October 23, 2018

American Judaism's Struggle to Stay Relevant

“With Yom Kippur now behind us, the results of the 2013 Pew survey indicate that 39 percent of the members of Conservative synagogues and 60 percent of Reform temple members will next show up at services on Sept. 29, 2019, the first day of Rosh HaShanah 5780.

That’s sobering and discouraging news, especially for rabbis around the country — and doesn’t even deal with the growing number of young Jews with no affiliation at all.”

It’s no secret that rabbis have been blamed in large measure for the low synagogue attendance on Shabbat at non-Orthodox congregations throughout the year and for High Holy Day services often criticized as too long, boring and of little meaning to most attendees. But is that really fair?

Jack Wertheimer, a professor of American Jewish history at the Jewish Theological Seminary, has been a sharp critic at times of American Jewish religious practices, or lack thereof, over the years. But his thoughtful and enlightening new book, “The New American Judaism: How Jews Practice Their Religion Today” (Princeton University Press), offers up a fuller portrait of what’s really going on in synagogues and religious life on the ground. It deals with the major, perhaps insurmountable, obstacles to traditional observance and practice, with Jews less likely than other religious groups in America to believe in God, attend services regularly and observe rituals. Most Jews have little Jewish education and can read little or no Hebrew. On a deeper level, in an age of self-help and self-actualization, most Jews don’t believe in mitzvot as obligations or a God of “Thou Shalts and Thou Shalt Nots.””

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