Lockshin: Rabbis and synagogues should stick to their strengths

The New American Judaism: How Jews Practice Their Religion Today by Jack Wertheimer (Princeton University Press)

According to the 2013 Pew Research Center survey on the Jews of the United States, only 31 per cent of Jewish adults belong to a synagogue or temple, 22 per cent of American Jews identify as “Jews of no religion” (Jewish solely by ancestry, with no connection to the Jewish religion), and while 56 per cent of the general public in the United States say that religion is very important in their lives, only 26 per cent of the country’s Jews feel the same way.

Statistics are only part of the story. What do we know about the minority of the Jews of the United States who are involved in religious life? What does their synagogue life look like?

Jack Wertheimer, professor of modern Jewish history at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America and a leading scholar of American Jewry, undertook a large-scale study, interviewing 160 American rabbis from all denominations and some who don’t affiliate with any denomination. His insightful book, The New American Judaism: How Jews Practice Their Religion Today, summarizes and analyzes his findings.

Wertheimer devotes a significant part of the book to the successes and challenges of each of the three major denominations: Reform, Conservative and Orthodox Judaism. The whole book is interesting, but I will concentrate on Wertheimer’s findings that are not specific to any one denomination.

The bad news is that, overall, synagogue attendance and membership are down. But it’s not for lack of trying. Synagogues of all denominations are revitalizing their services, with a new emphasis on spiritual and spirited prayers, offering more music than ever. (I was surprised to learn that, following the model of Reform Judaism, a significant percentage of Conservative synagogues in the United States now use instrumental music on Shabbat.) Even some synagogues that traditionally insisted on decorum as a crucial value now tolerate (and possibly even encourage) hand-clapping and dancing, spontaneous or otherwise, during services.


Reform and Conservative synagogues, and even some Orthodox shuls, are making serious efforts to include traditionally marginalized populations, including women, gay people and the intermarried. But Wertheimer points out a troubling irony: the new inclusivity has not led to an increase in synagogue attendance or membership. Numbers are actually down. Similarly, Conservative and Reform Judaism have opened the doors of their rabbinical schools to women, thus doubling “the population of eligible students.” Yet “these schools have experienced plummeting enrolments.”

Alongside inclusivity, many synagogues emphasize other popular liberal causes. But Wertheimer notes that this takes them away from their traditional roles. To justify the switch, he says religious leaders “invented a new commandment during the 1980s – the injunction to engage in tikun olam, the repair of the world.”

Rabbis often avoid telling their congregants that Judaism demands anything specifically Jewish of them. Wertheimer relates the telling story of a rabbi who, on Rosh Hashanah, “invited congregants to speak before each shofar blast about what they intend to do over the coming year about three issues the rabbi felt ought to be uppermost when entering the new year – gun violence, gay rights and human trafficking. The latter topic proved so unsettling to young people in the sanctuary that the rabbi publicly apologized for having created an ‘unsafe space for children’ by raising the topic of contemporary slavery.”

In many synagogues, one specific political ideology reigns, and a congregant who does not share that ideology feels uncomfortable. (One uncharitable wag defines U.S. Reform Judaism as “the Democratic party, plus the holidays.”) When synagogues do mention Jews’ “obligations,” often they are to causes that are not specifically Jewish. “In practice, utilitarian, therapeutic and secular liberal assumptions guide the behaviour of contemporary American Jews far more than do Jewish teachings.” Wertheimer argues that even the use of the word “mitzvah” has changed in many synagogues. It no longer means something that God commanded; it simply means a good deed.

Many rabbis report adjusting what they preach about. Some hesitate to talk about God. Twenty per cent of rabbis fear “some kind of sanction or retribution from their congregants for voicing their honest opinions about Israel.”

In a culture that values autonomy, synagogues often promote Judaism as a way to reach personal fulfilment and add meaning to life. Rabbis avoid “heteronomy” – that is, saying that we do not instinctively know the correct way to behave, but that the Torah addresses us, instructing us to do things we might not have chosen on our own. Wertheimer sums up: “If the grounds for defining Judaism are personalist, one picks and chooses from the religion that which is personally fulfilling.”

It’s hard to be optimistic about the current approach of synagogues as a long-term strategy. Jews whose Judaism consists primarily of advocating gay rights and fighting against gun violence and human trafficking are likely to discover that these causes can be more effectively promoted outside the synagogue. Even Jews who go to a synagogue because they like the music or meditation it offers are likely to discover that moving music, even spiritual music, may be more easily found outside of synagogues.

What synagogues have to offer that cannot be found anywhere else is instruction and exhortation on living a Jewish life. When they emphasize core Jewish values, they create a sense of solidarity, community and even exclusivity that cannot be rivalled. When they discuss Jewish texts and teachings, they get people to consider their own values and behaviour and maybe even try to improve their lives. Some of that still goes on in every synagogue, but perhaps it’s time to make it more front and centre.