Much of the Eastern and Midwestern U.S. is ensconced in a ferocious cold spell today and tomorrow. Known as the “polar vortex,” a blast of air from the arctic is producing temperatures colder than the South Pole in some parts of the country. This got me thinking: 120 years ago, where would poor, marginalized Jews (i.e. most Jews) go to escape the cold? To Jewish relief organizations such as Jewish hospitals, Jewish soup kitchens. In the era before FDR, before a government social safety net, Jewish communities across the country were responsible for talking care of one another. Mutual aid societies and landsmanschaften (hometown societies) provided this critical source of support, ensuring not only the well-being of poor Jewish immigrants but also creating community connections.
70 years ago, where would Jews go to escape the cold? To synagogue-centers and JCCs. Emerging into the middle-class, “second generation” Jews were eager to flee their urban areas of settlement for the expansiveness of the suburbs. They frequently found, however, that secular American society still harbored a good deal of anti-Semitism, so Jews created new hubs for social interaction. The notion of the “shul with a pool” was born, with traditional synagogues expanded to include social, educational, and even athletic programming.
Today, where do we go to escape the “polar vortex?” Starbucks. The public library. The local gym. Or we just stay at home and tweet about how cold we are. The rise of the welfare state (I mean that as a descriptive, not a perjorative, term), combined with the rapid erosion of institutional anti-Semitism in America, has rendered obsolete much of the social architecture of American Jewry. Jewish Family Services, perhaps the closest vestige to the traditional Jewish welfare organizations throughout the country, often serve more non-Jews than Jews! The same is true with Jewish hospitals and even JCCs. While we are truly blessed to live in a society as open to Jews as 21st century America, that blessing comes with a cost: no longer having a need to come together, our Jewish connective tissue is atrophying. As the recent Pew Study illustrates, only 28 percent of those polled believe that being part of a Jewish community is essential to Jewish identity.
I feel this is particularly acute within Conservative Judaism, the Movement I call home. The Pew Study’s demographic statistics about Conservative Judaism show that only 36% of Jews brought up Conservative remain so in adulthood. Some, such as Rabbi Daniel Gordis, see the trends in the Pew Report—the number of Jews identifying as Conservative has dropped from 41% in 1971 to 18% today—as proof that Conservative Judaism is finished. Others, such as Rabbi Elliot Dorff, argue that affiliation rates are merely products of the sociological zeitgeist, and since millennials (those in their 20s and 30s) don’t affiliate with anything in American culture, we shouldn’t be surprised about declines in Conservative affiliation. Or, as Professor Arnie Eisen, chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary, recently put it:
We seek to build Jewish communities in America at a time of unparalleled individualism. We are heirs to a discipline of commandment in an age of “sovereign selves.” We expect allegiance to our particular group, its traditions and its homeland, at a time when universalism holds ever-greater sway. And, having urged our kids to participate fully in American life, sent them to university, and set them on the path to ambitious careers, we are now dismayed to find them acting in accordance with the general pattern: marrying much later if they marry, having fewer children if they have children, favoring career over almost everything, and choosing romantic partners without regard to family, community of origin, or ultimate concerns.
The truth is that there is no silver bullet to raising affiliation rates. Though it may be hard to embrace, especially for those who labor so hard on behalf of Jewish communal institutions, 20th century American Jewry is gone. How, then, should we strive to bring Jews in from the proverbial “cold?” First, we need to accept that many Jews don’t feel cold. As I mentioned in a prior post, perhaps the most revelatory finding from the Pew study is that 94% of those polled feel proud of being Jewish. Second, we need to find Jews where they are affiliating and foster ways to deepen that affiliation in a meaningful, rather than superficial, way. This should include a focus on relationship-building, as Professor Ron Wolfson argues in his eloquent “Relational Judaism,” and as congregation-based community organizing (“CBCO”) is doing in many communities today. Third, we need Jewish institutional stakeholders to take a hard look at our Jewish edifice complex, at the Tower of Babel of suburban Judaism we erected in the postwar era, and having the courage to consolidate, merge, and even close some of our institutions. We need flexibility and entrepreneurship if we are to remain vibrant and compelling. We need a radical realignment of our financial priorities to bolster our remedial levels of Jewish literacy and spiritual vitality. If we can accomplish this, perhaps we will find that the forecast for the American Jewish community of 2014 wasn’t so chilly after all.