Scattered Sunshine with Pew Clouds: The URJ Biennial Forecast

Demography is not destiny and the results of the Pew survey are a cloud, not a rainstorm.

by Leonard Saxe and Fern Chertok

As thousands of Reform Jews gather this week in San Diego for the 2013 Biennial of the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ), the assembly is no doubt thinking about the recently released Pew Research Center’s Portrait of U.S. Jewry. We expect that many are confused. The study simultaneously documents the strength of Reform Judaism in contemporary America and its weaknesses.

The positive news is that Pew confirms that American Jewry is larger than some skeptics had imagined and that, among the growing population, Reform Jews comprise the largest denominational group. Thirty-five percent of those considered to be Jewish by Pew identify as Reform. Reform Jews are also near-universal in their pride of being Jewish and the vast majority have a strong “sense of belonging to the Jewish People.” Although controversial to some, another cause for celebration is that the Reform movement has made Judaism relevant for the 50% of their community that are part of intermarried families. The vast majority of these families are raising their children Jewishly.

The Pew findings, however, also suggest a host of concerns. Reform Jews are distinctive from other denominationally-identified Jews in terms of their low level of Jewish engagement. Perhaps the finding that should give Biennial participants greatest pause is that synagogue – the building block of the movement – is not central for the vast majority of American Reform Jews. Only one-third belong to a synagogue, and even among members, perhaps only half participate even monthly.

Apparently, many contemporary Reform Jews interact with a synagogue only sporadically, when they have a particular need, such as a life-cycle event. It is not as though they are engaging in Jewish practices outside of the synagogue and, for example, only 10% of Reform Jews typically light Shabbat candles. For many, their temple is the place to engage in Jewish ritual, but since most Reform Jews do not regularly go to a synagogue, Jewish practice is not a normative part of their lives. Perhaps most troubling is that nearly half of those who were raised in the Reform movement no longer identify with the movement.

The Pew data include several findings which explain the dynamic. A central finding is that Reform Jews do not view being Jewish as “mainly” a matter of religion, but rather of ancestry and culture. It should not be surprising, therefore, that membership and engagement with a synagogue – the home of ritual practice – is not a priority. For many Reform Jews, universal values, such as leading an ethical life and working for justice are the essential components of their Jewishness. A synagogue is not seen as essential or even integral to enacting these aspects of their Jewish identity.

At the Biennial, creative and thoughtful ideas will likely be discussed about how synagogues can become more relevant to the unaffiliated and more engaging for their members. There is certainly a need for this kind of problem solving. As students of the Jewish community, and as participant observers, we think however that more dramatic change is needed. A new paradigm that focuses on developing life-long Jewish engagement with synagogue walls lowered so as not to be a barrier.

Perhaps the most successful arm of the Reform movement is summer camps. The lesson of camps is that the heart of Jewish life is the kahal – the community that learns, lives and grows together. It is not just a lesson that applies to children. If Reform Jews are voting with their checkbooks not to be part of synagogues, then we need to develop other opportunities for intensive engagement with Jewish life. Whether it is programs to make Shabbat a joyous and restful separation from our 24/7 lifestyle to short-term intensive programs that help individuals experience Jewish life and community, we need to shift the focus away from membership and toward engagement. Membership, perhaps, should be the byproduct of these efforts.

For many Reform Jews, their Jewish identity seems much like the kippah that is taken from a box at the synagogue door and returned as on the way out. Their Jewish identity is only relevant a few times a year and when they are in the synagogue. For those of us who believe that Jewish heritage and culture are worth preserving, Jewish identity – even for those who are the most ardent supporters of individual choice – needs to be a central part of their everyday life. Liberal Jews may have a different theological stance than more traditional Jews, but they also need to find ways to be engaged emotionally, behaviorally and intellectually, with Jewish life and identity.

Demography is not destiny and the results of the Pew survey are a cloud, not a rainstorm. The Pew data prompt us to think about new ways to ensure the vibrancy of Jewish life in America. As Reform leaders gather this week, perhaps a starting point is to think about Abraham and Sarah’s tent. Midrash tells us that it was a structure with numerous entrances so that travelers approaching from any direction would easily find their way inside.

Leonard Saxe (saxe@brandeis.edu) and Fern Chertok (fchertok@brandeis.edu) Cohen Center, Brandeis University