Tuesday, May 17, 2022

Taking Judaism for granted comes at a price: the vanishing "Jewish pipeline"

Heard at kiddush:

“Nobody wants to become a 'member' of a 'synagogue' anymore—they all want to become 'partners' of a 'Progressive Jewish spiritual community.'  It’s all a matter of semantics.”

“No, it isn’t just semantics.  People don’t join synagogues like this one because they don’t know how to participate.”

The respondent is right.

I grew up in a Southern New Jersey suburb of Philadelphia that had enough Jews to keep us from feeling too isolated but not enough to make us feel too comfortable.  If memory serves me correctly, most of the Jewish kids I knew went to a six-hours-per-week Hebrew School, attended Shabbat/Sabbath services on a reasonably regular basis, went to Jewish summer camps, and participated in Jewish youth groups.  Major Jewish holidays were a time for Jewish solidarity—no one I knew from our neighborhood went to school on either the Yamim Noraim/High Holidays or the Shalosh Regalim/Pilgrimage Festivals, lest the presence of a single Jewish child in school jeopardize the ability of other Jewish children to observe the holiday (in whatever fashion we observed it).

Imagine my shock when I moved to New York City and discovered that many non-observant parents sent their kids to ballet class, clarinet lessons, soccer practice or the like on Shabbat/Sabbath mornings rather than taking them to synagogue.  Even Junior Congregation days were often ignored.  Six-hours-per-week Hebrew Schools were often replaced by two-hour or four-hour versions.  Jewish camp was not a given, and some neighborhoods didn’t even have a Jewish youth group.  As for holiday solidarity, I haven’t forgotten the parent who told me that they’d told the rabbi to their face that they most certainly would not take their child out of school on a Jewish holiday.  Pulling a child out of school for a holiday was so unheard of that this parent simply expected the rabbi to shut up and put up. 

Why should anyone be surprised when these kids arrive at adulthood having almost no idea how to participate in a traditional Jewish service?  Many of them barely knew what to do at their B’nai Mitzvah celebration (other than chant the haftarah, possibly from a transliterated text, and give a speech), and probably haven’t set foot in a synagogue since then, except, perhaps, on the Yamim Noraim/High Holidays.  So why would they not prefer a service in which all the Hebrew is transliterated and/or many prayers are read in English and/or secular texts are woven into the service and/or there’s a strong emphasis on mindfulness or spirituality rather than traditional prayers or rituals?  The “Jewish pipeline” that used to feed synagogues and rabbinical schools is now leaking to such a degree that synagogues are merging or closing and rabbinical-school enrollment has declined.  (See “The Pipeline Problem” and “The Great American Rabbi Shortage.”)  And what does the fact that there’s still a shortage of rabbis despite the merger or closure of so many synagogues say about the future of American synagogues?

How is a ritually-traditional synagogue supposed to stay true to ritual tradition and still attract new members?  This is not a rhetorical question.  Your thoughts would be appreciated.


Blogger Shira Salamone said...

Comments from Facebook:

Howard Passel
A few thoughts:
1. The discussion about American Judaism is only about Ashkenazic Judaism. An egregious example:
Andrew: “Those are no longer reform Judaism, but that is what reform Judaism began. The embrace of the enlightenment to transform traditional.” – Here, Andrew completely ignores the centuries earlier Western Sephardic embrace of enlightenment values.
2. “I think the future of liberal Judaism in the next 10 to 100 years is to see much more seamless integration and the expression of differentiation between reform, conservative, modern Orthodox, even, and reconstructionist be much more on a continuum rather than these firewalls between them. That’s certainly what I’ve been promoting with my seminary partners.” – A principle of Sephardic, and probably most other non-Ashkenazic Judaism, is to celebrate all levels of Jewish observance and to encourage continued identification as a Jew.
3. I didn’t see a discussion of how the Right-wing redefinition and effective takeover of Zionism has affected the ability of non-Orthodox movements to attract rabbinic students from contemporary Jewish youth.
4. When I lived in Minnesota, I met a plethora of ordained Orthodox and Hasidic rabbis, almost all without paid synagogue positions.

Shira Salamone
Howard Passel , you're right, of course. It's important for the American Jewish community to stop being so Ashkenazi-centric. And maybe it's time we started talking about the effect of Zionism--for better and/or for worse--on the "Jewish pipeline."

Sun May 22, 10:14:00 PM 2022  

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