Invigorating Jewish life: Is the “Statement on Jewish Vitality” the right approach?

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The ark of Beth Shalom Rodfe Zedek

Source: Congregation Beth Shalom Rodfe Zedek

The ark, which houses the Torah, of Beth Shalom Rodfe Zedek in Chester, Connecticut. Designed by Sol LeWitt.

American Jewry is in a state of crisis. There are fewer and fewer Jews who are part of the so-called “Jewish Middle”—Jews who aren’t orthodox but who are still engaged with Jewish life.

That’s the premise of the Statement on Jewish Vitality. Signed by national leaders of the Jewish community, is blunt:

American Jewry now stands at a crossroads. Our choices are stark: we either accept as inevitable the declining numbers of engaged Jews, or we work to expand the community and improve the quality of Jewish life going forward.

The ark of Beth Shalom Rodfe Zedek

The ark, which houses the Torah, of Beth Shalom Rodfe Zedek in Chester, Connecticut. Designed by Sol LeWitt.

The problem is demographic: Jews are failing to be fruitful and multiply. Citing the 2013 Pew study on American Jews, the Statement laments how Jews wait to marry, often intermarry, and raise fewer children. And to make matters worse, the children of Jewish women (just 1.7 on average) includes many who will not be raised Jewish or who will later become disaffiliated with Judaism.

Put another wayWhy can’t you marry a good Jewish boy/girl and raise the kids to be Jewish?

The Statement calls for prioritizing programs that promote in-marriage and help keep children in the faith as they grow up: day schools, Jewish camps, Israel trips, and youth groups. For adults, there should be a push to have inter-marriages become in-marriages through conversion.

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I’m not Jewish; so I don’t have a stake in this debate. What I am is a social scientist who studies religion. And from that perspective, the Statement is addressing the most successful strategy of any religious group: procreation. Faiths that have large families who raise children within a religious community will prosper (e.g., Mormons, pre-Vatican II Catholics, Duggars, and Hasidic Jews). Those that don’t, won’t.

In the parlance of sociology, to maintain marketshare in the religious market, you must replace those who leave and retain as many as possible.

There are two ways to replace members: children and conversion. The Statement focuses on children, and only briefly mentions conversion. This is understandable; Judaism is historically a faith that avoids (if not discourages) proselytizing.

Rabbi Gordy Fuller is one who thinks that this is a missed opportunity.

“If we have such a wonderful heritage and such a rich, moral tradition, why not seek others to share it with? I’m purposely avoiding the “P” word, but I’m confident that we Jews could find a moral, ethical, and dignified way to bring our message to the Gentile world,” wrote Fuller.

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For retaining members, the Statement focuses on raising Jewish children who strongly identify and value Jewish life. There is little on how Jewish institutions should change (other than to do more education).

Critics of the Statement find it lacking in its recognition for how Jewish life is changing and why traditional institutions should change, too.

Rabbi Rami Shapiro and Rabbi Robert B. Barr criticize the report for ignoring why adults raised Jewish leave.

“We need an adult Judaism our teens can grow into rather than an adolescent Judaism that they will grow out of,” wrote Shapiro and Barr. “Such a Judaism needs to be intellectually sound, grounded in modern thought and based upon reason and evidence.”

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Lippman Kanfer Foundation for Living Torah funds many of the organizations who signed the Statement, but it did not endorse it because it wants Judaism to do more than maintain its current institutions. The foundation advocates for the “innovation sector in Jewish communal life” that includes traditional institutions (e.g., camps and day schools) while also seeking out other ways that Jewish life can be experienced.

The Lippman Kanfer Foundation also echoes concerns by others who see the Statement as being condescending. In the foundation’s terms, it is an example of “social engineering”:

“[The Statement] It treats the people it hopes to impact as targets, individuals whose behavior needs to change, as the recipients of programmatic interventions that will induce them to do the things “we” would like them to do – marry other Jews (or convert their partners, if they’re not Jewish), have more children, affiliate with Jewish institutions. This kind of thinking, however well intended, is antiquated, insulting, and even potentially counter-productive…Change in Jewish life is not going to come from the top down. Unless we policy makers and funders learn to listen to and respect what amcha is saying and seeking, our social engineering efforts are doomed to failure. And, it is no good to say that we can do this tactically while maintaining a mindset that says that we know best what is good for them. It won’t (and shouldn’t) work.”

Regardless of whether one sees the Statement as a strategy to help save American Jewry, as an antiquated attempt at social engineering, or as something in-between, it is safe to say that it has reinvigorated the debate over where American Jewish life is and where it should be going next.

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