The Future of Liberal Judaism: Reflections and Recommendations

Congregants reading Torah at Adas Israel Congregation in Washington.

By Steven Windmueller, Ph.D.

As the Reform Movement holds its 74th Biennial in Boston and as the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism convenes this week in Atlanta, it affords an opportunity to examine the state of non-Orthodox Judaism on this continent.

These gatherings take place in the shadow of some significant and disturbing data on the state of religion in America. The fall-off in membership, the aging of mainline religious supporters, and the corresponding rise in religious “nones” represent some of the striking indicators of this religious free-fall among younger Jewish constituencies, posing challenges for our respective liberal movements.

In light of these striking changes to the American Jewish religious space, a national consultation focusing on the future of liberal Judaism is in order. There needs to be a collective discussion regarding the state and status of our respective movements: Conservative, Renewal, Reconstructionism, and Reform. This is the moment where a new model of collaborative engagement ought to be considered.

Setting the Background:

The data among Protestant mainline congregations is indeed striking and instructive. Since the 1950s, mainline churches have represented just one-fifth of all Protestant congregations. In the past fifty years, mainline church membership has dropped by more than one-quarter to roughly 20 million people.

Demographics suggest that the mainline churches may be on the precipice of a period of decline unless remedial steps are taken. For instance, in the past decade there has been a 22% drop in the percentage of adults attending mainline congregations who have children under the age of 18 living in their homes…

The numerical decline is also related to the relative difficulty that mainline churches have experienced in attracting young adults. For instance, young adults (25 or younger) are 6% of the national population, they are just one-third as many (2%) of all adults attending mainline churches. At the other end of the age continuum, the statistics show that about one-quarter (27%) of American adults are 60 or older, but more than one-third of mainline attenders (35%) are 60-plus.”[1]

Will the equivalent saga be the historical path of “mainline” Judaism? The Pew Study of 2013 and other supporting data offer a problematic and challenging assessment of the state of Jewish religion in America. Steven M. Cohen’s study on the future of liberal Judaism in America matches up with the more generic Pew Study findings on Religion in America.

Some years ago on these pages I addressed the subject of American Jewish denominationalism. The ideas put forward in that statement remain in place, and many of the principles for transformation as described in that article have merit in connection with this proposal.

The Current Challenge:

We are reminded that “movements,” and for that matter religious institutions in general, were designed to be vehicles for permitting our congregants the access points to express their Jewishness. And indeed our synagogues and schools in this nation have succeeded over the past one hundred and fifty years to assist Jews in articulating their personal and collective religious expressions. This has been no small accomplishment, as our seminaries and umbrella synagogue organizations have served these past generations of our people, helping them to construct a viable and dynamic collective Jewish experience. As the religious economy expanded, we as a community benefited from the competitive presence of multiple institutional options, where American Jews have enjoyed an array of choices. Liberal Judaism, with its many different expressions, including the Conservative, Reconstructionist, Reform, and Renewal movements, would flourish in a society that could afford to accommodate families and individuals with a range of alternative ritual and cultural expressions.

Today, the luxury of these 20th century options is no longer to our advantage. We are the inheritors of a bifurcated system of multiple, even duplicative forms of liberal Jewish offerings that may no longer be structurally and economically viable. More significant, so what does liberal Judaism stand for?

Indeed, over the years numbers of articles related to the issues of liberal Judaism have appeared on these pages, including more recent commentaries, by Rabbi Sid Schwarz and others.

The Generational Factor:

As intermarriage rates rise and as synagogue memberships decline, we are confronting a different, yet challenging environment. Millennials have a very different perspective on religion, affiliation, membership and organizational relationships than previous American generational cohorts. These pressing social factors ought to empower us to reimagine what framework can best serve our 21st century constituencies. In connection with these new realities, we are the beneficiaries of the American church experience and the behavior of the broader marketplace, where institutional transformation is the norm. The religious institutions that would be introduced to American audiences in the 19th and 20th century are simply not designed to serve the new constituencies of the 21st century.

Reinventing Liberal Judaism:

Indeed, all is not lost, quite to the contrary, the reservoir of institutional resources, the presence of creative and visionary leaders, and the inherent good will of thousands of synagogue members will, I believe, support new models of Jewish religious expression. However, without examining new initiatives to renew non-Orthodox Judaism on this continent, we will be witness to a patchwork of institutional practice, leading to further decline and ultimately to the possible demise of some of the core components of this experiment in Jewish liberal religious culture, a condition not radically different from what is unfolding within Protestant America.

