Judaism in Crisis

Is the Jewish community as we currently know it in crisis? Many Jewish leaders and thinkers seem to think so. Current discussions raging within the Jewish world cast a dark pall on the future of Judaism in America. A recent article on ejewishphilanthropy.com discusses the future of the American Jewish community, noting that the recent economic meltdown could have a negative influence on our community, both today and into the future.

The deeper question at stake is whether Judaism is even relevant to most Jews today. It doesn’t take a degree in statistics to recognize that less than 25% of American Jews affiliate with a synagogue or a religious organization, and less than 15% attend services on a regular basis. Even the number of Jews who attend annual High Holiday services has dropped significantly.

Jewish institutions are closing, shrinking, or at best restructuring to meet the growing challenges of declining philanthropic giving and shrinking numbers of Jews affiliated with Jewish organizations. Just one of the most noticeable examples is the recent near closure of Hebrew Union College’s historic campus in Cincinnati.

Jewish organizations and institutions are not alone in feeling these effects. The Jewish people are changing. With over 50% of the Jewish community intermarried, there are more children today with Jewish/non-Jewish parents than children with two Jewish parents. In the coming years (if trends stay the same), it will be highly unusual for Jewish children to have two Jewish parents. This has become such an issue that if Judaism is to become a vibrant religion once again, some scholars are calling for a Judaism that moves beyond ethnicity (a post-ethnic Judaism).

Although I may not be arguing for such a leap, what is true is that we need to ask ourselves some hard questions. What is wrong with our current congregational and organizational models? And why are we not attracting young, educated Jews into our fold?

Old habits die hard … and they are also killing us. Few communities, especially within Messianic Judaism, have been successful at reaching Jews, let alone young, educated individuals and stable intermarried couples. We are also radically failing to impart a healthy Messianic Jewish spirituality into peoples’ lives. What’s worse, the few communities that have been successful in these areas are openly criticized precisely for their innovation. And those die-hards clinging for dear life to expired congregational models are sadly – and naively – finding themselves sinking with their ships, yet still boldly proclaiming they are right.

It’s a shame that it’s taking the Great Recession to shake us from our slumber, but we can no longer ignore reality. If Judaism, and Messianic Judaism, are to persist well into the 21st century, it’s high time that we figure out precisely why the models we’re so endeared to are no longer working.

About Rabbi Joshua

I'm a Rabbi, writer, thinker, mountain biker, father and husband ... not necessarily in that order. According to my wife, however, I'm just a big nerd. I have degrees in dead languages and ancient stuff. I have studied in various Jewish institutions, including an Orthodox yeshiva in Europe. I get in trouble for making friends with perfect strangers, and for standing on chairs to sing during Shabbos dinner. In addition to being the Senior Rabbi of Beth Emunah Messianic Synagogue in Agoura Hills, CA, I write regularly for several publications and speak widely in congregations and conferences. My wife is a Southern-fried Jewish Beltway bandit and a smokin' hot human rights attorney... and please don’t take offense if I dump Tabasco sauce on your cooking.
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16 Responses to Judaism in Crisis

  1. Gene Shlomovich says:

    "What is wrong with our current congregational and organizational models? And why are we not attracting young, educated Jews into our fold?…. And those die-hards clinging for dear life to expired congregational models are sadly – and naively – finding themselves sinking with their ships, yet still boldly proclaiming they are right."What are the proposed solutions to reverse this trend? Is it the good 'ol enlisting women as rabbis and leaders mantra as the cure all? How about something other than that? What other "innovations" have actually worked (please cite verifiable examples)?The American diaspora is overwhelmingly agnostic or atheist, secular and liberal, and it doesn't care much about Jewish values and traditions, or Jewish G-d. The preservation of our people is not on its list of priorities either, and most are disconnected from the realities of the state of Israel (and for many, their heart lies with the Palestinian enemies!). As long as our people are comfortable, they will continue to grow apathetic. The Bible is filled with these stories, time and time again Israel grows "fat" and forsakes their G-d. This is the case with American Jews today. I think that HaShem may soon bring us trouble to bring us closer to Himself and to our knees – and he has never done it through congregational innovations.You and I know that the Jewish people will not disappear into oblivion ("for the Bible tells me so"). It will all work out in the end. There may be a price to pay, however and it may take the act of G-d Himself to shake us up.

