Liberal Judaism is Experiencing a Renaissance

Last week, I was having a conversation about the future of Judaism at an informal gathering of Jewish professionals, Jews who work for various Jewish institutions. One man stated, “I have dedicated my life to working for the Jewish people and educating the next generation, but it’s all for nothing. Within a couple of generations, only Orthodox Jews will be left.” I was jarred by his assertion and countered that I too have dedicated by life to working for the Jewish people, but am quite convinced of the opposite. I believe that liberal Judaism, non-Orthodox Judaism, is experiencing a renaissance.

In my work at Rabbis Without Borders at Clal, I am privileged to work with talented and creative rabbis, from all streams of Judaism. These rabbis are a diverse group. They span the age range of early thirties to mid sixties, represent different geographical regions of America, and have different kinds of rabbinates. In fact, about 50% of the rabbis are not in pulpits. They are working in Hillels on university campuses, in day schools, in non-profits, and in their own independent projects. While many in the Jewish community moan about the drop in membership rates at traditional synagogues, very few people are paying attention to the numerous new ways rabbis are reaching people. Their creativity takes my breath away.

Using traditional Jewish texts and liturgy, Rabbi Shefa Gold and Rabbi Andrew Hahn are each creating distinctive new ways for Jews to express their spirituality through meditative chanting. Their musical styles are different and unique. Shefa builds harmonious chants which can be sung over and over in a meditative style. Andrew’s chants are based on the call and response style of Indian Kirtan chanting. Both are beautiful expressions of Jewish liturgy and faith. Both are gaining traction and appealing to Jews and non Jews alike looking for spiritual uplift.

Rabbi Laura Baum has created an online community at www.ourjewishcommunity.org. It is a first of its kind. While some question the impact an online experience can have in someone’s life, Rabbi Baum relates stories of how her community brings people together. She brought tears to my eyes when she read a letter from a woman thanking her for broadcasting a Rosh Hashanah service on the web. The woman wrote about how she was feeing lonely at work on Rosh Hashanah. So she searched the web for some kind of service or something Jewish to connect to and came across the live stream of Rabbi Baum’s service. Since it was about time for the shofar service, she called her mother on the other side of the country and together they listened to the shofar being blown. Without this experience, neither one of these women would have connected to the Jewish community that day, and they would have missed a powerful moment of connection with each other.

Posted on December 5, 2011

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