Jews in the United States who marry, marry someone who was not born Jewish. In general people are marrying much later (My average first time bride over the last twenty years has been 31 years old) and having fewer children.
Outreach to attract and welcome non-Jewish partners to our synagogues has been very successful.
Still it is hard to deny (though some try) that the likelihood of raising a Jewish family is far less for a Jew and a non-Jew than it is for two Jews.
Recently the Reconstructionist movement opened its rabbinical school to Jews partnered with non-Jews. The Reform movement also considered this idea, but it has rejected it, at least for the time being. Only ten years ago, such a notion would have been unthinkable.
For the present, one thing is clear, non-Orthodox Jews are staying away from their synagogues.
High Holy Day attendance—once an almost universal given for American Jews—is down markedly nationwide.
Rabbis, Cantors, Educators and Program Directors are striving energetically to create enticing programs and activities. Despite the occasional “special event” that draws a crowd, attendance at “regular” services is far lower than it used to be. As a result many predict—some gleefully—that non-Orthodox Judaism is doomed.
I believe they are wrong.
Surely had their been a “Pew Study” at the time the Romans destroyed the Second Temple or at many junctures in Jewish history our future has looked very bleak.
As recently as the ‘60s LOOK Magazine predicted our demise. As many have noted LOOK is gone, but we have endured. True, the challenges we have overcome in the past are the challenges of oppression. The challenge we face today is one of assimilation and apathy. Everyone prays that it will not take a serious dose of anti-Semitism for us to shake off our lethargy.
What of the future? I have two predictions:
- The practice of Judaism 50 years from now will be very different than it is today for the reasons I have cited above. It may not be the Judaism that nurtured my peers, and me but we will no longer matter.
- Non-Orthodox Judaism will survive and thrive. I believe that the creative minds so hard at work to find the direction for Jewish life that will attract the younger generation will eventually find formulae that work. The younger generation of Jewish leaders is too smart, too committed and too creative for Judaism to ultimately fail.
History is on our side.
On a fundamental level, I believe that the Eternal One still wants us around. The Covenant that launched the way of life that developed into what we now know as Judaism is 4000 years old. If we continue to do all we can to uphold our part, God will not let us down.