Strengthening Reform 18: The Leaky Glass



By William Berkson
In response to several of my posts in critique of the current state of Reform theology, fellow RJ blogger Larry Hoffman has said that he views the glass as ‘half full’, as opposed to my ‘half empty’. So while good changes are always welcome, we are in pretty good shape. In particular, he has pointed to the fact that Reform movement is growing in numbers, while the Conservative movement is shrinking.

This last fact is indeed true, but it masks grave problems. That is because the “glass” is leaking, according to what I have read. Right now I can’t put my hand on the sources, but I have read that a significant part of the increase comes from formerly Conservative Jews joining Reform Synagogues. And I believe that if you take away these, the numbers of Reform Jews have actually shrunk. Hopefully someone here can correct me if I got this wrong. But I believe what is happening is that those who are raised in a Conservative synagogue marry either a Reform Jew or intermarry, and then they join a Reform synagogue, where their spouse feels more at home or more welcome.

Now if all these current members had lots of children who join Reform synagogues as adults, there would be less of an issue. But what now happens is this: most Jewish children some time in their teen years cease active association with a synagogue, at age either 13 or 15, and only rejoin when they marry and their youngest child is born, or comes religious school age, at 5 or 6. But meanwhile, during those about 20 or more years, 40-50% will have intermarried, and I believe only about a third of those currently raise their children Jewish.

On top of this come some stunning statistics, at least to me. The first is, from the Jewish Population Survey, that currently only ½ of Jewish women between the ages of 30 and 35 have given birth. As fertility declines more rapidly after 35, this is a serious demographic issue. Most young Jewish women today don’t put the first commandment in the Torah–p’ru ur’vu, be fruitful and multiply–first.

The second shocking statistic I just heard at the Mid Atlantic Council Biennial, from Rabbi Richard Address, head of the URJ department of Family Concerns. In the past 10 years the average age of Reform congregants has gone up by 5 years, from 37 to 42. That is a huge change, driven in part, Rabbi Address thinks, by late child bearing and late re-affiliation with a synagogue. And then you have the phenomenon of parents stopping affiliation once all their children are B’nai Mitzvah, or out of the house.

I think what see here is a picture of Judaism becoming increasingly ‘pediatric’, where membership is driven by the desire to have the children celebrate a bar or bat mitzvah. This picture is really alarming, because it is of an inauthentic Judaism. If parents feel that Judaism has nothing to offer adult Jews beyond getting their children membership in the tribe, then the children are likely to care less about actually living Jewish lives and building Jewish homes themselves, whether they intermarry or not.

“Demography is destiny,” as they say, but there is a big question here on what population we are looking at, and what they will do in the future.

In my view, the key issue is not intermarriage, but rather whether children who grew up in a Reform Congregation will want to raise their own children Jewish. That depends, I think, on two things. The first is whether they see Judaism as something that can help them establish and sustain a strong marriage, and to raise good and capable children.

Now I think that Jewish values, lived, promote good marriages and strong families. And these values are supported by home celebrations and–especially for children–enhanced by affiliation with a like-minded community, and activities and religious celebrations with them. That three-fold cord of values, ritual and community can actually deliver what most Jewish young adults want.

However, to make that threefold cord work, for it to be convincing to 18-35 year olds, we need to strengthen Reform both in ideas and institutions. How, I will take up next.

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William Berkson

About William Berkson

William Berkson's is author of Pirke Avot: Timeless Wisdom for Modern Life (Jewish Publication Society 2010), He is Director of the Jewish Institute for Youth and Family, www.mentsh.com, and lead developer of its Becoming a Mentsh courses on Jewish values for teens. He is also designer of the typeface Williams Caslon Text (Font Bureau, 2010).

44 Responses to “Strengthening Reform 18: The Leaky Glass”

  1. avatar
    David A.M. Wilensky Reply October 30, 2008 at 11:48 pm

    When you say that Judaism is becoming pediatric, you must be careful not to conflate Judaism and Institution Judaism. Many young people find their Judaism outside of the big movement synagogues.

  2. avatar

    The abysmally low birthrate among non-orthodox Jews is the elephant in the room that no one dares mention. In my opinion, it is the single greatest challenge facing liberal Jews, and it is mostly ignored.
    However, I must take exception with this statement: “Most young Jewish women today don’t put the first commandment in the Torah–p’ru ur’vu, be fruitful and multiply–first.” Most young Jewish people–male and female–don’t have procreation on the front burner. In fact, in my experience, it is the men who are more the rate-limiting factor in this issue. I can easily rattle-off the names of 5 Jewish women I know who would love to start Jewish families with Jewish men, but the J-guys tend to run screaming from the room when you mention babies.
    Also, the key issue is to make Judaism important lishma to Jews, not just in the context of marriage and kids. A strongly Jewishly-identified individual is less likely to intermarry in the first place, and raising kids other than Jewish would be much less likely.
    If you have not already done so, I strongly recommend you read Sylvia Barack Fishman’s report about the declining levels of male involvement in liberal Judaism, which mentions other reasons for some of the trends you mention above.
    I look forward to reading your next installment.

  3. avatar

    I would like to ask a question? My daughter is married to a Reform Jewish man. She was raised in Pentecostal…does she Renounce Jesus Christ as her Savior if she converts into Judaism? I am very anxious to know the truth of this matter.
    Thank you, Angela

