A Conversation about the Relevancy of Denominations and 21st Century American Jews

by Robert I. Evans and Avrum D. Lapin

Do lines really matter today between the various denominations of Judaism? That was the out-front question debated by four prominent rabbis in front of over 250 attendees at a panel discussion last week convened by the Philadelphia Board of Rabbis and moderated by Temple University Professor Lila Berman.

Top U.S. rabbinic leaders participated in a lively two-hour dialogue: Rabbi Rick Jacobs, new President of the Union for Reform Judaism; Rabbi Steven Wernick, Executive Vice President and CEO of United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism; Rabbi Dan Ehrenkrantz, President of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College; and Rabbi Michael Balinsky, Executive Vice President of the Chicago Board of Rabbis, representing the Orthodox perspective.

“I think denominations do matter. I think they matter a lot,” Rabbi Wernick began, explicating the need to appreciate divisions within the Jewish community as a way of understanding the important aspects of many traditions. “The big questions of existence are, at the end of the day, what it is still all about,” he continued. “What is my purpose? How do I create, find and participate in meaning and express that purpose to add a sense of transcendence to my life? Ultimately, denominations, certainly in the modern experience, are different pathways that answer those questions.”

Rabbi Ehrenkrantz respectfully disagreed: “There are no dividing lines today. We are all part of a Jewish community in a meaningful way.” He went on to describe his position as embodying the Reconstructionist belief that there should be “an entree to Jewish life for pretty much anybody who wishes to associate themselves in some way with the Jewish community.”

In his opinion, whatever level of participation an individual chooses should be recognized as a meaningful expression of Jewish life and they should be welcomed with open arms as a part of the “Jewish adventure.”

“For the health of the American Jewish community, it is important to have various options,” Rabbi Balinsky agreed. “The lines between denominations are real for rabbis but less real for the average congregant.”

The polite, rational and reasonably passionate responses from each rabbi reflected the diversity of today’s American Jewish community, and revealed that priorities tend to differ based on the specific movement. Eventually, the conversation turned to the topic of authenticity, both on the individual and denominational level.

“Human beings are looking for authenticity, and they will be the arbiters of what is authentic to them,” Rabbi Wernick enthusiastically explained. “Our job as leaders of a broad and diverse Jewish community is to provide meaningful portals of opportunity for people to find their authentic expression of their Judaism.”

“There are many authentic ways to live in a Jewish world,” Rabbi Jacobs affirmed, likening the different denominations of Judaism to different flowers within a verdant field. “I want the garden of Jewish life to have beauty and authenticity and we need more gardeners.”

Each Rabbi responded to the large questions at hand with eloquent and well-reasoned answers. However, two additional issues captivated the discussion throughout the evening: Chabad and dealing with the very large group of unaffiliated Jews. These two components of today’s Jewish community were not openly represented in the dialogue, but commanded much interest.

While the U.S. Jewish community frequently bemoans that the intermarriage rate hovers around 50%, congregational affiliation is lagging and synagogue attendance is low (especially in the Reform and Conservative arenas), Chabad’s popularity seems to be growing rapidly. Each of the rabbis on the panel alluded to the impact Chabad is making, especially on college and university campuses across the U.S. and in almost every community.

“Put up the money to bring people to observe Jewish life on campus and to make funds available to engage those not yet inspired,” charged Rabbi Galinsky, following an observation from Rabbi Jacobs that “the largest growing pool of Jews in America is the unaffiliated.”

All of the four rabbis were careful to avoid direct confrontations, and they were all united by inferring that the American Jewish community today is in a transitional phase.

“We can partner across (denominational) lines,” Rabbi Jacobs reiterated, calling on all aspects of American Jewish life to “cooperate and to understand each other.”

Event attendees represented the broad spectrum of involvement in Jewish life and the comments made by the crowd both during and following the panel discussions ranged from the cynical (“This was really only a photo opportunity!”) to somewhat optimistic (“Much food for thought.”)

The challenge to all aspects of American Jewish life is clearly one of engagement. More involvement will generate greater levels of philanthropy, a topic not even broached during the two hours of discussions. But we make these observations about the content from the panelists with the only real disappointments of the evening: few tangible agendas; a reluctance to tackle controversial issues; no real call to action; and all argued very passionately.

Stay tuned!

Robert I. Evans, Managing Director, and Avrum D. Lapin, Director, are principals of The EHL Consulting Group, of suburban Philadelphia, and are frequent contributors to eJewishPhilanthropy.com. EHL Consulting works with dozens of nonprofits on fundraising, strategic planning, and non-profit business practices. Become a fan of The EHL Consulting Group on Facebook; TWITTER: @EHLConsultGrp