26 June 2008

The Future of Reform Judaism?

A few weeks ago, the Reform Rabbi's listserve was abuzz about a new article in Commentary magazine by Dr. Jack Wertheimer. Dr. Wertheimer teaches at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York and is an expert on modern American Judaism and its communal organization.

The article gave an interesting analysis of Reform Judaism. The first two-thirds of the article were a mostly flattering account of how Reform Judaism is actually living up to its name - that we do "consider Reform a verb" and are constantly re-evaluating and (hopefully) progressing as a Progressive denomination. This part I liked.

The last part of the article was more of a criticism and a challenge. His point was that our Outreach efforts have made us the denomination to join. In contrast to other liberal (in a political sense) American denominations (Jewish or no), we have been able to maintain our membership AND a coherent liberal voice. However, the future remains to be seen.

He makes some points that we Reform Jews must take seriously:
  • Reform Judaism has not really increased in size, but rather maintained absolute numbers while Conservative Judaism has slipped and Orthodoxy (the smallest of the big three) has increased.
  • Much of Reform Judaism's new membership is intermarried families and the long-term Jewish identification of children of such families is still an open inquiry.
  • In the current era, "membership" or "affiliation" is a measure of paying dues, not participation in synagogue activities, Jewish worship, or home observance. Wertheimer also brings out the point that where the "leadership" (either professional or member) of the Reform is, may not be where the bulk of the membership may be.
My responses:
  • To the first point, the numbers game is not so important to me. I am more concerned with whether those who are raised as Reform Jews stay Reform Jews (meaning that we teach them something that is meaningful to them over a lifetime) than if our absolute numbers are staying the same.
  • One aspect of the intermarriage issue has long troubled me. When I was growing up, in a Reform congregation down the road, most of those who joined (who hadn't just chosen the closest congregation) had joined a Reform congregation because they identified with Reform Judaism - either from their upbringing or a choice to affiliate Reform rather than their birth/adolescent affiliation. Today, many intermarried families with a partner from other Jewish backgrounds (notably Orothodox or Conservative) join a Reform temple because it is the only place that they feel their (non-Jewish) spouse will feel at all welcome. This brings up two challenges:
    1. This will only last so long as the other movements ignore outreach to the intermarried - and that era has ended for the Conservative movement and for Chabad, which are both actively finding new ways to reach out.
    2. The Jewish partner does not feel comfortable with the practice of the Reform congregation and, unless they come to adjust their expectations, find themselves worshipping and teaching their children a Judaism that is not their own preferred practice.
  • Here is a challenge that all of us in the Reform movement need to take very seriously. The ideal of Reform Judaism is "informed choice". The hope is that we take the time to learn about Jewish tradition and only THEN decide whether to do, not do, or modify a particular practice or ritual. There are many people who are NOT members of a Reform congregation but call themselves "Reform", when what they really mean is that they do not do what they think they are supposed to do, but still consider themselves religiously Jewish. Reform Judaism is NOT JudaismLite - and that is something that we need to make sure that every member of every Reform congregation understands and believes.
My final criticism of the Wertheimer article should come as no surprise to members of this congregation who are at all aware of the work that our part-time Director of Education does in her off-hours. The Reform movement takes the idea of Jewish education very seriously. It is a mistake to disregard the tremendous intent, work and results of the new Chai curriculum. As at no other period and in no other movement, the Department of Lifelong Jewish Learning has created a template so that all congregations - from the smallest to the largest - can bring the children and parents of their congregations to a common base level of understanding of Reform Judaism. Wertheimer does not take any of this self-reflection (or even the ECE program of HUC) and conscious development into account.

So, read the article for yourself and post below what you think...

1 comment:

  1. Although Wertheimer's article has some concern for the education of our children, I believe that the major focus concerns the unintended consequences of many of the decisions made by our movement over the years. Wertheimer asks us to note the decline in male participation within the synagogue and especially among intermarried men. He says there is "little critical talk at all about the consequences of having integrated so large a population of non-Jews and their families..." Temple Sholom can hardly claim an exception in this area.
    We welcome new families of all types but have avoided any such discussion for the very reason the Wertheimer identifies, namely wishing not to offend.
    One last point on the CHAI curriculum, based upon my reading of the "Adapting 'understanding by design' for congregational schools," which discusses the development of the CHAI curriculum, is that it is specifically designed for teachers of religious school, children and their families. It does not address the needs of more knowledgeable adults who long for continuing enrichment at more advanced levels.