Reinventing Liberal Judaism
The drop-off in congregational membership, the aging of mainstream religious supporters, and the corresponding rise in the number of nonpracticing Jews represent some of the striking indicators of a religious free-fall that today defines American Jewry. These demographic realities pose significant challenges to our respective liberal Jewish movements. In this post-modern world, it is time to reinvent liberal Judaism.
Nor are these patterns of religious disengagement distinctive to American Jewry. The 2015 Religious Landscape Study sponsored by the Pew Research Center confirms similar trends within Christianity. The data among Protestant mainstream congregations indeed are striking and instructive. Since the 1950s, mainstream churches have represented only one-fifth of all Protestant congregations. In the past 50 years, mainstream church membership has declined by more than one-quarter to roughly 20 million people. We are the beneficiaries of the American church experience and the behavior of the broader marketplace, where institutional transitions are the norm.
In the 19th century, American Judaism adopted the denominational patterns of the Christian world. Today, the luxury of maintaining these various distinctive religious expressions that dot the Jewish landscape can no longer be sustained. We are the inheritors of a bifurcated system of multiple, even duplicative and competitive forms of Jewish offerings that may no longer be structurally, ideologically or economically viable. “Silo Judaism” is not the model for 21st-ccentury American Judaism. More to the point, can we establish a shared understanding of what liberal Judaism might represent for this century?
Proposals for religious recalibration are occurring across the landscape among American church organizations. Mergers and collaborative arrangements are driving institutional transformation elsewhere within American society. Over the past several decades, there have been various constituencies within the liberal Jewish camp seeking primarily to reinvent the structures and functions associated with the institutions of liberal Judaism. “Synagogue 2000 (3000)” operated as a manifestation of this approach to change specific activities and operational cultures. Various think tanks and individual writers have put forth articles and books offering new models of liberal Jewish practice in line with the changing operational framework that today is defining and shaping American religious life. In several different quarters, one finds proposals introducing alternative dues structures, governance arrangements and management models.
The very idea of “denomination” or the imposition of such terms as “affiliation,” “membership” and “dues” reflect language and practices that are out of favor with millennials. But the issues before us must not be seen as merely a structural reinvention of liberal Judaism.
Do we really require separate denominational movements that reflect the ideological mix of a liberal Jewish tradition formed more than a century ago? The structural patterns currently in place within American Judaism are based on a competitive economic model. It will be incumbent on the Jewish community to emulate what others in the nonprofit sector already have established. The practice of institutional competition will need to give way to a culture of collaboration.
In moving forward with these ideas, will we be able to find common ground among our rabbinic leaders and synagogue laity representing our respective movements? What forms of intellectual synergy can occur among seminary scholars? Ultimately, how might our congregations and seminaries benefit from such cross-denominational exchanges, and what will be the impact on the quality of Jewish life for congregants and those beyond its doors?
Can anyone imagine in this city, for example, that instead of having three seminaries for the training of our next generation of liberal clergy and Jewish professionals, we consider the merger of the American Jewish University, Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion and the Academy for Jewish Religion? Is it possible to envision that if one belonged to one congregation within Los Angeles that synagogue membership would permit individuals and families the opportunity to enjoy the resources, services and activities of the affiliated liberal institutions that are part of the Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist and Renewal communities of Southern California?
What might be the possibilities of a collaborative religious educational system, enabling our kids to study in jointly sponsored, community-supported Jewish learning centers? Could we establish a program ensuring that all kids affiliated with one of our participating congregations be guaranteed a Jewish camping experience or the opportunity to become part of one of our youth movements? Can we consider a collective effort to invite every young family to enroll their kids in Jewish pre-school programs underwritten in part by synagogues, foundations and federation? Can we conceivably imagine our institutional rabbis operating as community resource educators?
