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.