The issues before us must not be seen as merely a structural reinvention of liberal Judaism. More immediate and compelling will be the messages we seek to convey as a religious tradition in a world that finds itself in profound pain and uncertainty. In this environment, are we able to continue to touch the lives of those who are already aligned with the mission of liberal Judaism? Further, are we also able to reach out to those who describe themselves as religious “seekers,” men and women sitting outside of these formal religious networks, who are exploring a range of spiritual ideas and modalities of faith in search of personal meaning? As the liberal voices of North American Jewry, do we have something compelling to share with 21st Jews?

On a number of occasions within American history, this society has experienced periods of religious revivalism and renewal. American Judaism has been responsive to these trends. As the future unfolds will liberal Judaism be able to respond to these new waves of religious inquiry?

The Schools of Thought and Action:

There have been various constituencies within the liberal Jewish camp seeking primarily to reinvent the structures and functions associated with the institutions of liberal Judaism. “Synagogue 2000 (3000)” and STAR operated as manifestations of this approach to change specific activities and operational cultures. Various think tanks and individual writers have put forth books and articles offering proposals for introducing alternative models of liberal Jewish practice to be in line with the changing operational framework that today is defining and shaping American religious life. Proposals introducing alternative dues structures, governance arrangements, and other modifications have been put forth in several different quarters. Still others, including groups such as the RVI (Rabbinic Vision Initiative) in 2009 and the Think Tank for Reform Judaism (2011-2013) proposed core mission, structural and governance changes within the Reform Movement, as a way to reinvent the URJ and its partner institutions, employing a top-down mechanism for change. Indeed, similar initiatives can be identified among the other movements of liberal Judaism over the past decade.

American Jewish liberal religion represents a broad spectrum of ideas, practices, and rituals, and that in reality ought to be seen as the strength of such a collective endeavor. Operating under a framework of religious choice and envisioning a community where individuals are encouraged to experience new encounters, allows for the creation of a “big tent” framework of progressive Judaism. Among the ideas being considered is one proposal that suggests that synagogues, camps, schools and other liberal institutional expressions compete in the market square reflecting their own brand of Jewish engagement. An outcome of this model of practice might produce networks of shared experiences, creating different expressions of a revitalized Jewish religious culture. The goal here is to encourage new modalities of practice that can be ultimately shared across the liberal religious spectrum. Indeed, this “bottom-up” strategy of experimentation ought to be encouraged and supported.

Moving Beyond:

Why not however also consider a collective approach that can produce a revitalized Jewish liberal religious system that brings together these different voices? This top-down proposal ought not to be seen as a merely a reconfiguration of a set of existing institutions but rather an opportunity to construct a new branding of liberal Jewish thought and practice! Drawing upon the ideas of the great luminaries of American Judaism including Kaplan, Schechter, Heschel, Einhorn, and Wise and embracing the contemporary thinking of modern Jewish theologians and teachers, what might this new enterprise represent?

In 2007 Sh’ma magazine devoted a special issue to unpacking the future of Reform Judaism, where some of the theological, spiritual, and ritual issues associated with liberal Jewish thought and practice were introduced. This would represent but one of many such discussions that already have been directed toward the question of what should modern Judaism represent?

Framing a Different Vision:

Drawing upon this notion, why not envision various forms of collective institutional partnerships aligning our Conservative, Reconstructionist, Reform, and Renewal actors? In constructing a renewed faith community committed to addressing the challenges of living in a new century, this collaborative approach could benefit from an extraordinary set of institutional resources including scholars, rabbis and professionals, in addition to a prominent base of lay leaders, who can help direct and lead this new venture.

This approach must be understood as a fundamental first step in recasting of North American Jewish religious expression and engagement, at a time and in an environment that is not driven by institutional fear but by the belief that our various liberal Jewish expressions carry creative and essential possibilities. This is about envisioning a different modality in delivering Jewish learning and engaging in Jewish ritual and practice.

Four principles ought to drive this national discussion on the future of liberal Judaism, where our movements’ leaders envision together a new framework for collective action:

Intellectual Engagement: How might we create shared learning opportunities? I would argue that we have much to learn and share with one another. Such exchanges to date have occurred sporadically but now need to be systematic and with intention.