  2. Monique says:

    Oy, Gene, you're asking the wrong questions. The question isn't "what's wrong with everybody else that they aren't sitting in the pews of my synagogue?" It should be "what's so alienating about our synagogues to the vast majority of Jews?" "What are Jews looking for in communal life and space, and how can we provide it to them?" I'm in full agreement with you on the consequences of the rebellion of our people. But I can also put myself in the shoes of a disaffected Jew and comprehend why, if I were looking for a deeply spiritual experience in a Jewish space and I knew you felt this way about me, I wouldn't want to be part of whatever community bore your imprint. We're working on our "manifesto" with practical suggestions and it still needs plenty of burnishing. In the meantime, there's a wealth of resources for people more interesting in building communities than clinging to sinking ships. See, e.g.: Synagogue 3000's website and various studies, Ron Wolfson's book "The Spirituality of Welcoming," and Sidney Schwarz' book "Finding a Spiritual Home."I know you want to see our people and our movement renew its vitality, Gene. I'm sure that you're not satisfied to be a final passenger on a sinking ship. It's going to take a major adjustment of your own paradigms, however, to make it happen. (And I'm not just talking about gender paradigms.)

  3. Rabbi Joshua says:

    Hi Gene-Thank you for your comment. And although my response may sound harsh, please hear me out.I would like to reiterate that our entire blog is about balance. The ordination of women is not our primary focus, nor the cure all. However, within a Messianic Jewish context it is a symptom of a larger problem. Gene, sadly it seems your response betrays the mindset that needs to change. The idea that "I am right, everyone else just does not get it, is too liberal, and is going to burn in Hell" does not work. It is a bunker/lone-wolf/victim mentality rather than a mindset of inclusiveness and embracing our marginality (Rabbi Russ Resnik actually recently presented a great paper on this).In opposition to your comment, sudies have actually demonstrated that particularly young Jews are interested in Judaism, G-d, and spirituality. Sadly, however, many are just not finding it in the current Jewish (and may I dare say, Messianic) models. The current models are based on a Modern perspective (whereas most Jews exist in a Postmodern, or now, a Post-postmodern paradigm).It is not so much that the current models are "wrong," they are just now outdated and largely ineffective. If MJ exists to reach Jews, let's be honest, our congregations do not reflect the demographic we are trying to reach. One example: The Jewish community tends to be very well educated, mostly professionals (doctors, lawyers, business people, etc.), and affluent. On the flip side, congregants of Messianic congregations (on the whole) tend to be blue collar, lower-middle class, without college and specifically graduate level educations. This is also true of the majority of our leaders. Of those leaders who do possess a graduate level education, over 80% of them have an MDiv from a Christian Seminary or Bible College. Professionals exepct quality. If we are trying to reach a primarily affluent community of professionals, we cannot fake the Hebrew, play Jewish dress-up, lack a Jewish education, or have "synagogues" with tacky banners.Honestly, we do not have it all figured out. We do not have all the answers. But we are LISTENING. I will be blogging more simplified and practical steps and ideas in the coming day(s).

  4. Isaac Roussel says:

    One of our problems, and I know that there are many, is that we just don't have much critical mass as a movement. Our congregations are small and widely dispersed. It is hard, for example, to get my teenage son to go to shul because there are no kids his age there at all. So why would a 14 year old want to go sit through a 2-hour service, mostly in a language he doesn't understand, unless he is REALLY into his Judaism. I think that those teens are few and far between. My son goes most weeks, out of a sense of obligation (we often need him to make a minyan!) but he skates out of it as often as he can.I often fantasize about moving to an area where there is a sizeable Messianic shul, that is like-minded with our shul.I don't have any answers, just kvetching 🙂

  5. Ariel says:

    Shalom Joshua, Kudos for posting the article, and raising the questions. It is difficult to discern the answers, especially on the assumption of changing demographics. The article you linked to (an exciting read, though sadly not for the following reason) gives as one of the effects of the current economy the creation of a new class of "near-poor and new poor" Jews. If this is the case, then we may be missing a great many (and those who need good news most) if we tailor our message to a shrinking affluent educated class, for whom, e.g., four-year (if not six-to-eight year) schooling is more an assumption than an exceptional achievment. I've found that its a cultural issue; some might naturally ask "where did you go to college?" as a casual conversation starter the way my Gentile brothers and sisters in these here parts might have once asked "where do you go to church?" On the contrary, if eJP's right, having more working-class folk in our congregations may not create the cultural barrier we perceived in the end. As you can tell, I am so not sure of the validity of my point, its just something to think about. And of course region is a factor as well. In my experience in the New South, I have been as likely to find people that, professional or not, are intimidated by what they perceive as a culture that is more Jewish than they are (usually having been raised with only partial connection to their Jewish identity), rather than, or even in spite of, Hebrew errors and weird banners (i.e. the things that freak me out regularly). Its not just that they are concerned about a Jew-ish veneer and its alleged inconsistency with a Jesus-ish faith – its that they really imagine that the congregational culture where I attend will be too Jewish for them (to which my first reaction has been: 'I mean, I am flattered, but really?'). Perhaps this sense of "I'm not Jewish enough" may have to do with non-attendence in synagogues overall and the fracturing sense of identity that has been underway for a while. Or perhaps it may have to do with Gentiles adopting Jewish customs in a way that outpaces, not realizing how this can be misunderstood. In any case, it may be that there are diverse approaches required: what works in Charlotte may not work in L.A. Nevertheless, being honest, welcoming, and adaptable will go a long way. And I am sure we need to do better.

