After the hubbub of the High Holy Days wound down and the synagogue programing for the fiscal year began in earnest, we were reminded that “the times, they are a-changing”. The Pew Foundation released its demographic study on Jews in the United States and their affiliation/participation rates. The results stopped many of us in our tracks to ask: What are we doing?
The Reform Movement is still the largest Jewish movement in the United States today according to the survey. However we are shrinking. The Conservative Movement has shrunk even more dramatically, which makes all of us all the more nervous. The Orthodox movements is holding steady. These trends are continuations of trends published by UJA surveys done in the 1990’s and 2000’s.
The Pew Survey teaches us two new items. First, all the money and energies thrown into the effort to reverse the trends of affiliation and participation in Jewish life, from Chabad at one end to Reform Outreach initiatives at the other end, have done little to slow, much less reverse the trends towards non-affiliation. The younger generations are not affiliating at ever higher rates. When Jews choose to affiliate, more choose Reform yet more choose not to affiliate whatsoever.
The second item we learn is that Jews who choose not to affiliate are marrying other American citizens who have chosen not to affiliate. They are not necessary choosing not to marry other Jews, they are attracted those who choose a secular, unaffiliated religious life. Slightly more than half are choosing Jewish partners.
As one wag has already broadcast, rabbis had better rejigger their sermons and cantors had better find new sheet music, as if all of the clergy has stood still as the previous studies were rolled out; as if other Pew studies did not show the same trends in the Protestant denominations and the American Catholic Church, where the trends are actually accelerating much faster. No one can be accused of having done nothing for the last two decades. Everyone has been searching, and we have learned that solutions are more than rejiggering words and adding sacred drums.
We need to reconsider the role of the synagogue in the community. We are the anchor of long term, life fulfilling Jewish life. How we address the greater community and how we welcome the greater community into our midst are fundamental questions we have to answer with new solutions. At the very least, I hope that the study done by the Pew Foundation is a call to action for all the institutions of Jewish life in the United States and spurs us to renew our resolve to build a healthy future for the Jews of the next generation.