What are the inherent ideas and resources that we can bring to a new model of contemporary Jewish life? The liberal Jewish scene in North America contains multiple Jewish seminaries, including JTS; Ziegler at AJU; HUC-JIR (with its 3 state-side campuses); the RRC; the Academy for Jewish Religion (2 campuses); ALEPH Ordination Program (Renewal); and Hebrew College. Each movement includes congregational umbrella structures, rabbinic associations, men’s clubs, sisterhoods, camping systems, and a host of institutes, day schools, libraries, resource centers, and a composite of Zionist/Israel institutional expressions. Can one even imagine the collective intellectual, institutional and individual leadership resources that such a collaborative effort could provide to the Jewish world? Are we able as well to invite a new generation of thinkers, practitioners, and organizational builders to articulate their perspectives in the framing of a 21st century Jewish liberal ideology?

Moving beyond the boundaries of “organized” liberal Judaism, what can we extract from the success and experiences of the emergent world of minyanim, independent congregations, and start-up institutions that are today a part of the rich landscape of Jewish life? How might American Orthodoxy inform our understanding of the essential organizing principles and practices for Jewish engagement?

What forms of intellectual synergy can occur amongst seminaries? Where can we find common ground among our rabbis, educators, and camp professionals? Ultimately, how might our congregations benefit from such cross-denominational exchanges, and what will be the impact on the quality of Jewish life for many of our congregants and those beyond its doors?

Economic Entrepreneurship: In what ways can our movements creatively collaborate in order to create new economies of operation and in turn reach out to serve more Jews who remain disconnected and unaffiliated? Will it be possible to employ the organizing tactics and marketing strategies already in play in the for-profit sector and within some sectors of the nonprofit arena to help American liberal Judaism rethink its structures, messages and vision?

Proposals for religious recalibration are occurring across the landscape of church organizations in America. Similarly, mergers and systems of reorganization are taking place elsewhere within the nonprofit sector in general and among Jewish organizations in particular. Mergers and collaborative arrangements are driving institutional transformation in America.[2]

Already in board rooms and on the back benches of our synagogues, the conversations about the Jewish future are well along, reflecting such notions as do we really require five or more separate denominational seminaries? Our business elites who are always in search of economies of operation can fully appreciate the case for unification and merger. They are today offering the following comparisons, if American industry can manage such economic transitions, then our communal and religious infrastructures can most certainly emulate this pattern of consolidation and re-imagination.

Indeed, examples of collaborative engagement are underway, including shared activities involving the Men of Reform Judaism with the Conservative Movement’s Federation of Jewish Men Clubs and cooperative initiatives in Israel by our respective denominational players, among other efforts to share resources and act in alignment.

Political Partnerships: In an age of such political dissention and uncertainty, how might our liberal religious communities speak more effectively with one voice? This moment marks an appropriate point to frame a shared progressive Jewish agenda. Especially at this moment in time, many within our communities of faith are seeking the leadership and input of religious leadership in being responsive to the social challenges before us.

Collective Responsibility: Don’t our movements and their various constituencies have an obligation to serve the thousands of Jews who today simply define themselves as “Just Jewish”; to reach out to college students and young adults bereft of Jewish connections; and to Americans in general who remain “unchurched”?

The reality here is that many of those who are seeking community and are interested in exploring spirituality are sitting outside of our tents, in part unaware of what our movements offer or otherwise turned off by the corporate business models of our synagogues, schools and camps. At a point in time where everyone can be defined as a Jew by choice, how might we shift our orientation and language from being seen as only appealing to the cultural norms of “insider Jews,” those who share a specific set of communal beliefs and practices, to a more open and competitive religious framework that appeals as well to the “outsider” be that person a disaffected Jew or a seeker of faith?

How might we redeploy our rabbis and educators? What alternative organizing schemes might we consider as we replace the idea of “membership” with different forms of participation? What might our synagogues and schools look like under this new model? How in turn might foundations and funders find our collaborative efforts appealing?

At a point in time when “individualism” is seen as the dominant organizing principle, an initiative that speaks about “shared engagement” would seem to run counter to contemporary cultural norms; but this is precisely the case behind this proposal, to create a countervailing method and message in order to excite, engage, and promote liberal Judaism. Finding the new commonalities and a shared voice of liberal Jewish thought and practice ought to drive this proposal.

The Push Back:

Inevitably, there may well be significant resistance from an array of entrenched institutional players who will question such proposals. No doubt, any conversation about these new directions may threaten those worried about the eventual closing of institutions and the merger of others, as the community envisions different models of introducing and marketing liberal Jewish ideas and practice.

Conversations focusing on proposals for collaboration and mutual action do not represent a new phenomenon within the Jewish community. Throughout the course of American Jewish history we can identify various patterns of institutional expansion, only to be followed by countervailing periods of organizational integration, leading to mergers or to the formation of new entities designed to expand upon the work product of their predecessor institutions. Organizations, we need to realize, have a type of life expectancy; when they no longer resonate with the body politic, they atrophy and become caught up in the economics of downsizing, ultimately leading to their demise.