  6. Monique says:

    Ariel, good stuff to chew on. I'm familiar with the feeling of intimidation with anything that's deemed "too Jewish," it's especially familiar to me as a daughter of the "the new South" whose attachments to mainstream Jewish life were relatively limited in childhood.The issue is usually a lack of Jewish literacy, and the only effective long-term antidote to that is to make Jewish learning accessible and interesting, rather than "watering things down" or mimicking a church environment. I'm all for learners' minyanim from time to time, but no one likes sitting through a service where every little thing gets explained to you. "Why don't we stop talking about and "putting on" Shabbat and just do Shabbat already?" (I'm sure that's not what you're advocating, anyway.)The one reality I can't deny is that no matter how disaffected we are, we have a internal authenticity meter … and at our core, I think the Jewish neshama is looking for an authentic Jewish spiritual home. As Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach used to say "the entire world is waiting for the Jewish people to be the Jewish people." And we all have a spark within us that's waiting for someone to come along and light.May we be engaged in the business of lighting that Jewish spark – within our own neshamot and the neshamot of our kinsmen.

  7. Rabbi Joshua says:

    Ariel-Thank you for your thoughts. You bring up some great points. On the "new poor" issue, I agree that this will affect our changing demographics. However, these "new poor" are now the "educated poor." I want to be careful that people do not read too much into my comment. This is not a judgement regarding education or income level, it's simply a demographic observation.And agreed – many Jews, not just in the South, can feel intimidated to get involved in Jewish life. Which only emphasizes the need to create warm and welcoming communities.And the above discussion does not exclude the reality of the learning curve we are all on. We're not taking issue with mispronouncing a Hebrew word, forgetting a part of the liturgy, or having a condensed service. (Often, there is too much emphasis on "doing it right," which can rob Jewish prayer of its meaning entirely.)We don't expect perfection from our congregations, and aren't suggesting that the 'disaffected young people' we reference so frequently expect perfection, either. What we're truly interested in building is vibrant and spiritually moving spiritual space which is Jewishly informed.

  8. Rabbi Joshua says:

    Isaac- Thanks for checking out our blog, and we can relate to your frustrations!

  9. Isaac Roussel says:

    Glad to see you guys blogging on these important issues. I have 3 children coming up through the ranks. I would really like to see them maintain their connection with Messianic Judaism and not just disappear into the church. I, too, am worried that we won't have a place for them.My daughter is a perfect example. She is starting her second year of college majoring in Jewish studies with an eye to the rabbinate… but we don't ordain women. The movement could lose a very talented and passionate young woman. I would hate to see that…Keep up the good work!

  10. Gene Shlomovich says:

    "The movement could lose a very talented and passionate young woman. I would hate to see that."Isaak, with all due respect, if you fear that your daughter will walk away from [Messianic] Judaism and faith of her ancestors on account of her not allowed into rabbinate, I would suggest the true reasons behind such a decision would be far, FAR deeper.I would rather have my daughter grow up to become a wonderful Jewishly educated (and this education starts at home, first and foremost) and observant Jewish mother of my future (G-d willing) Jewish grandkids and a supportive wife to her Jewish husband, rather than complete with men for religious titles, or harbor resentment against them to the point of walking away from Judaism if her aspirations are not accommodated.Should Messianic Judaism as a movement begin ordaining women as rabbis and congregational leaders, it should be prepared to lose its conservative members, especially men, en mass. Again, I would like to point visitors to the study on gender imbalance in current liberal Judaism: http://www.boston.com/news/local/massachusetts/articles/2008/06/22/where_have_all_the_men_gone/ and http://www.brandeis.edu/now/2008/june/hbigenderstudy.htmlAfter you're done reading the above, please show me some studies that indicate that women rabbis will actually bring more talented Jewish MEN into our midst.

