Ben-Dat: Why is non-Orthodox Jewry vanishing?

Jewish students
Jewish students

Since the Jewish Emancipation in Europe in the mid-19th century, which saw the elimination of many anti-Jewish laws, so-called experts have been predicting the imminent demise of the Jewish people.

Despite the furious efforts of our enemies, we have not vanished. But we cannot deny that non-Orthodox Jewry, at least in North America, is indeed diminishing in numbers.

The Jewish People Policy Institute in Jerusalem tackled the problem of the diminishing number of people involved in  Jewish life in America in a recent two-part study titled, Raising Jewish Children: Family, Engagement and Jewish Continuity among American Jews and Learning Jewishness, Jewish Education and Jewish Identity.

Although the study pertains to American Jewry, it is also relevant to Canada.

According to the study, “Today, some 10 to 12 per cent of U.S. Jewry is Orthodox. At the other end of the spectrum we see less and less Jewish engagement. The middle is shrinking. Some are moving toward the modern Orthodox community, but more are sliding out slowly. The general American society is much more open and hospitable to Jews than ever before and this creates competing identification opportunities.… Considerable disturbing evidence points to deeply challenging trends in America’s Jewish families.”

One of the visible manifestations of the “shrinking middle” of North American Jewish life is diminishing synagogue attendance outside the Orthodox community. Indeed, in the U.S., some people are worried about the future of the Conservative movement. Efforts to reverse this trend are failing. The reason for this, in part, is that we have applied reverse logic to try to solve this problem.

Synagogue attendance follows a feeling of Jewish peoplehood. By and large, it does not create it. People do not usually develop a purposeful sense of their Judaism at synagogue. Rather, they attend shul because they feel a sense of belonging to the Jewish people.


So the question becomes: how do we instil in our children a fundamental familiarity with Judaism, and perhaps even an attachment to the Jewish people?

There are many answers, but the best one is Jewish education – both formal and informal. A meaningful Jewish education starts at home, continues in school and is then reinforced within peer groups.

There are many paths to Jewish knowledge, literacy, attachment and belonging. One must never diminish any activity that informs the soul of the Jewish child. The gold standard of Jewish education, however, is a day school education.

But as most of us know, there is a crisis in day school education throughout much of North America. It is simply unaffordable for most middle-income families and many non-Orthodox day schools may not survive.

Thus, in the search for solutions to the reduced attendance in shuls and day schools, perhaps synagogues should become involved in the effort to try to save our schools, in an attempt to save themselves.

The suggestion is not for the institutions to fundraise for each other. Rather, it is for shuls and schools to create an inter-lacing network of appropriate ties that aid and enhance each institution.

What might those lateral ties be? Here is an opportunity for creative thinking, but they could include: creating volunteer opportunities for parents and synagogue members to help foster learning in both institutions, or do work in the community; sharing commemorative events; lending respective staff for ad hoc programs; and allowing students and synagogue members to participate in joint educational activities and projects.

Shuls and schools are natural partners. They are part of the fundamental infrastructure of the Jewish community. It stands to reason, therefore, that they have a mutual interest in each other’s wellbeing. When they thrive, the community thrives.

If there are no students, there will be no Jewish schools. If there are no Jewish schools, there will eventually be no synagogues. And if there are no synagogues, there will eventually be no meaningful sense of Jewish community.