In formulating any new arrangements, it is imperative that any such joint initiatives respect the legitimacy of the principles of faith and Halacha of our various partners. Indeed, there are creative ways to give standing to these distinctive and essential expressions.

What we already know is that for most of those sitting in our pews, attending our camps and day schools, and studying in our religious school classrooms share a similar mindset about their Jewish religious encounter. Their behaviors reflect an inherent sameness in terms of how they understand and practice contemporary Judaism. For certain, denominational labels do not generally shape their identities as 21st century Jews. Yet, most liberal Jews take great pride in being Jewish and in acknowledging their shared Jewish connections with other like-minded co-religionists. But as active participants in this age of consumerism, our congregants fully appreciate the costs associated with “doing Jewish.” Operating synagogues, maintaining schools, supporting camps and providing for our national organizational systems have fostered a conversation on the Jewish economy. “How might we better manage the institutional costs for a 21st century Judaism in a more creative and business-like fashion?”

Drawing Upon Others:

Beyond the Jewish world we now have evidence about the various beneficial aspects of such a mega-union of congregations and related institutions within American Christianity, arguing the merits of a collaborative model that can capture the best that each of these separate institutions and movements can provide.[3]

Possibly more significant, and clearly more impressive, are the structural and policy changes being introduced into the Catholic Church by Pope Francis, who is constructing a new vision of how the Vatican and the other primary instruments of Church practice will be organized. Even more dramatic are the new messages of the Church today around critical issues of a spiritual and social context.

Maximizing the Opportunity:

The successful synagogues across this nation ought to be our first laboratory of learning. Can we extract from these communities the seeds essential to growing our collective enterprise?

Inside the Jewish world, there already exists ample evidence of the integrative practices associated with these movements, as curriculum, liturgy and professional personnel are crossing institutional borders on a daily basis. Synagogue mergers involving congregations at times from different denominational tracks are taking place, further confirming that the seeds for this national conversation have already been set in motion.

What might be the essential benefits that emerge from this initiative? These may well include an expansion of programmatic and service options, the introduction of operational efficiencies, expanded brand recognition, the growth of our political influence, the capacity to encourage and promote professional excellence, the acceleration of social media and the introduction of other forms of communication technology, all introduced with a focus on innovation.

Whether we construct new frameworks of shared action, change is driving the religious economy and as such various alternative forms of practice and social organizing will occur. This process can and will happen either in a vacuum subject to the realities of the marketplace or it can occur through a planned intervention designed to manage and direct this religious revolution within Judaism.

Building New Models:

In an age where those who both hold congregational affiliation and those who sit outside our synagogue doors are struggling with the same issues about the essence of life, the role of ritual, the importance of faith, the nature of our connection to Israel, definitions of God, etc. This may be an extraordinary moment to energize these conversations and create new models of practice by providing a framework for reimaging contemporary liberal Judaism.

Four key components will be essential for leading this denominational transformation:

  • Embrace the Challenge: Where vision and the capacity for audacious thinking trump mediocrity and narrow options.
  • Leadership Assertiveness: This venture can and will not occur without the presence of a bold and creative cohort of Jewish leaders who are prepared to ask the difficult and unsettling questions, setting aside their egos and self-interests in favor of embracing the revolution that must occur within board rooms and beyond.
  • Reaffirming the Essential: The essential and the sacred of our tradition must be preserved as we construct a new operational framework to empower and engage our community. Reclaiming that which is sacred and transcendent will be the essence of this new venture.
  • Build from the Bottom: Historically, we organized from the top down; in this culture the principles of best practice require that we build from the bottom up as well. This is about testing different models of engaging Jews, as it is about redesigning the roles that rabbis, educators, cantors and communal professionals perform in serving our youth, embracing our elderly, and educating our young families.

As the case to reinvent non Orthodox Judaism unfolds, the opportunity before us will be to creatively and proactively carry forward such a conversation to refashion Jewish religious culture in this hemisphere. This is not an easy course to transverse, and there is no certainty with reference to its potential outcomes. As a “stiff necked people” the odds of creating any new outcomes would seem to run counter to our existing patterns of behavior, but left untouched, North American liberal Judaism itself may well be bereft of the options it will require to thrive and to grow.


Steven Windmueller Ph. D. on behalf of the Wind Group, Consulting for the Jewish Future. Dr. Windmueller’s collection of articles can be found on his website: