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.