Hard, Honest Questions



Will synagogues continue to exist in the future?

Will the next generation engage in Jewish life?

Is Reform Judaism still relevant?

These hard, honest questions underlie the conversations we members of the URJ leadership team have every day with leaders and staff of Reform congregations.  Last week I was honored to be the ordination speaker at Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion, as a minyan of new rabbis received smicha.  I addressed these questions head on, and challenged this next generation of rabbis to do the same.

It is true that the data is challenging.  Fewer young people are joining synagogues than their parents did, and the “drop out” rate after b’nei mitzvah is sobering.  But it won’t surprise you to know that I strongly believe that synagogues will not only continue, but many congregations will transform and thrive in the next era of Jewish history.  I also feel confident that Reform Judaism, which continues to re-form, re-invent, and re-new, will not only be relevant, but also will successfully capture the imagination of our young people.

So given my optimism, why do I amplify these provocative questions?  Simon Rawidowicz famously taught that every generation of Jews thinks it is the last.  I often have pondered the notion that this phenomenon sparks the urgency among successive generations of Jewish communal leaders to challenge their institutions to re-imagine themselves to become relevant for the future.  In other words, being honest about the gap between the ways our synagogues are organized and the needs of the next generation forces us to make change.

At the URJ we continually are working to help you re-imagine Jewish life.  In my address, I invited our newest rabbis to become our partners in this sacred work.  I also challenged them to focus less on creative programs and slick brochures, and more on fostering enduring relationships among all those whom we invite into our dynamic communities.

During my four wonderful days in Cincinnati, my optimism was only confirmed.  I studied with the great Rabbi David Ellenson who has brought HUC-JIR to unprecedented heights.  It was bittersweet, as this will be David’s final ordination ceremony as president of the College-Institute.

Earlier in the week, I sat with the leadership teams of various Reform congregations.  Like many of you, they are hungry for moments of spiritual connection as part of real community.  Through communities of practice, leadership training, and creative experimentation, they, also like many of you, are rising to the challenge.

I also had the opportunity to visit the Jacob Rader Marcus Center of the American Jewish Archive, an incredible resource for our people.  I urge you to visit and have a tour with the great Rabbi Gary Zola who is an inspiring voice of Jewish history.

Hearing Rabbi Zola reminded me that time and again, Jewish leaders have confronted the challenges of their day and risen up to overcome them. How much more so will Reform Judaism rise to the challenge, since by nature, Reform Jews are called to renew?

What do you think it will take to transform our communities?  Comment on this post to join the conversation about re-imagining Jewish life.

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Rabbi Jonah Pesner

About Rabbi Jonah Pesner

Rabbi Jonah Pesner is Senior Vice President of the URJ. Rabbi Pesner is also the founding Director of Just Congregations. He works with synagogues pursuing social justice across the country and teaches on all three campuses of the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. He has led efforts to engage thousands of members of congregations to join together in successful campaigns for health care access, affordable housing, public education and other social action initiatives.

3 Responses to “Hard, Honest Questions”

  1. avatar

    Everyone knows how bad the dropoff between b’nai mitzvah and confirmation is. It’s time to 1) research the best post-b’nai mitzvah Confirmation programs at temples today (and not limited to Reform — there are likely things we can learn from other denominations doing it well); 2) solicit nominations to supplement #1 and publish a “Top 40 Temples in Teen Retention” list which measures by percentage of retained between b’nai mitzvah and confirmation, grouped by normal tiers of synagogue membership size; 3) compile the best practices to create a “Temple Teen Retention Kit” for reform synagogues to follow.

  2. avatar

    Feeling a bit like Nahshon wading into the Red Sea, I think that that consumerism and secularism are not causes in themselves but rather symptoms of a larger issue, namely that modern society is increasingly filled with distractions and activities that seem urgent but often are not fundamental to happiness and take our attention further from Hashem and the true meaning of life. I totally agree that connecting with fellow congregants in meaningful ways is essential to the continuance of our traditions. Helping our congregants to see each other as caring and supportive individuals seeking fulfillment in doing good in the world will go a long way to helping to sustain us in this world of ever increasing complexity.

  3. avatar

    Rabbi Pesner,

    I read your HUC-JIR sermon with great interest. Like Alex, I do not think that secularism and religious consumerism are the causes of decline. They are the predictable result of ceding spheres of morality that used to be dominated by the family, church and other voluntary civic associations. Previously, these voluntary associations were the vehicles for ‘social justice’ as conceptualized in its modern form by Taparelli. Why should we be surprised that as the state fills and necessarily diminishes the role previously occupied by voluntary religious associations, that religion institutions necessarily wither? For large segments of the population, the state has become the ‘civic religion’, fulfilling Rousseau’s “Social Contract” which ‘binds the hearts of the citizens to the State’ and trivializes religious opinion. We should not be surprised that when religion cedes its position of moral authority to the state, one result is in an increasing number of unaffiliated who find the succor in the state rather than the synagogue. One can have ‘big religion’ or a ‘big state’ but not both. Successful ‘Re-form’ will only be possible when the Reform movement confronts this cognitive dissonance.

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