  11. Rabbi Joshua says:

    Gene-Your above comment is problematic on so many levels. It is exactly what is wrong. The majority of young people – both men and women – would not hold your view that the only godly place for a woman is "in the kitchen and raising kids." Is it A godly option – ues, the only one – NO!The issue is not even walking away from G-d. It is walking away from a place you are not valued. Why is it only in faith circles women's talents and gifts are not valued. In today's world women are CEOs of company's, government leaders, and academics. And yet you expect those same women to come to your congregation where their contributions are not considered valuable?That is why young professionals are not flocking to many Messianic congregations. Young people are lookiing for communities where they are valued, and where they can contribute and participate … not just warm up a seat.

  12. Rabbi Joshua says:

    (Cont'd.)By the way – my above comment is not a sociological argument for empowering women (or even young people in general for that matter). It is an observation. The issue is a theological one, and should be handled on that level. As I have argued an demonstrated many times before, if thorough theological inquery warrents empowering women, then there is no problem.And Gene, the study you mention is true in segments of Reform, Reconstructionist, and Jewish Renewal circles – it is not necessarily true in other movements within Judaism. We have always called for balance in everything. Including the issue of women rabbis. When this is done, it leads to very healthy balance within congregations. For example, there is a very happening community here in L.A. called Ikar (ikar-la.org). It is a thriving community that has gained national attention for it's innovation. It is a community composed of primarily people under 40 (but includes those of all ages), and especially young families. It is traditional, spiritual, and yet progressive, and very involved in social justice. And on any given Shabbat it is often packed with MEN AND WOMEN. And it so happens the senior rabbi is a woman. Yet, there is an amazing way she and the cantor (who is male) work together (along with others) to guide the community through prayer. It is far from overly effeminate or not attractive to young men. Rather because of the dynamics, it is the opposite. Proper balance always equals healthy living.

  13. Ariel says:

    Monique and R. Joshua, thanks for your responses to my points. After our discussion I felt motivated to attend the Jewish History lecture ongoing at my congregation, just to see how my assumptions and perceptions matched up to what was going on. I was pleasantly surprised by an accessible and informative class on contemporary Chasidic movements (which of course shouldn't have surprised me at all because I know the teacher to be engaging and knows his stuff, but still).I should revise myself: Jewish Illiteracy is not necessarily a greater problem in our beloved South. First, we are the inventors of the "Shalom, Y'all" greeting, and this is an aspect of Jewish Literacy. Second, it may just be that since there more MOTs in LA there are hence more mavens to be spread around, without necessarily implying a greater proportion of mavens to novices. And its surely true that the economic shift does not necessarily mean an educational shift – that the new poor will be educated poor, as Joshua points out. Re: egalitarianism, my position is that men and women are fully equal, that in many situations full ontological equals have different functions, and that this includes male headship in the congregation. I may be reading my own views into Gene's, but, as far as I can tell, Gene merely stated his own preference for his daughter; he did not lay out in grand scale what is or isn't the "only godly place for a woman" unless under a different post you were debating this. More broadly, the traditionalist cases I am aware of are not predicated on outmoded and limiting gender roles, on coercing women into being barefoot, pregnant, and making the manly men some fleishedik kugel. It is unnecessary, I'd suggest, to conclude that opposition to ordaining women as head rabbis is thereby committed to keeping women out of normative professional (or for that matter most congregational) leadership categories. Its difficult to see why active female participation and leadership shouldn't be encouraged across the board, even if the view of functional subordination (as with families, as with the Mystery Unity of the Godhead, etc.) is correct. I hope to return to this matter and perhaps discuss the relative merits of our views at a later time. Shalom.

  14. Monique says:

    Gene, it's interesting to me that your response to a bright young Jewish woman who declares an interest in pursuing advanced Jewish learning and (eventual) spiritual leadership would be a not-so-gentle nudge back into the kitchen.How does this leave her feeling anything other than devalued, dismissed, or subordinated to YOUR vision of the Messianic future? It's not going to sink in for you, is it, Gene? The recipe for getting young Jews into your seats is to equip and enable them to grow into their respective identities … rather than push them into a narrow role the moment they step over your threshhold. The very WORST message that you can send to a young Jew is the message that s/he is not valued, wanted, or needed in your midst. Or that if s/he is, his/her role in your community has already been narrowly defined … and by the way, here are the five hoops you must jump through to get there.The best response is to attempt to quench her thirst for Jewish learning by throwing study opportunities her way … to provide mentoring as she sorts out her spiritual and professional future … and to let her sort out the kind of role she'd like to play in the long term. The conclusion and journey of her life is far from settled.We are indeed going to continue losing bright young women to better opportunities as long as Gene's attitude prevails.There is no issue of "competing with" men or alienating them. I can count on two hands the number of legitimate rabbis in our movement who meet the normative qualifications for the role/title. (Being Jewish, completion of graduate-level study of the Bible and Jewish texts, conversant in Hebrew, fluent with Jewish liturgy, etc.) Most of these guys are not even leading congregations! And yet there are hundreds of congregations looking in vain for qualified leadership. The presence of another dozen female rabbis is hardly going to threaten the handful of male rabbis we already have.Eric, send your daughter our way after we move to DC in a few weeks! We'd love to meet her!