We are reminded that “movements,” and for that matter, religious institutions in general, were designed to be vehicles for permitting our congregants the access points to express their Jewishness. And indeed, over the past 150 years, our synagogues and schools in this nation did successfully assist Jews in articulating their personal and collective religious expressions. This has been no small accomplishment, as our seminaries and umbrella synagogue organizations have served these past generations of our people, helping them to construct a viable and dynamic collective Jewish experience. As the religious economy expanded, we as a community benefited from the competitive presence of multiple institutional options, where American Jews have enjoyed an array of choices.
On a number of occasions in American history, this society has experienced periods of religious revivalism and renewal. American Judaism has been responsive to these trends. Throughout the course of American-Jewish history, we can identify various patterns of institutional expansion, only to be followed by countervailing periods of organizational integration, leading to mergers or to the formation of new entities designed to expand upon the work product of their predecessor institutions. Organizations, we need to realize, experience a form of life expectancy. When they no longer resonate with the body politic, they atrophy and become caught up in the economics of downsizing, ultimately leading to their demise.
In formulating any new arrangements, it is imperative that any such joint initiatives respect the legitimacy of the principles of faith and halachah of our various partners. Indeed, there are creative ways to give standing to these distinctive and essential expressions.
However, in today’s Jewish marketplace, it is necessary to consider innovative forms of Jewish religious expression, and the proposals introduced above merely represent a few of the exciting possibilities. Without rethinking our existing system, we will continue to witness a patchwork of institutional practices, possibly leading to further decline and ultimately to the demise of some of the core components of this experiment in Jewish-liberal religious culture, a condition not radically different from what has been unfolding within Protestant America.
The attention here toward re-creating this religious model is driven by the emergence of a “new American Jew.” These transformational behavioral changes are taking place as Jews enter the fourth and fifth generations of their American experience. Younger Jews are increasingly modeling the social mores of the mainstream culture. The shift away from the collective welfare of the community to a distinctive focus on the “sovereign self” may represent the central feature to this new order. In this context, “individualized choice” has minimized the value and primacy of institutional affiliation. What seems to be evolving is the emergence of a different type of American Jew and a privatized American Judaism.
The very idea of “denomination” or the imposition of such terms as “affiliation,” “membership” and “dues” reflect language and practices that are out of favor with millennials. But the issues before us must not be seen as merely a structural reinvention of liberal Judaism. More immediate and compelling will be the messages we seek to convey as a religious tradition in an age when new social behaviors and patterns of institutional loyalty are strikingly different. Are we in a position to reach out to those who describe themselves as “seekers” and others who define themselves as religious “nones,” individuals who no longer view themselves as having any formal ties to a faith community? Do the liberal voices of American Jewry have something compelling to share with contemporary audiences?
It is an age when those who hold congregational affiliation and those who sit outside our synagogue doors are struggling with the same issues about the essence of life, the role of ritual, the importance of faith, the nature of our connection to Israel, definitions of God, etc. This may be an extraordinary moment to energize these conversations and create new models of practice by providing a framework for reimaging contemporary liberal Judaism.
American-Jewish liberal religion represents a broad spectrum of ideas, practices and rituals, and that in reality ought to be seen as the strength of such a collective endeavor. Four principles will need to drive this national conversation concerning our future, where our movements’ leaders together envision a new framework for collective action:
Intellectual engagement: We have much to learn and share with one another. To date, such exchanges have occurred sporadically but now need to be systematic and with intention.
Economic entrepreneurship: There are multiple ways in which our movements can creatively collaborate in order to construct new economies of operation and in turn be able to reach out to serve more Jews who remain disconnected and unaffiliated. The changes that are occurring on the ground must be driven in part by the realities that exist today around America’s “religious economy,” which has not maintained its competitive edge. Rising costs along with diminishing numbers do not represent a prescription for maintaining the status quo or growing our messages.
This venture will not occur without the presence of a bold and creative cohort of Jewish leaders who are prepared to ask the difficult and unsettling questions, setting aside their egos and self-interests in favor of embracing the revolution that must occur within board rooms and beyond.