  4. avatar

    1. I am honored to be confused with Larry Hoffman, but he is a distinguished scholar and teacher of liturgy and worship, while I am only a “posheter Yid,” a simple Jew.
    2. I agree completely that demography is destiny, and in particular, when Richie Address speaks, I listen. Our planning and programming and budgeting has to take account of the realities he outlines, but nothing that the Reform movement does to adjust its ideology or to better define its attitude toward mitzvot is going to impact the realities of later marriage, intermarriage. and lack of interest in religion.
    In the popular corporate exercise of SWOT analysis (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats, a Threat is defined as an external factor we can do nothing about. I will concede that this Threat may have emerged in part — only in part — from a prior weakness in Jewish Organized Religion (all movements, not just Reform) — but essentially the detachment from Judaism you’re worrying about is an inevitable outcome of the open society.
    3. The ultra-Orthodox have a workable solution, for those who are willing to accept a cloistered or ghettoized society. The demographic realities we have to reckon with have the same implications for Conservative and even for Modern Orthodox Jews — the attractions of the Open Society will be compatible with the attractions of religion for some, but not for all. From the start of the 20th century until now, the Jewish affiliation rate has probably always hovered in the 40-50% range.
    4. I’m sure that many Reform Jews, like me, came to Reform from other movements, and once upon a time, virtually all Conservative Jews came to that movement from Orthodoxy. And certainly those in inter-faith marriages will be welcomed in Reform and held at arm’s length in Conservatism. But neither ideology nor liturgy, and not even habit, are what impact the affiliation choices of most Jews — they join where they join for convenience and to be where their friends are.
    5. Our synagogues in all the liberal movements have been pedriatically focused for as far back as I can remember. People have been leaving after their kids’ bnai mitzvah for as far back as I can remember. Ecclesiastes is right — there is nothing new under the sun.
    6. I don’t know what the connection is, if any, between the shrinkage in the Conservative movement (if it is indeed shrinking) and its intellectual/ideological disarray. My personal problem with that movement, speaking as an outsider, is the disconnect between the Jewish behavior demanded of the clergy and preached by the clergy and the actual lifestyles of the congregants. Although some of my Conservative friends maintain Kosher homes, none observe Shabbat, most eat shellfish and ribs in restaurants. But if their rabbi did, they’d be after his head.
    6. Having picked all these nits, I agree completely that we have to encourage living Jewish values and practicing Jewish ceremonies in the home. Teaching young families how to do this is ONE of the roles of the synagogue, but only one, if the synagogue wants to transcend pediatrics.
    7. And our communities have to offer Jewish programming for the 22 to 38 contingent OUTSIDE the synagogue. I separate the college population from the rest of the young adult world. But the young adult world is anti-institutional, peer-centered, and enamored of the counter-cultural…and they don’t want us AKs programming for them. Take a look at Shalom 1948 and the Kfar Center in Chicago. Ask Rabbi Eric Stark about what he did when he was at Oheb Shalom in Baltimore — outside of Oheb Shalom.
    8. Again, I cling to my training in marketing — and the acknowledged concept that success comes easier and cheaper from serving the customers you’ve got rather than obsessing over those who aren’t buying. And now I’m full circle back to half full rather than half empty.

  5. avatar

    The late child bearing is in part a result of anti-immigrant discrimination from a century ago. The bulge in immigration to America in the late 18th and early 20th century brought workers from sundry fields. American born doctors, lawyers, and other professions established licensing requirements to restrict competition in their fields. Pursuing these degrees and licenses before starting a family burns up most of our child bearing years. The demographic challenge is economic at its core.
    First, where feasible, we should advocate relaxing barriers to entry in professional feilds, from hair braiding to brain surgery. This was actually a plank in an early Reform Platform. Easing these barriers would benefit us and allow low income people more opportunity to climb the economic ladder. Easing restrictions on small businesses also makes sense for the same reasons.
    Second, we should renew financial support for practical educational institutes. The colleges our ancestors built here and in Israel tended to be vocational for a reason. When you provide a service that is easy to objectively evaluate, such as doctor, plumber, or electrician, you find it easier to transcend cultural barriers to employment.
    Third, we may want to reorder the life cyle. We now live 20 to 30 years longer than our ancestors, but fertility still peaks in the late 20s. This applies to men too, unless they are counting on hanging out in college bars well into their senior years. Let us be more patient with the career expectations we place on young adults. There should be no shame in being a nurse for 20 years before applying to med schools or being a carpender for 20 years before applying to an engineering grad school. This isn’t lowering the bar, but rather allowing extended time. Instead of youth, family/career, middle age, and retirement, the life cycle could be youth, family/first career, additional education/new career, and retirement. We can embrace mid-life as a time for renewed growth.

  6. avatar

    The major problem is that many congregations have moved backward to become Reform Judaism Lite. They have forsaken the ethical, real world emphasis for an empty ritualistic, pseudo-Orthodoxy (the costume without the substance). Reform Judaism was created in the United States by pioneers who infused Judaism with vibrant democratic American ideals. Unless we can return to a truly Americanized Judaism, disenchanted Americans will gradually slip out the back door.
    1. We are loosing much of the youth because of a failed educational system and a worship style that is alien to them.
    a. Our educational system wastes most of the time with busy work and trivia that add nothing to living a good and productive life. As soon as most finish the hazing process of Bar Mitzvah busy work, they are disillusioned to the point they want out – out of religious school and out of Judaism. Reform needs to get back to the Bible, history and theology that everyone can use in their daily lives.
    b. Our services are literally unintelligible to most young Jews (as they are to older Jews). Many young Jews feel uncomfortable wearing kippas and prayer shawls. The services, especially those with the awful new Mishkan Tifilah books, are recognized as repetitious, boring, confusing, and without any real meaning — mostly mangled mumbling in Hebrew that is not understood. We need to discard those books, pronto. Our music if increasingly foreign and our lyrics merely la la words. Instead of a choir of family and friends, many congregations now have a cantor performing like a prima donna.
    2. Hebrew worship with Old World costumes drives away Jews who don’t understand and non-Jewish spouses who feel left out. It also wastes most of our educational resources on dead end language study which results in no comprehension and puts pressure on families by burdening them with mid-week Hebrew classes which interfere with sports, dance, and other extracurricular activities as well as family time.
    3. Reform offered an attractive alternative to disaffected Orthodox and Conservative Jews. Now, some Reform services have deteriorated to the point that they are no better than the Conservative services. My family has been Reform for five generations, and has attracted formerly Orthodox and Conservative members over the years. As the ghetto raised Jewish immigrants of the late 1800′s become a distant memory, we again have a realistic opportunity to convert virtually all the Orthodox and Conservative Jews to a truly American, Classical Reform if we are faithful to our progressive ideals.
    4. Reform increasingly drives away men who feel unwanted and out of place in a feminized house of worship. We need temples that welcome the entire family.
    5. Fertility is the elephant in the room. Non-Orthodox Jews need to speak frankly about the fertility problem and encourage larger families. Also, they must recognize that with a 50% intermarriage rate (and climbing), winning over the spouse who was not born Jewish is a battle for survival. It is a battle that only progressive Reform Jews can win.
    6. If we focus on keeping only the Jews who are most likely to attend services regularly and who like the neo-Orthodox Reform style, we will surely fade away. That is too small a group to ensure a positive future. We must seek the mainstream Jews, the unchurched and those within Judaism who have been turned off by the recent rightward shift. Only by expending can we remain viable.

  7. William Berkson

    Wow, thanks so much for those thoughtful and thought-provoking comments. I will respond after Shabbat.

  8. avatar

    Here is a factor that noone mentions: the role of finances. Affiliation with a synagogue is really expensive, especially if you are struggling. Theoretically, noone is turned away for being broke. But I have been (in the past)that struggling single mom too tapped and embarrassed to try to affiliate with a congregation whose “sliding scale” had a minimum starting point of $1300/year.
    If congregations are going to grow and attract young adults who are not on firm monetary footing, we need to stop making people feel guilty about being broke. Especially in this economy. Also, it is really hard to explin and justify to the huge outlay to a non-Jewish partner or spouse in an intermarriage(I can already hear the lecture about not intermarrying…sometimes while endlessly waiting for Mr.Judaica to come around, you fall in love with a Greek!). And do not get me started on the expectations with Bar/Bat Mitzvahs. I knew I couldn’t afford it after a severe injury and medical bills…so I waited until I was back on my feet and my kid was 14 to affiliate in order to avoid fiscal ruin by skipping the Bat Mitzvah.
    I know this will horrify people…but that is reality for a lot of people. If it was like a church where you could just slip what you could afford into a basket or attend regularly without being asked to fill out a financial statement, more folks would come. You can love Judaism, raise your kids with a Jewish identity and Jewish ethics and still have to make a hard call about financial priorities that favor food and heat in winter over the golden ticket to Oneg Shabbat.

  9. avatar

    This has been a most interesting discussion. It took me decades to find a Reform temple that is all welcoming, warm, and friendly regardless of your status…being a single professional woman (61) without children, husband (ex or otherwise)and of moderate income.
    I have just returned from my first guided tour of Israel (via Arza) and we had a too short information meeting with Iri Kessel, Exed. Dir of the Israel Movement for Progressive Judaism. I was most impressed with the variety of departments that are working to reconnect many of the secular Jews with their heritage. They start with very small numbers who then go out and work in their local communities/neighborhoods. It spans all age groups. I have to wonder if we couldn’t learn some lessons from their remarkable slow but steady progress and adapt to our own Temples and communities.

  10. William Berkson

    This is going to take more than one post to respond to all the interesting discussion, so let me start with Larry’s. First, apologies for mixing up your last name.
    I agree with most of what you write, but not with this: “nothing that the Reform movement does to adjust its ideology or to better define its attitude toward mitzvot is going to impact the realities of later marriage, intermarriage. and lack of interest in religion.”
    I believe that “Reform is a verb” and the future vitality of Reform is dependent on it changing and growing to meet the demands of modern society and the modern family. I think it can do way more, and that ‘more’ would strengthen Judaism and draw people to it.
    A better view of mitzvot is not the end of such growth, but rather the beginning of it. I believe that with a better view, we can grow Reform to far better meet the needs of Jews in an open society. I will explain how in my next posts; also I ask is an open mind–open to the idea that not everything is now the best it can be.
    As to your marketing point that it is best to focus on those you’ve already got, I’m sure there’s a lot of wisdom in that. But that’s not what we’re doing. We’re dropping our efforts at Bnai Mitzvah or Confirmation. In my vision that revitalized Judaism would be focused on those later teens and young adults.
    And we would tell that the effort is a success when a majority of those intermarrying are raising their children Jewish, and when many of those not raised Jewish, but with one Jewish parent, start streaming into our movement because of the good things they hear we are doing to help and sustain young adults and families.

  11. avatar

    Laura, you have raised some good points. Dues are too high a priority to some synagogues. The first thing too many encounter when they express interest in joining, is a cold, financial demand, which turns a lot of people off. I don’t think The Good Lord would smile on such a materialistic emphasis. Granted, someone has to pay for the rabbi’s salary, staff, the temple building, maintenance, etc., but it should temple policy to make clear to each new applicant that the congregation will do it’s absolute best to find a way to make that person a member, regardless of their financial status. There are a number of larger congregations with a flock of rabbis and cantors on the bima during the service, while many Jews in the community go entirely without any service. At the other, positive end, are rabbis who generously ride circuit to serve a number of smaller communities or who hold free open services to include as many Jews as can be served and congregations who are willing to cut back on some frills in order to be affordable to more Jews. We now have additional high holiday services to accomodate those who can’t afford to join right now and a sliding scale that in intentionally very low for young Jews who are on a tighter budget.

  12. William Berkson

    Ruth B,
    Thank you so much for pointing out my overlooking the key role of men, and for referring me to the work of Sylvia Barack Fishman. I have just looked at some of her writing that is on the internet, and it is first rate, and important.
    Fishman does agree with me that better high school programs are critical for the future. And it seems that that is particularly true for high school programs for boys, given what she writes. That has been the focus of my own work, the ‘Becoming a Mentsh’ series of workshops, which I am now expanding into classroom materials. (see http://www.mentsh.com)
    However, I also think that this is just a start, as serving the 18-35 group is also essential.
    One point where I would put things a little differently is about encouraging interest in and devotion to Judaism “lishma”, for its own sake.
    as there are many doors to Judaism, and we should try to open them all. However, I do think that the door which shows how Judaism can make life more fulfilling in love and work is most promising.
    Judaism itself is supposed to help humanity, so I don’t think there is a sharp division between Judaism for the sake of life, and its own sake. And I do think that to interest young men we are going to have to show how living Jewish lives while they are young men will make their lives richer. After all, typically they have had some exposure to ritual and celebrations and it has often left them cold. I think that once you appreciate the life-enhancing dimensions, then the ritual and celebrations become meaningful.

  13. avatar

    Mr. Berkson writes: However, I also think that this is just a start, as serving the 18-35 group is also essential.
    Amen v’amen! I can’t tell you how frustrated I have been with the pervasive attitude that it’s hopeless to have our synagogues try to address this (my) age group. Seriously–I’m hugely invested in and even on the Board of my largish Reform congregation, and sometimes I still get the vibe that, since I’m neither a parent nor minor involved with the religous school, that I am merely being tolerated as a freakish anomaly there.
    Larry Kaufman suggests–and most of the philatropic organizations that support innovative programing agree with him–that we have to serve the young adult demographic clandestinely, outside of established synagogues. While I think that is an important avenue, I can not accept the blanket dismissal of trying to keep them connected in a multi-generational setting.
    I agree with out, Mr. Berkson, that the distinction between Judaism lishma and for the sake of life is subtle, and perhaps insignificant–that is, as long as we continue to frame the richness of the tradition as being valuable to any Jew, not just those with kids.
    Joseph’s and Laura’s posts do a good job of illustrating our need to somehow retool the expectations of material success and academic achievment in liberal Jewish culture. I hope to later have time to check out your mensch website to see how the we might emphasize the deep ethical teachings of our tradition towards that end…
    Thanks again for a wonderful series of posts.

  14. avatar

    I don’t see anything clandestine in peer programming. I just believe the “establishment” should be enablers and not providers.
    There are numerous “niches” that (most) synagogues have to serve, and several of them are very difficult to mainstream. The more those niche populations — post bnai mitzvah teens, young singles, young couples without kids — are encouraged to find their own ways to “do Jewish,” the more they will remain attached to Judaism and, when timely in terms of their needs, to the synagogue.
    Although I’m sure I sometimes project that I have answers for everything, I have no answers for the money problem or the men problem. Fortunately, I see MRJ (fka Brotherhood) working on the men problem, and the journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.
    Nor do I know how the diminution of male participation is playing out in our greater society — the Yiddish saying translates somewhat lamely as “As it Christians, so it Jews.” Our solutions have to be reflective of the trends that are shaping the world aroound us.
    The text that guides my life is from Pirkei Avot, usually translated as Ethics of the Fathers, but which I prefer to think of as Wisdom of our Ancestors — it is not incumbent on you to complete the work, but neither are you free to desist from it. And so, from another text — Gatsby maybe? — we row on endlessly against the current.

  15. avatar

    I get the sense from these posts that promoting fatherhood would help shrinking congregations and women looking to start families. I see this as a long term and a short term challenge. In the long term, adknowledging the contribution that parents make to society would help. It costs parents over $100,000 to raise a child to the age of 18 according to the US agriculture department. Double that for people in higher income brackets. And that is just the easy to measure financial cost. The time commitment is huge. If someone gave $800,000 to expand the temple, there would be a fancy dinner in his honor. If someone with 8 children moves to town, he gets a lecture about burdening the school district. I don’t think many Reform couples plan on having 8 children, but a young couple that sees the dinner and the lecturing might go from planning for 3 children to planning for 2. My dad went from planning on having 5 kids to planning on having 3 kids, because he wanted more time to volunteer. Rabbis could help by thanking parents in general for the massive contribution they make to the community. The sermon on honoring thy mother and father is a good place. Even consider citing the numbers if it drive home the size of the contribution. It will take years for this appreciation to sink in, so this is a long term challenge.
    In the short term, there are childless women facing menopause who want to have children. A rushed or pressured marriage would have a shaky start, but maybe we can support them in other ways. Reproductive choice means more than abortions, it means expanding options in both directions. If a woman in her 30′s chooses artificial insemination, we should view it as courageous. Sisterhoods can host lectures on reproductive options so that women learn the risks, benefits, and chance of success for different procedures at different times of life. Providing this knowledge allows men and women to make informed choices.

  16. William Berkson

    Larry, could you explain what you mean you write “the ‘establishment’ should be enablers not providers”? What sorts of things did you have in mind?
    On the issue of finances, I think it is important to signal to people that they are first of all welcome to participate, and then when they participate that no one is refused membership because of financial hardship. I would think that this is the policy of most synagogues, but maybe some aren’t communicating it well, and putting people at ease and making them feel welcome.
    This is of course going to be a key issue if there is more effort to involve young adults.

  17. avatar

    Joseph: It has been my experience that many young people are under the illusion they can easily put off marriage and a family for a career. They think they can arrange their lives to suit themselves. Nature, which evolved people over tens of thousands of years to begin families in their teens, has some rude surprises. It becomes so much harder to have children after the prime child bearing years and there is much more chance of serious complications for mother and child. Even finding a good husband or wife become more difficult when many of the best ones are already taken, and others come with challenges like children from their first marriages and x-spouses to complicate the second marriage. I know a lot of people who regret terribly waiting too long by the time they reach middle age childless. But they can’t turn the clock back and by then it may be too late.
    If people in their 20′s were more realistic about how much more difficult it is to have a family later in life, I think many would opt not to wait until they are finished with their education and secure in their careers to start a family.

  18. avatar

    William Berkson said:
    Larry, could you explain what you mean you write “the ‘establishment’ should be enablers not providers”? What sorts of things did you have in mind?
    My essential message is peer involvement in formulating niche programs,with the synagogue supplying a mentor/guide to whom the group can relate and at least seed money if not total funding.
    What I was taught by my rabbi, Fred Schwartz, was that the one question that has to be asked is Where’s the Torah? with a very broad definition of Torah. If the teens went to a Saturday night basketball game, they met first for pizza and havdalah. This kind of thinking should be built in across the niches.
    For example, an urban congregation located in a neighborhood with a lot of young adults could fund a storefront coffee house, a mile or so from the shul,stocked with mandekl bread and rugelach instead of biscotti, copies of Moment, Heeb, Shma, The Forward, CDs of whoever the right musician of the moment was (Rick Recht, maybe — Craig Taubman may be too mainstream for what I’m thinking — Matisyahu etc.) Wireless laptop connections of course, but also a computer on premises whose home page had links to jewcy.com, jewlicious, etc’ a grad student on premise as host, a young rabbi dropping in from time to time — and while I’d let it be known that this home away from home was provided by Congregation Bet Swingers, where they were welcome at any time, I wouldn’t push it. The grad student might facilitate a Shabbat afternoon book discussion, or show an Israeli film, or organize an excursion to the local Jewish museum. While the peer manager would be responsible for seeing to it that nothing happened that would embarrass the congregation, otherwise I’d let nature take its course…which hopefully would sometimes lead to the synagogue building.
    Parallel programs could be offered for the other “vulnerable” groups: teens, parents of post bnai mitzvah — but all in situations where they had a peer-ish mentor, whose most important skill would be to make the group think his ideas were theirs. In other words, create hands-on groups, and keep hands off.
    Something like this is going on in Chicago now, not synagogue connected — and from what I hear, more successful than the kehilla organized by local congregations and the JCC — precisely because it’s farther removed from institutional Judaism.
    I will concede that the hardest niche group to serve is mature singles. Every effort I’ve heard about has attracted lots of women, no men. Maybe one reason we’re so pediatrically focussed is that it’s easy.

  19. William Berkson

    Larry, thanks. You are certainly right that the groups whom we want to involve must be advising at every step. Yes, this group is hard, but that with programs as we have them. I think there must be something better, and we just have to find it. Because the future of American Judaism depends on it.
    David Wilensky. What percentage of college age Jewish adults do you think are involved in these non-institutional Jewish activities? How many Reform? Are there any figures on this?

  20. avatar

    I hope David Wilensky weighs in too, but I suggest you look at the Synagogue 3000/Mechon Hadar 2007 Emergent Spiritual Communities Report.
    http://www.synagogue3000.org/files/NatSpirComStudyReport_S3K_Hadar.pdf
    Although it’s not expressed as a percentage of the total Jewish population, I think you might be interested in the data on page 16 and 17–including the following excerpt:
    The emergent communities, though, present quite a different picture. In the transition from childhood upbringing to current self‐professed identification, all denominations, and not just Orthodoxy, lose out to the surging non‐denominational option. But contrary to the impression of some that Conservative identity is the major “victim” of this process of rising non‐
    denominationalism, within the emergent population, the decline in fact is most severe in Reform identification. That is, ex‐Reform outnumber ex‐Orthodox and ex‐Conservative.
    The independent minyanim are especially emblematic of this tendency. The percentage identified with Orthodoxy declines from 20% for childhood upbringing to 15% for current identity; for Conservatism, the comparable numbers slide from 46% to 37%. But for Reform the drop is nearly total: from 18% in childhood to under 3% today.
    These patterns do not suggest merely that many young adults in these communities are unhappy with denominational categories. They also suggest a basic incompatibility between Reform identity and emergent participants’ Jewish identity. One reason is that few emergent communities take a Reform‐style approach or are heirs to Reform prayer groups. Another is that, typically, participants in emergent communities see themselves as highly committed and highly identified (with good reason, as we demonstrate below). In contrast, Reform, as the movement with the largest number of least committed Jews – by their own testimony – may find it difficult to meet the needs of those of its young adults who seek to intensify their Jewish identity, and many of those young adults may perceive their new commitments as incompatible with those of the vast majority in the Reform movement.

  21. William Berkson

    Ruth B, thanks for that reference and link. Indeed, these independent communities seem to be composed of those who like traditional prayer ritual, but find something else missing in synagogues or synagogue communities. Your quote indicates that few of these like the Reform service, and in fact reject Reform partly for that reason.
    They are also more active in many different aspects of Jewish life. Many are also single.
    All this confirms my suspicion that these folks are the exception to the more dominant and worrying trend, which is to leave Judaism because they really don’t care about it.
    Still, I would be interested in what they find socially in these groups that they don’t find in synagogues. And is a lesser financial burden a key factor? Strangely, the study doesn’t raise these questions.

  22. avatar

    William, it seems to me that it is up to the congregations to have a type of Judaism that American Jews can relate to, something they find meaningful and worthwhile, something they can be proud of. Some synagogues have adopted an approach that appeals more and more to less and less of the congregation and fails to offer anything that most unaffiliated Jews consider worth belonging to.

  23. avatar

    Mr. Berkson queries:Still, I would be interested in what they find socially in these groups that they don’t find in synagogues.
    (I keep hoping that “BZ” will join in the conversation here–his would perhaps be the most valuable input on this question.)
    The study suggests that it’s Shabbat dinner (p.33).
    Presently, I am reading Rabbi Dr. Ron Wolfson’s “The Spitituality of Welcoming” which suggests that successful Jewish communities are based on relationships and personal connections–and what better way to cultivate a relationship than over dinner, especially in the intimacy of a home. Shabbat dinner is perhaps the most Jewish of social bonding…
    I too am troubled by those who leave Judaism because they have no interest in it. But I am also concerned that the largest Jewish movement is losing both its educational successes and failures, and what that bodes for the future of non-orthodox Jewish education and life.

  24. avatar

    Ruth B – thanks for that great link! It was a most interesting reading.
    I will be attending my first meeting of our Temple Adult Education committee this week and have been looking at a variety of issues – not only for topics, but how and where to have events that would attract Temple members and hopefully non-members. I know how meaningful it was to me to have a local couple (orthodox) invite me to a Sabbath dinner this summer. It made me wonder what percentage of our members have a Sabbath dinner and/or observe Shabbat.
    In my search I came across the URJ link
    http://urj.org/educate/adults/
    and if you scroll down to “For the Congregation” and then click “Building Congregations of Learning; Best paractices in Adult Study, 2007″ you will see various size congregations and a synopsis of their programs.” I mention this as I did not want to reinvent the wheel but to see what sort of activities have been successful in other congregations.
    Expanding locations for outside the Temple seems less threatening to those who might want to connect but were not ready to commit to a Temple per se.
    I keep thinking that parents of children in our Temple school fall into an age bracket that might know other non-affiliated Jews (singles, couples with or without children, etc.) that they could invite to an event or at least spread the word that we exist. We also have a local University that has a high percentage of Jewish students. There must be a way to connect with them too; invite for a Sabbath dinner or a Holiday time if they are too far away from their own home. Perhaps ask them to help during a community Social Action weekend. I guess what I am saying is we could do more outreach and learn first hand where they are in their lives, what would be meaningful to them, etc….just some thoughts from someone who wants the glass to be more than half full!

  25. avatar

    Well, this week I just joined a shul that happens to be Reform. I picked it, because it is the closest shul to my house, a custom I picked up from nondemonimational Christians. Perhaps the path that brought a postdemonicational Jew like me to shul could shed some light on the topic. Going to this blog helped. It provided a casual, nonjudgemental place to participate and input my ideas. There were plenty of posts on sundry Jewish topics, which meant I was bound to find a post that matches my interests. I know that it isn’t too cost effective to have a bunch of live events with low attendance, but any shul can afford to add a blog to their website.
    A shul could also develop events that congregants can customize themselves. A daily Bring Your Own Book minyan might work. Let each person arrive with a book to pray from silently with the rest of the minyan. That way, eveyone is welcomed regardless of each person’s siddur preferences.

  26. avatar

    Doris: It is a fascinating report, isn’t it? Thanks for taking the time to read it. As for learning about young adults, I think that personal contact more than programming is the way to go.
    Joseph: Mazel tov on joining a congregation! Thank-you for sharing your insight about how you came to that decision. I think that having a congregational blog could be a great idea, as long as its participants also engage in real life.
    FWIW–I also consider myself post/trans denominational, and often I wonder if that means I should dial back my involvement in synagogue life. I will never share MB’s passion for Reform–so should one such as me who has great ambivalence about what “Reform” means be involved with the leadership of a URJ-affiliated congregation? Or, are the voices of those of us who want to be “just-Jewish” important to balance these congregations?

  27. William Berkson

    That’s interesting Joseph–welcome, I hope you find friends at the synagogue.
    Ruth B., Thanks for the note about shabbat dinner being important. That goes with my feeling that meetings at synagogue generally have to be about more than prayer, if we are going to get more people through the door.
    Ruth B., I forget who wrote this but they said that philosophically the three denominations in Judaism are really:
    1. Liberal–including Reform, most of Conservative, and Reconstructionist
    2. Conservadox, meaning the traditionalist wing of Conservative and Modern Orthodox. And
    3. Haredim, the ultra-Orthodox.
    I think that this is more or less right, but also ‘Jewish’ is the right identity. The rest is institutional. Still, I think the thing is to make our institutions meaningful. If you are considering ‘dialing back’, what is missing?
    Is there anything synagogues can do to fill that missing piece?