  15. Gene Shlomovich says:

    Joshua…"That is why young professionals are not flocking to many Messianic congregations."They are not flocking not because there are no women rabbis or opportunities of young women (since there are plenty of that in Liberal Judaism), but because these "young professionals" are simply not interested in the G-d of Israel or Jewish faith. Every other reason is periphery. Rather, their primary interest lies in social activism. And since social activism in our society can be readily found outside of religion, they see no need in all that cumbersome "superstitious" Jewish holiness stuff.Monique…"How does this leave her feeling anything other than devalued, dismissed, or subordinated to YOUR vision of the Messianic future?"First of all, although you seem to think otherwise, not every Jewish woman feels the way you do. Many women would argue that being a traditional G-dly woman does not equate to her being of a lesser value or subservient to men. "The very WORST message that you can send to a young Jew is the message that s/he is not valued, wanted, or needed in your midst."I am not sure what being valued, wanted or needed have to do with female religious leadership. Judaism has historically valued our women, as the matrilineal descent halakha attests to. And yet, it has placed different requirements on them. With HaShem's view of people, being different is not a qualitative attribute."The best response is to attempt to quench her thirst for Jewish learning by throwing study opportunities her way."Jewish women MUST be Jewishly and secularly educated. Women sat and learned at Yeshua Rabbenu's fee. I don't think anyone is arguing here for limiting educational opportunities. "The presence of another dozen female rabbis is hardly going to threaten the handful of male rabbis we already have."As studies and common sense indicate, men are not interested in feminized religious activities. Liberal Judaism has shown that as women enter rabbinate, men leave it – and so, the seeds of it's demise have been sown. BTW, being from the former USSR, to me this parallels the feminization of Soviet medical system. Soviets heavily promoted gender equality / egalitarianism in their society (there were plenty of rough-looking female construction workers as the result:). Being "liberated" from their homes, more and more women started entering medical colleges. As they did, men started to view this formally traditionally and almost exclusively male profession as a female endeavor – male enrollment in medical collages has dropped dramatically, and most of the physicians in Russia today are women (over 70%). To me and other students of history the parallels with Liberal Judaism's rabbinate trends are striking. I suppose that this is just the way our human society works. Ignore this and be prepared for consequences.Shalom.

  16. Rabbi Joshua says:

    Gene-I'm sorry, my friend, but I continue to disagree with you. Your position on the "over-femenization" of Judiasm is based on one article that you keep citing over and over again. Whereas I keep giving you more and more examples and citations supporting that WITH A HEALTHY BALANCE women leaders contribute a great deal to Judaism. In regard to your continued comments that "'young professionals' are simply not interested in the G-d of Israel or Jewish faith" is bogus. Numerous studies have supported a surge in spirituality among young people (they are just not flocking to the majority of synagogues – be they Messianic or otherwise). May I cite a recent study by UCLA on the topic: http://www.spirituality.ucla.edu/ and a recent article published on Synagogue3000's website: http://synagogue3000.org/synablog/?p=123Gene – from a fellow-Yid to another. There is something bigger we are discussing than whether or not we ordain women as rabbis. The issue is the future. Granted MJ has come a long way since the 60's and 70's. But as long as we continue to see no problems with the current models or mindset, we are doomed to repeat them.All we are asking is for all of us to just simply be open to asking questions, LISTENING to what is happening in the wider Jewish world, and pay attention to a Biblical contstruct of what a Yeshua-infused Judaism can and should look like. Monique and I are looking to build a vibrant, Spirit-filled, Yeshua infused Judaism that is welcoming, progressive, and balanced that is teaming with Jews (and others who choose to partner with us). And I don't know about you, but I will not settle for anything less. What the majority of the Jewish (and Messianic) world is currently doing is not working and largely ineffective. If you would like to keep doing that – go for it! But if there are people out there who would like to move Messianic Judaism into the future, partner with us. We may not have all the answers. But we are aware of what is not working, and what is missing. We are also paying attention to what non-affiliated Jews are looking for.It is our job to prepare the way for the coming of Mashiach. So that is what we'll continue to do and advocate for.

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