Political partnerships: This moment marks an appropriate point to frame a shared progressive Jewish agenda, especially at a time when many within our communities of faith are seeking the input of religious leadership in being responsive to the social and cultural challenges before us.
Collective responsibility: Our movements have a unique opportunity to serve the thousands of Jews who today simply define themselves as “just Jewish” as well as to reach out to college students and young adults bereft of an understanding of the richness of Judaism, its traditions and core values.
Beyond the Jewish world, we now have evidence about the various beneficial aspects of such a mega-union of congregations and related institutions within American Christianity; I would argue the merits of a collaborative model can capture the best that each of these individual institutions and movements can provide. Possibly more significant, and clearly more impressive, are the structural and policy changes being introduced into the Roman Catholic Church by Pope Francis, who is constructing a new vision of how the Vatican and the other primary instruments of church practice will be organized. Even more dramatic are the new messages of the Roman Catholic Church today around critical issues of a spiritual and social context designed to appeal to a different generation of believers.
Successful synagogues, innovative “startup” models of religious engagement, and other forms of creative spiritual expression ought to be our first laboratories of learning. Inside the Jewish world, there already exists ample evidence of the integrative practices associated with our movements, as curriculum, liturgy and professional personnel are crossing institutional borders on a daily basis. Synagogue mergers involving at times congregations from different denominational tracks are taking place, further confirming that the seeds for this national endeavor already have been set in motion.
For most of those sitting in our pews, attending our camps and day schools and studying in our religious school classrooms share a similar mindset about their Jewish religious encounter. Their behaviors reflect an inherent sameness in terms of how they understand and practice contemporary Judaism. For certain, denominational labels and loyalties do not generally shape their identities as 21st- century Jews. Yet, most liberal Jews take great pride in being Jewish and in acknowledging their shared Jewish connections with other like-minded co-religionists. But as active participants in this age of consumerism, our congregants fully appreciate the costs associated with “doing Jewish.” The lay and professional leaders involved in operating synagogues and providing for our national organizational systems ought to foster a conversation on the Jewish future keeping in mind the collective interests and social behaviors of the thousands of families and individuals who will be the beneficiaries of this new partnership.
What might be the essential benefits that emerge from such an initiative? These may well include an expansion of programmatic and service options, the introduction of operational efficiencies, expanded brand recognition, the growth of political influence, the capacity to encourage and promote professional excellence, the acceleration of social media and the introduction of other forms of communication technology. In managing its contentious relationships with the religious and political authorities inside the State of Israel, a united liberal Jewish voice would seem to be of particular importance.
Four key components will be essential for leading this denominational transformation:
Embrace the challenge: Vision and the capacity for audacious thinking must trump mediocrity and narrow options.
Leadership assertiveness: This venture will not occur without the presence of a bold and creative cohort of Jewish leaders who are prepared to ask the difficult and unsettling questions, setting aside their egos and self-interests in favor of embracing the revolution that must occur within board rooms and beyond.
Reaffirming the essential: Reclaiming the essential and the sacred of our tradition ought to be the essence of this new venture, as we empower and engage the next generation of liberal Jews.
Build from the bottom: Historically, we organized from the top down; in this culture, the principles of best practice require that we build from the bottom up as well. This is about testing different models of educating and involving Jews as it is about redesigning the roles that rabbis, educators, cantors and communal professionals perform in serving our youth, embracing our elderly and educating our young families and in transforming our institutions.
The re-envisioning of American Judaism needs to begin. It offers, in my mind, a variety of unique opportunities and no doubt, a level of unknown challenges. Such conversations will require creative leaders operating out of a different organizational paradigm. It calls upon communal institutions and funders to rethink the economic framework of how we invest and reallocate resources necessary to frame this new organizing model.
Steven Windmueller is the Rabbi Alfred Gottschalk Emeritus Professor of Jewish Communal Service at the Jack H. Skirball Campus of the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, Los Angeles. Windmueller’s writings can be found on thewindreport.com. A version of this article originally appeared on eJewishphilanthropy.com.