  28. avatar

    I think a better term for most of us than post-denominational is hybrid.
    I have probably previously blogged about being at a dinner party with six other couples, where it came out that the other six couples all belonged to Conservative congregations, and someone made a disparaging comment to my wife and me about being Reformed (sic). I respnnded that we might be the only Reform Jews in the crowd, but we were also the only ones who went to shul every Shabbos.
    The classification of liberal, Conservadox and Charedi is one way of showing the fuzziness of our borders between the established streams. It may have been Rabbi Hartman who opined that the only distinction that matters is between serious and non-serious Jews.
    I have relatively little contact in the Modern Orthodox community, and none in the black-hat community, so my observations stem from living in a Jewish world with those identified as Reform, Reconstructionist, Conservative, and secular (also known as “just Jewish). Looking analytically only at the Big Three of the religious movements, and looking below the active leadership level, we see three indicators of religiosity — ideology, liturgy, and lifestyle.
    Most of my friends who belong to Conservative synagogues have lifestyles similar to my Reform lifestyle. Even if they are kosher at home, they eat out (possibly not pork except in Chinese restaurants) and they ignore Shabbat. Their synagogue affiliation and self-identification is based on their preference for Conservative liturgy as compared to their obsolete perception of Reform liturgy and worship style. About the best they could do if asked about Conservative ideology would be to tell you that it’s a middle ground between Orthodoxy and Reform.
    So I have no problem with Ruth B being involved in the leadership of a Reform congregation when her personal practice or ideology may be somewhere else — nor would I be troubled by the efforts of any trans or post-denominational Jew to move the congregation in any Jewish direction — more tradition, less tradition. It’s not a matter of balance, but of the value of any informed voice.
    Regarding getting more people through the door, we need to recognize that people come through that door for a variety of different reasons, and will come back because a need has been met, not necessarily the need that brought them in in the first place. Read Rabbi Larry Kushner’s wonderful essay on the Tent-Peg Congregation — where one of the key points is differentiating between the mission (Study, worship, community) and enabling the mission (baking cookies for the Oneg, running Xerox copies, preparing the budget and collecting the dues). My now emeritus rabbi always taught us not to scorn the inferior motivation — im lo lishma, ba lishma, what doesn’t begin for holy purpose acquires a holy purpose.
    William Berkson and I both use a glass as our metaphor — he sees it as leaky, and I as half-full. Is the objective to repair the leak, or to replenish the content? The Fathers answered the question for us — it is not incumbent on us to complete the task, but we are not free to desist from it — either task!

  29. avatar

    Ruth B – I just want you to know that in our Torah Study group, the people have a wide range of philosophy and belief, as well as knowledge background. There are some that truly question the existance of ‘God’ yet participate each week. I really admire them for their honesty.
    There are times recently when I have to put the brakes on my own enthusiasm so I don’t burn out or get in over my head. I am trying to get a feel for the Temple ‘culture’ without ticking anyone off with my questions (like budget, various funds & how they are really used, etc.) I already sense some turf battles…….
    Scaling back may give you a breather to reassess your own personal needs and how they mesh with your particular Temple. People change, Temple management changes, life changes us too. Just my thoughts in response to your post.

  30. avatar

    It’s not because something is missing that I’m considering dialing back, but because of remitting/relapsing dissonance with the “Reform” identity.
    Example: I participate in the iWorship listserve, and recently someone asked for recommendations about where to attend a Reform Shabbat morning service in NYC. As the responses came in, I realized that if I had the oppurtunity to be in NYC on Shabbat moring, seeking a Reform service would be way down my list. I would want to check out the places that the J-Bloggers I read rave about: Kehillat Hadar, B’nei Jeshrun, and even Jewish Institute Riverdale.
    Another example: I have been chastised more than once for using Hebrew words in my Congregation’s Torah study and Board meetings, etc. It really isn’t my intent to be pretentious–I suppose it comes from being a J-blogaholic, and assuming that every Jew has a certain basic knowledge. But it makes me sad that at my synagogue, I have to be careful about using too much Hebrew, lest people feel bad about not knowing it. (BTW, I was raised Lutheran, so any Hebrew I know came as an adult, living in a mid-sized city far away from major Jewish centers…)
    So, while I try my best to be a good steward for the congregation, are my values too far out of line for a Reform synagogue to be an appropriate Board member? Am I doing more harm than good?
    That is where I wonder about dialing back.
    Apologies if yours was a rhetorical question…

  31. William Berkson

    Ruth, it wasn’t a rhetorical question, and I appreciate your answer.
    The Hebrew issue is really a vexing one. M.B. I think is out of line in hostility to Hebrew, but it is true that it’s an unfortunate barrier for those who don’t understand.
    But for those who understand the Hebrew, the liturgy is so much more powerful that a lot of the English seems thin gruel by comparison. I have been on both sides of this divide, as I only learned Hebrew as a language (I could pronounce it, but that’s not at all the same) when I was 50. I learned it to read Pirkei Avot, but I was really astonished by the power of the prayers and psalms.
    At the congregation where I grew up, Sinai Temple in Champaign, Illinois, they’ve had for many years weekly both a more conventional Reform service, and a more tradition service, with Hebrew dominating.
    I’ll write more soon on this issue, but this is one solution.

  32. avatar

    William: ” M.B. I think is out of line in hostility to Hebrew, but it is true that it’s an unfortunate barrier for those who don’t understand.”
    I regret if I have given you the impression that I am hostile toward Hebrew. I have always thought it was beneficial to know Hebrew for study of the Bible or to communicate with Israelis. We benefit from Hebrew scholars in Bible class. I have studied it myself. I understand it was required in the early days at Harvard and Yale along with Greek and Latin for Christians for Bible study. It is valuable to be fluent in Hebrew as in French, Spanish, Latin, Greek, or Italian. If you want to read Maimonides in the original, don’t you have to know Arabic?
    What I support is that foundational Reform belief that, because only a tiny percentage of American Jews really understand Hebrew (which I don’t think anyone disputes), it is wrong to use Hebrew for prayers in America. Likewise in most other countries around the world. That becomes exclusionary and boring to English speakers. It is one of the major reasons for the leak in the glass. It makes ritual empty — utterly devoid of meaning. Reform Jews believe that God understands the prayers of American Jews in English. The Bible doesn’t command prayer be in Hebrew; not even the Orthodox contend that it does. Does it matter what the prayers mean? I think it does? If people don’t understand what they are saying, are they being phony and pretentious? Will God be more impressed if we speed mumble in a language we don’t understand rather than speaking to Him from the heart?
    There are millions of Hebrew speaking people who are not Jewish, like Muslims, atheists and Christians in Israel. Does that make them more Jewish than those devout Jews who believe in God and the Bible and understand little or no Hebrew?

  33. avatar

    I think there’s a difference between using Hebrew for prayer, like MB is talking about, and using Hebrew words in Torah Study and at Board meetings, for which Ruth B feels chistised. Obviously, the language of prayer is a complicated question with really great reasons on all sides that ultimately have much to do with the individual worshipper.
    However, using Hebrew in the other contexts should be a simpler matter. No one should be made to feel unwelcome. That means that when anyone uses potentially unfamiliar phrases, they should be accompanied by a quick translation. But if they forget, they shouldn’t be chastised, merely reminded that not everyone comes with the same background. But most importantly, there should be an atmosphere where everyone around the table can feel comfortable to ask for clarification of what anyone else has said. (I would expect it to be no different if, during a budget discussion, a CPA on the board slipped into some technical accounting jargon.)

  34. avatar

    Kudos to David Levy for the brilliant analogy to the use of accounting jargon. The difference is that the CPA is not expected to translate his technical terminology for the financially less sophisticated, but we who use the technical terminology of worship and Torah study have been taught not only the terms, but also to follow them immediately with a translation or explanation.
    One of the things this demonstrates is another leak in the glass — a value system in our congregations that gives more respect to the numbers people than to the Torah people. The ability to explicate the balance sheet is more important than the ability to explicate a passage of Torah.
    Ruth, your mission on the temple Board is to remind your colleagues all the time that the value of the congregation lies in its values — and that what you have learned, they can learn. It is not too hard for them, they don’t have to cross the ocean or climb the mountain to get it. It sounds like your colleagues need lessons not in Hebrew (although it wouldn’t hurt) but in derech eretz, appropriate conduct. I don’t remember a lot of my tenth grade Latin, but I do remember the teacher, Foster Lewis, imparting as an important lesson, illegitimi non carborundum — don’t let the bastards wear you down.
    As for the use of Hebrew in prayer, that’s an altogether different subject, and it gives rise to another Latin phrase, vox populi vox dei, the voice of the people is the voice of God. Back in the day, when Reform services used a negligible amount of Hebrew, there were half a million Reform Jews. Today there are a million and a half. Could it be that we are doing something right?

  35. avatar

    Thanks for your comments Larry. I especially appreciate the reference to parshat Nitzavim (a Torah portion in Deuteronomy.)
    Although regarding the people who do the budget, now that I’ve been through that process a couple of times, my hat is off to them. Im ain kemach, ain Torah–if there is no flour, there is no Torah. (It’s not just you and Mr. Berkson who are fans of the Avot!) But we shouldn’t forget the second part of that phrase either–if there is no Torah, there is no flour.
    To crudely paraphrase Bialik, I find that studying our texts in translation is like laying down with my beloved and never getting to take our clothes off. But, as David Levy correctly points out, no one should be made to feel unwelcome or unworthy, so I acknowledge that it’s better to leave the teachable moments for Hebrew phrases and the Jewish ideals they succinctly express to the professional clergy. It’s far better to be kind and considerate.

  36. William Berkson

    MB, you are quite mistaken that it is “a foundational belief of Reform …that it is wrong [for non-Hebrew speakers] to pray in Hebrew.” I went back to Michael A. Meyer’s book ‘A Response to Modernity’ and checked the history.
    The early reformers used a quite traditional service, with a lot of Hebrew. Later, this was modified to have more vernacular, with a mixture. There were arguments about how much Hebrew to have in the service, but the early ‘Reform Union Prayer Book for Jewish Services’ Has both Hebrew and English, evidently for the congregation to choose the mix. You can Google to see a 1910 copy of the Union Prayer Book Part II (copy right in the 19th century), for the High Holy days, and see it for yourself.
    According to Meyer, in the first decade of the 20th century there were indeed quite a few congregations that used no Hebrew. However this was not a policy of the Reform movement, and by the 1930s there was again some Hebrew in the services. And in general the Torah was read by the Rabbi in Hebrew from the Torah scroll.
    My view is that using some Hebrew is quite important, and that we should use appropriate Hebrew terms in conversation, with translation.
    That is partly because Hebrew is a language that unites us with Jewry world wide, and particularly in Israel. Classical Reform made a fundamental mistake in trying to reject the idea of the Jews as a nation or people. It is a point of key importance for the survival and thriving of our people, and Hebrew promotes it.
    Using Hebrew terms are important because, again, they connect with the ideas that often can only be fully expressed in the original–a point I made earlier that applies eg to Hindu concepts like Dharma and Karma.
    Finally there is the point made unforgettably by Ruth B. I will certainly not try to top that, but just another analogy. Reading the sacred texts in English is like reading Shakespeare in Italian or Spanish. It just can’t be the same thing, and while I’m sure it can be very nice, just doesn’t have the emotional power of the original.
    Thus for those who understand Hebrew there is a real loss if there is minimal or no Hebrew.
    Now as I said, because of the strong positives for some and negatives for others of using Hebrew, the question of how much Hebrew to use is a vexing one. I think the solution is not to jettison Hebrew–which I think is a terrible idea and would be a tragic loss–but rather to use a mixture in prayer, and to promote and educate people to learn more Hebrew.
    So to Ruth B., I do think it is great for you to use Hebrew phrases, with translation if there is any question of anybody in the group not understanding. And you should absolutely feel good about it, as you are helping to educate your fellow congregants. If they grouse they need to get with the program, not you.
    I am quite confident that Shuls with no Yiddishkeit are not going to be strong and vibrant Jewish institutions for the future.
    And that means…

  37. avatar

    Ruth, I think you are right to question whether to stay in a congregation or a denomination if your beliefs no longer jive with it. Everyone in America is free to choose their own religion and their own denomination. People are no longer born into a congregation for life. For believers, this is much too important a decision to be left to chance, and too important to stick with your original pick once you conclude that you cannot in good faith accept its essential teachings. You can study, reflect and change, and change again. And if you don’t find one that suits you, you have the right to start your own religion, as a number of Americans have done and will do, some very successfully (including Reform and Conservative Judaism).
    I have seen people who no longer wish to be Reform, but instead of simply going where they fit in so that everyone can be happy, they try to undermine the temple, try to remake it Conservative, keeping only the Reform name. That I find both intellectually dishonest, as well as being unfair to those who sincerely believe in Reform Judaism and want to belong to a temple instead of a synagogue.
    If you are in an open Bible class, as opposed to an advanced study program, I think good teaching technique requires that foreign and technical terms be translated whenever they are used. The ability to communicate effectively is is an essential element for every good teacher or participant. That is being considerate of others. To do otherwise will seem like talking over most people’s heads, or talking behind their backs, like it is unimportant to you whether or not they are included in the conversation. You have students from all backgrounds (including a constant stream of those new to Judaism and/or new to Bible study as well as those used to translation), and you can’t assume their familiarity with technical terms and foreign language words. Some come regularly and some infrequently. Some have better memories and some better hearing than others. But we must recognize the vital importance of allowing everyone to study and learn from the Bible, no matter what their background is.

  38. William Berkson

    Two stories about the power of Hebrew. There was a college kid very interested in Judaism, but in a secular, cultural way, as he was agnostic. As part of his Jewish studies course he learned Hebrew as a spoken language, and then studied the Bible in the original. The power of the words took him by surprise, and were literally a revelation. He became religious and devoted himself to Judaism.
    That student is now Rabbi Yoffie, currently head of the URJ.
    Second story was told me by a daughter of two Holocaust survivors, who I believe heard it from the lady who did this.
    After WW II a lady from a Jewish agency went to a monastery to retrieve Jewish children whom she thought had been hidden there by the nuns. But as good as the nuns were they couldn’t bring themselves to admit that some of their young charges were Jewish, as they were well on the way to making the children Catholic. So this lady from the Jewish agency lined up the little children and walked along the line softly singing:
    “Shema Yisrael adonai eloheinu…”
    And one child brightened and say, “Oh yes my mother used to sing that to me at night,” and another, “I know that song.” And another and another. And so many were rescued to the Jewish people.
    Hebrew is our language. Claim it, own it, love it.

  39. avatar

    William, you are confusing the reformers in Europe with those in America. The Americans, being English speaking, began with new prayer books mostly in English along with American Jewish hymns mostly in English. Later, when creating services for immigrants who best understood a foreign language, services were created in the foreign language so that the people could understand and participate. In Europe, Jews were not free to reform. They were hamstrung by hostile, reactionary, and sometimes antisemitic governments and powerful hostile Orthodox forces who used all the power they could muster to limit or stop reforms wherever possible. That is one reason why millions left Europe for the freedom of the New World.
    Hebrew is no longer our language (unless you are going to say that Latin is the language of all the Catholics in your neighborhood). Our ancestors used many languages in different places and times. We Jews are native Americans, the children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren of Americans. English, American English, is our language.
    To charge Jews with having a separate nationality is to slander us, to contend we are not full citizens. Our nationality is American. This is the greatest country on earth and the one in which our people have been at our best. Who would not be proud to claim our American nationality. We have pledged our allegiance to the American republic. Our undivided loyalty is to the United States. As Americans of the Jewish faith, of course we care deeply about the welfare of our coreligionists around the globe, but that does not change our nationality. We are not some tribal group back thousands of years ago.
    Reform Jews in communities around the world are united by a belief in the one true God, the Ten Commandments and the ethical teachings of His prophets. It is the substance, not the form that is all important. Wherever progressive Reform Jews gather to worship they do it in a way they can understand, in their own language.

  40. William Berkson

    MB, I am not confusing Europe with America and you persist in misrepresenting history for your own polemical purposes. You are entitled to oppose the view of Jews as a people as well as a religion, and to oppose the use of Hebrew in services, but you are not entitled to distort history.
    The fact is that American Reform prayer books–Minhag America and the Union Prayer Book–have always had Hebrew in them, and prominently. Are you going to deny that? It’s just a fact. I did concede honestly that there were people in the first decade of the century who had your view about not using Hebrew at all–but they were not the official voice of the movement, and this was only for one period, not before or after.
    Even in the current effort to keep more Classical Reform alive, the Society for Classical Reform, in their statement of principals they say: “a primarily English language worship Service, enriched by the timeless elements of Hebrew texts and song that link us to our past and to our fellow Jews throughout the world.”
    You are entitled to your views, but they don’t even represent those who want Classical Reform services today.

  41. avatar

    Ruth B wrote: But, as David Levy correctly points out, no one should be made to feel unwelcome or unworthy, so I acknowledge that it’s better to leave the teachable moments for Hebrew phrases and the Jewish ideals they succinctly express to the professional clergy.
    Wait a minute, I just want to make sure that’s not what you took from my comment. I think if you are confident enough to use Hebrew words and phrases, there is no reason why you can’t be the one to translate them and keep moving forward. We did away with the priesthood a couple of thousand years ago – we don’t need to leave “teachable moments” to the rabbis!

  42. avatar

    Thank you, everyone, for such marvelous and thought-provoking comments!
    I’m a member of a congregation about to move to Mishkan T’filah later this month. Yes, it is awful. Combined with the music of Taubman and Rick Recht and other modern composers, I am about to leave the regular worship services: they no longer connect me to Judaism.
    It is not the amount of Hebrew that bothers me, it is a return to prayers where the words have no meaning (i.e., the resurrection of the dead) and the substitution of poetry and metaphors for prose. It is also simply too thick!
    I understand some of the rationale of our Cantor and Rabbi: the hope that a new music and new litergy will appeal to a new generation. I know that my wife certainly likes it. My kids who have been exposed to it ignore it.
    So we will remain members, as we have for about 25 years, and services will become just a bit less masculine in numbers.
    One thing that my wife agrees with me is dropping the pledge in our will to URJ. It is only one of two ways that we can reject the changes. Are there others?

  43. avatar

    I must ask, Colin, why on earth would you punish the URJ for the music chosen by your cantor, or for a prayer option that the CCAR decided to offer — I repeat, as an option — to those, like me, who are comforted by it?
    As for your other comments about Mishkan T’fila, the amount of Hebrew is about what it was in Gates of Prayer — about half. All the prayers in MT are provided in Hebrew and in English, and for most of them, alternative readings are offered, typically in English. It’s not the siddur, it’s the clergy (usually) who decide what will be used in each language. Regardless of the choice, there is the expectation that if you don’t like the one being read or sung from the bimah, you’ll choose an alternate that connects you better to whatever you’re trying to connect to.
    The editors of Mishkan T’fila made a very concerted (and most think successful) effort to reflect the diversity of today’s Reform Judaism. In our congregatin, we have been using it for a year, and its thickness replaced the thin-ness of a prayer pamphlet. According to what I hear, everybody loves it. I know of two others, besides me, who read the Hebrew that you translate as resurrection of the dead, and that I translate as who gives life to the departed (since my parents live in my memory). From the pulpit, the same words are sung that have been sung since the introduction of Gates of Prayer. (I believe UPB used Hebrew and English along the lines of “who implanted within us eternal life.”
    The real problem seems to be that you are an adherent of ReformED Judaism. Most of us are attracted to a religion that, in its liturgy and elsewhere, re-forms to meet changing times and changing needs and changing tastes.
    You indicate that your kids ignore the music of Taubman and Recht. Are we to assume they come to life and join in rousingly for the music of Sulcer and Binder?
    In terms of other ways to protest the evolving Reform liturgy, besides disinheriting the URJ. you might articulate your objections to your own clergy, outline them publicly as you have started to do here on this blog, write articles for Reform Judaism Magazine. Hopefully you will have many years to think of others. But maybe, just maybe, over those many years, you will become accustomed to Reform Judaism circa 2008, and come 2028, when we have evolved and re-formed still further, you’ll have a new bill of particulars to protest against.

  44. avatar

    I’m sorry you feel offended, Mr. Kaufman. My comments were seeking ideas and seeing if anyonde else has problems with MT. I am not so much “punishing” URJ for the adoption of MT, but refusing to participate financially.
    I urge you to re-read my comments, and request that you not put words in my mouth. I did not make comment about the amount of Hebrew; I have no problem with it. My concern is returning to concepts that were long ago rejected. If we wish to relate more closely to Israel, why do we use archaic agricultural prayers? Why not pray for the biotech industry? Software developers?
    As for my kids reaction to the old music: the increasing use of Hebrew distresses my daughter-in-law. Neither the old melodies nor the new are going to change that. How they will relate over time as their children begin preparation for b’nei mitzvah is an issue that only they can address.
    As for your last comment: it is simply not helpful to someone reaching out. Since you have all the answers and since you may or may not be here in 2028, you will have the freedom to participate or not.

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