The Reform Tent: Half Full or Half Empty?

The disengagement of so many Reform Jews from synagogue life is a significant concern in a movement where the organizational building block and the primary conduit of education, engagement and influence is the congregation.

[This essay is from “Philanthropic Priorities in Light of Pew,” reprinted with permission from Contact, a publication of The Steinhardt Foundation for Jewish Life.]

By Fern Chertok

The Reform Movement stands at a crossroads. The current moment is rife with challenges to traditional religious institutions, and the movement faces a set of critical decisions about how to adapt in order to engage and serve the next generation of American Jews. The ability of the movement’s umbrella organization, the Union for Reform Jewry (URJ), its rabbinic organization, the Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR), and its seminary, the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute for Religion (HUC-JIR) to adapt to the evolving nature of American Jewish life rests, in part, on its capacity to develop and use knowledge about the attitudes and practices of those who currently identify with the movement. The recent release of the Pew Research Center’s “A Portrait of Jewish Americans” paints a complicated picture of Reform Jewry. Some findings should be cause for optimism, but some are troubling and should be of deep concern to the movement.

The positive news is that Reform Jews comprise the largest denominational group of American Jewry. Thirty-five percent of those considered to be Jewish by Pew identify as Reform. These Jews are near-universal in their pride in being Jewish, and the vast majority have a strong “sense of belonging to the Jewish People.” For many Reform Jews, leading an ethical life and working for justice are the essential components of their Jewishness.

Another cause for celebration is that the Reform Movement has made Judaism relevant for the 50 percent of its community who are part of intermarried families. Midrash tells us that Abraham and Sarah’s tent was a structure with numerous entrances so that travelers approaching from any direction could easily find their way inside. Landmark policy changes in the late 20th Century opened the Reform tent to many children of intermarriage. In the mid-1980s, the Reform Movement accepted patrilineal descent. At the same time, the movement’s prevailing approach to intermarriage shifted to creating a welcoming and supportive environment for interfaith families. The news from Pew is that these policy decisions have succeeded. Intermarried households identify with the movement, and the vast majority of these families are raising their children Jewishly.

The Pew findings, however, also suggest a host of concerns for the Reform Movement. Thirty-five percent of those raised in the movement no longer identify as Reform. Perhaps the finding that should give the movement greatest pause is that synagogues are not central to the vast majority of American Reform Jews. Only 34 percent of Jews who identify as Reform currently belong to a synagogue, and less than one-fifth attend religious services at a synagogue even once a month. Many Reform Jews interact with their synagogues only sporadically, when they have a particular need such as a life-cycle event. The Pew data suggest 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.

The disengagement of so many Reform Jews from synagogue life is a significant concern in a movement where the organizational building block and the primary conduit of education, engagement and influence is the congregation. Synagogues, not individuals or households, join the URJ. In other words, if you are not a member of an affiliated congregation, you are not a member of the URJ – and in many ways you are outside its reach.

How can the Reform Movement respond to these concerns? The place to start the process of informed decision making and planning for the future of the movement is by better understanding the lives, attitudes and needs of those who identify as Reform. For example, who currently identifies as a Reform Jew – both those who are and are not affiliated with congregations? Where do they live, what do their families look like and what are they seeking from the Jewish community? What are the attitudes and commitments – toward religiosity, Israel, social justice, philanthropy – of those who currently identify as Reform or were raised in the movement? What are the changing needs of Reform Jews as they transition through different life stages including marriage, family formation, empty-nesting, retirement and senior citizenship? Where and who are the young adults (18-35 years old) who grew up in Reform congregations, and how might the movement help them to enact their Jewish identities during the extended period between their departure for college and the enrollment of their own children in supplementary schools? The answers to some but not most of these questions can be found in the Pew study. There is a clear need for additional information to support the policy planning of the Reform Movement.

Armed with a greater understanding of those who identify as Reform, the Reform Movement and its philanthropic partners need to develop opportunities outside the synagogue for emotional, behavioral and intellectual engagement with Jewish life, Jewish community and the Reform Movement. This might take the form of campus-based Reform clergy to engage college students who were raised in the movement. Perhaps it will entail developing the role of community rabbis to reach out to young adults, empty nesters and seniors living in metropolitan areas. One could also envision short-term, immersive programs to make Shabbat a joyous and meaningful experience and to help individuals and families experience Jewish life and community. Although synagogue membership may be the byproduct of these efforts toward engagement, it should not be the focus.

The Pew data presents the challenges of the changing landscape of Reform Jewry. At the same time, the overall trends reported also create opportunities for growth in the Reform Movement. Pew will hopefully prompt the movement’s lay and professional leaders to think about new ways to create vibrant and engaging tents for Reform Jews throughout their Jewish journeys.

[eJP note: Coming up, an essay from Jerome A. Chanes, Orthodox “Retention” and Kiruv: The Bad News and the Good News. An excerpt:

“There are data that suggest that a substantial percentage of the Orthodox community – as much as 25 percent, according to some estimates – are “baalei t’shuvah,” so-called “returnees to observance” from other movements. Even if that number is accurate, we need to remember that the Orthodox population remains small compared to the non-Orthodox population. The percentage of non-Orthodox who have become Orthodox, therefore, represents a very small percentage of the larger religious community, and raises critical questions as to whether money invested in kiruv has been well spent.”]

Fern Chertok is Research Scientist at the Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies at Brandeis University.