Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Why are Reform and Conservative Judaism dying: An important lesson for all Jews

I recently came across Relational Judaism by Dr. Ron Wolfson ©2013. It accurately describes the non-Orthodox world - which has been constantly searching for ways to stop the flood of people out of their congregations by trying to entertain them or by making Judaism interesting or meaningful. Or failing that by converting non-Jews or tolerating inter-marriage and not demanding much in terms of observance or even education. 

The solution he proposes - that the Jewish communities need to encourage and development relationships for the individual - is one that the Orthodox world need to be reminded about. The Orthodox world needs to know that while focus on intensive Torah study and mitzvos is important - it is not enough to stop our children going off the derech. It is not enough to seal our world by banning Internet, smartphones, newspapers, movies, magazine and books. It is not enough to label the outside as a heretic. It is not enough to dress differently and prohibit immodest dress and mingling of the sexes. We also need to be concerned about developing good interpersonal relations  within our community.

 A Cautionary Tale    Recently, I was invited to be scholar-in-residence at what was once one of the largest synagogues in the United States. The congregation was celebrating its one-hundredth anniversary. The campus was dominated by a huge building, built in the 1960s. The sanctuary was enormous, and a labyrinth of hallways led to dozens of classrooms, offices, and meeting halls. In the year 2000, the community had no mortgage, no debt, and a balanced budget. Most synagogues would love to be in such great shape.   Yet, there were signs that the coming decade would be challenging.   
The building was aging and in need of renovation. The senior rabbi who had served the congregation for decades was retiring. Most ominously, the demography of the community had changed; young people were moving north. The synagogue membership was slowly but surely declining from a high of nearly 1,500 households. The leaders of the synagogue knew that something had to be done.  

 Here's the something they did.  In the year 2000, they decided to borrow one million dollars to invest in the future growth of the congregation. After the long-serving, beloved rabbi retired, they hired a high-priced rabbi.. who lasted less than two years. That cost one-half million dollars. The other   half-million was spent on programming, all kinds of programming­ big events, concerts, community lectures with high-priced nationally  renowned speakers, highly touted initiatives to get more people into  the synagogue on Shabbat-all sorts of things. Many of the programs had clever names, good marketing, and high appeal to specific segments of the community. Lots of people showed up for the programs and, by all accounts, enjoyed them. And then ... they left.  

Nothing was done to change the ambiance of the congregation, which was widely considered cold and unwelcoming. Nothing was done to engage the people with others in attendance. Nothing was done to connect individuals with the congregation itself. Nothing was done to find out who they were. Nothing was done to follow up. Nothing was done to convince the members that the institution truly cared about them.  The result: after ten years of this initiative, the congregation was a million dollars in debt, and membership had shrunk to 300 households. By the time 1 got there, the leaders were kicking themselves, asking me what they could do to reinvigorate their community.  I told them what I will tell you.  It's all about relationships.   People will come to synagogues, Jewish Community Centers, Jewish Federations, and other Jewish organizations for programs, but they will stay for relationships. Programs are wonderful opportunities for community members to gather, to celebrate, to learn. There is nothing “wrong" with programs; every organization has them. But, if the program designers have given no thought to how the experience will offer  participants a deeper connection to each other, with the community,  and with Judaism itself, then it will likely be another lovely evening,  afternoon, or morning ... with little or no lasting impact.   

For those interested in living a Jewish life and for those professionals and lay leaders seeking to increase Jewish engagement, permit me to put my cards on the table, up front:   It's not about programs.  It's not about marketing.  It's not about branding, labels, logos, clever titles, websites, or smartphone apps.   It's not even about institutions.   It's about relationships.   [...] 

Let me be blunt: the slakes are high. Until recently, we have done pretty well to engage Jews through some connection with the Jewish community. Estimates suggest 80 percent of Jews affiliate with some institution-a synagogue, a Jewish Community Center, a Federation, a school, a youth group-at some point in their lives. We get 'em, but then, we lose 'em, usually at key transition points. Why? Because we have failed to develop deep relationships with many of the individuals who come into our midst, and we are, frankly, terrible at transitioning our people from one organization to another, from one City to another, from one life stage to another.  We can do better.  [...]

But, what happens after the crowds go home? Has anything happened during the time they were at the program to deepen their relationship to the community, to the sponsoring institution, and most importantly, to each other? Or, will they check it off their to-do list, another consumable activity, demanding little or no commitment other than a couple of hours of their time. And, will they continue their relationship with the institution? A rabbi confides in me, "A woman who was a member of my synagogue for twenty years resigned. 1 was shocked because she showed up to all of our programs. So, 1 called her to ask why she was leaving. You know what she said? 'I came to everything, and I never met anybody"
 Something is missing. Something critically important. Something so crucial, it could determine the health of the North American Jewish community in the twenty-first century.  It’s time to shift our paradigm. It is time to shift the shape of Jewish engagement.      


  1. I understand your point about the importance of developing a sense of community. A communal feeling where each person feel important and they are needed, and that there is plenty in it for them.

    There is a distinction between the non-Torah denominations and a Torah-true community. To the non-Torah centered community, the pull is primarily, if not entirely, based upon nostalgia and socialization. Therefore, the glue of a personal relationship has to be very strong. Without it, there is nothing left to hold the congregant connected. In a Torah community, if there is no interpersonal connection it will begin the slide of disconnect and subservience into the person. Similar to או חברותא או מיתותא. But by the religious person it hasn't yet ended. To the non-religious person it has ended as soon as the connection is gone (or was never there).

    As you said, it is very important for all.

  2. Re: your old story.

    RMKahana hy"d was rave of rockwood park Jewish center in early 1960s / late 1950s. It was an officially orthodox shul, but ...

    All of a sudden, the children came home, and asked their parents "what is Sabbath?", "what is kashrut?". The parents couldn't have that, so they got rid of the rabbi, who was so dejected over the experience, he went on to bigger and better things.

    Point is that kiruv is a very tricky business, best left to professionals. Though everyone can start on a personal kiruv project or two.

    Yes , R and C had a good business model for m any years, but today it doesn't work. Chabad's business model makes no sense, yet it works, often very successfully. Other kiruv groups, the same.

  3. Most people these days with some semblance of intelligence have seen through the farce of Judaism and are opting out of the faith.

    Torah is a proven a pack of lies, superstitions and evils invented by illiterate barbarians.

    So, either one turns to Eastern mysticism or becomes atheist.

    Eastern mystical traditions attract many of us because of their stress on self-awareness, non-sectarianism and the mapping out of the essential features of consciousness which Torah has not done.

    A god in the sky, 6 day creation, god resting on the 7th day, hundreds of mumbo jumbo halacha, incest, permitted rape of female captives, pimping one's own half sister and wife in return for riches, irrational dietary laws, blood sacrifices, creation from nothing, burning bush, global flood, plagiarized teachings from parallel religions, fraudulent trek through the desert for 40 years with a so-called miraculous cloud cover following the Israelites and other such religious nonsense are teachings that repel the cultured and logical mind.

    Judaism is almost dead and will turn barren within a century as most adherents quit the faith.

  4. Judaism without Zionism in an empty boring vessel.
    Likewise Zionism without Judaism serves no purpose.


please use either your real name or a pseudonym.