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 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.

Rabbis are also finding new avenues for Jewish expression that are not necessarily spiritually based. Rabbi Geoff Mitelman, who also writes for this blog, explores the intersection between Judaism and science in his writing and teaching. We need liberal rabbis like him who can grapple with traditional text and use them to shed light on biomedical issues and ethical concerns that arise today. Inspired by the Jewish call for social justice, Rabbi Alana Suskin has been a major leader in the Occupy DC and Occupy Judaism protests. Social action continue to be an extraordinarily meaningful way for liberal Jews to connect with their Jewish tradition and to build community with one another. Look at the number of Jews who attended Kol Nidrei services at the Occupy Wall Street protests this past fall. The thousand Jews who were there showed up because this was an expression of their Judaism. Many of them would not have shown up at a synagogue.

This is just a small sample of the innovations I have witnessed in the past few years through Rabbis Without Borders. Far from dying, I think liberal Judaism is stretching itself in new ways. According to a report by Jumpstart there has been a record number of Jewish start ups, over 600 initiatives serving more than half a million people across North America founded in the past ten years, the Jewish Innovation Economy. This is incredible.

I cannot tell you what liberal Judaism will look like in a couple of generations. It may look very different than it looks today. But I do know that it will continue to exist and even flourish. Liberal Jews will continue to have synagogues, since synagogues have been and will always be important places to gather to learn and pray just as churches are in this country. But liberal Judaism will also take place in a variety of other settings too: on line, in retreat centers, in people’s homes and in public venues. I for one am very excited to see what the next few decades bring.

In addition, it is my hope and prayer that the vast divide that seems to be growing between liberal and more traditional Jews is bridged. In his column this week, Gary Rosenblatt, the editor of The New York Jewish Week, wrote an article highlighting the lack of communication between liberal and Orthodox Jews. He calls upon both communities to talk to each other more, “There are discussion groups between Jews and Christians, and Jews and Muslims; how about a few more between Orthodox Jews and the rest of the community?” I could not agree more. Some of the most amazing experiences we have had among the rabbis in our Rabbis Without Borders gatherings are when the stereotypes we have of each other break down.

If my colleague who declared that liberal Judaism was dying out could be in dialogue with the rabbis and communities I have worked with, he would have a greater understanding of the richness and creativity inherent in liberal Judaism. He may not like all of the new developing trends, but I think he would have to agree that these communities are living and growing Judaism. We are strong, and we will continue to go from generation to generation.

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