RNS thinker about a blunt question: What is killing the (liberal) American synagogue?

There is much to recommend in the Religion News Service commentary that ran the other day with this headline: “What is killing the American synagogue?” This is one of those think pieces that points to hard news angles, for those with eyes to see them.

The author, Rabbi Jeffrey Salkin, backs up that blunt headline with lots of practice observations about cultural trends that are affecting all kinds of liberal, old-line religious groups in America, these days. He admits that there are times when cultural trends are signs of serious issues of philosophy and, I would add, theology.

So what are reporters to think then they hear that another synagogue/temple is being torn down? First of all, that RNS headline really needed to include the word “Reform” or “liberal” in front of the word synagogue. Read on, to see if my judgement is accurate.

Here is some ultra-personal material from the rabbi, right near the top:

I am a product of Long Island Judaism. I spent my childhood at Temple Beth Elohim in Old Bethpage, alav ha-shalom. It closed several years ago.

I spent my teen years at Suburban Temple in Wantagh, NY. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, it was a booming, thriving synagogue of about 800 families. We had one hundred kids in the youth group. We were at the synagogue three nights a week.

So, too, Temple Emanu-El in neighboring East Meadow. It, too, had throngs of teenagers. I attended my first youth group dances there.

Then, in the late 1980s, I came home to become a rabbi at a synagogue on the South Shore of Long Island.

During those years, I confronted the two Bs of the apocalypse: Boca and Boynton. People were moving to Florida.

Beth Moses. People were dying, and “moving” to that cemetery in Farmingdale.

The question I would ask, as someone who has followed the liberal Jewish demographic apocalypse since the stunning Denver Jewish community intermarriage studies of the 1980s, whether Salkin needed to add a third “B,” as in “babies (or lack thereof).”

To be specific, the article didn’t address to major issues that keep showing up in studies of the Jewish future in America and in the Western world — birth rates and intermarriage. In both cases, liberal forms of Jewish faith are in decline, while Orthodox forms continue to rise (especially as a major force in the Jewish community as a whole).

At some point or another, everyone has to deal with the numbers in the 2013 Pew Research Center study on the state of Jewish life. Here’s a sample:

…the survey shows that the offspring of intermarriages – Jewish adults who have only one Jewish parent – are much more likely than the offspring of two Jewish parents to describe themselves, religiously, as atheist, agnostic or nothing in particular. In that sense, intermarriage may be seen as weakening the religious identity of Jews in America. …

Intermarriage is practically nonexistent among Orthodox Jews; 98% of the married Orthodox Jews in the survey have a Jewish spouse. But among all other married Jews, only half say they have a Jewish spouse.

In addition, intermarriage rates appear to have risen substantially in recent decades, though they have been relatively stable since the mid-1990s. Looking just at non-Orthodox Jews who have gotten married since 2000, 28% have a Jewish spouse and fully 72% are intermarried.

Also, intermarriage is more common among Jewish respondents who are themselves the children of intermarriage. Among married Jews who report that only one of their parents was Jewish, just 17% are married to a Jewish spouse. By contrast, among married Jews who say both of their parents were Jewish, 63% have a Jewish spouse.

The Orthodox Jewish birth rate? It was 4.1 at the time of the Pew study. Among liberal Jews, I cannot find a reference anywhere that puts their birth rate anywhere near the 2.2 replacement rate.

These are two pretty important holes — babies and intermarriage — in a commentary on why Reform synagogues are being torn down, in many cases literally.

So why do I recommend this commentary to reporters seeking news hooks? Well, follow the following train of thought.

There is a reference to children, sort of, here. It’s an interesting comment that points to larger issues:

Synagogues are shrinking not only because people are moving away or dying.

Let’s go back to Long Island. Many Jews who used to belong to those synagogues haven’t gone anywhere — except out of the synagogues. When the last child graduates from high school, when the nest is truly empty, many Jews say to themselves: “Who needs this anymore?”

We did it to ourselves. We made synagogues so child-focused, and so bar/bat mitzvah-centric, that many Jews simply could not imagine a reality that would go beyond that.

When it comes to the High Holy Days, they say to themselves, they can always buy a ticket. Except, synagogues do not pop up on Rosh Ha Shanah and then close after Neilah on Yom Kippur. Whether you are there or not, there are still salaries to pay and bills to pay and…

So why do people stop coming to worship services? Well, Salkin notes:

This is a religious issue.

We have been fighting a religious war on three fronts.

This is where you really need to head over and read the whole article, if the future of Judaism is a story that matters to you or to your news organization. His comments on consumerism and the side effects of radical individualism are worth your time, in and of themselves.

But let’s end with this Pew study quote cited by the rabbi:

“Jews exhibit lower levels of religious commitment than the U.S. general public, among whom 56% say religion is very important in their lives and an additional 23% say it is somewhat important.” The comparative figures for Jews are 26 percent (very important) and 29 percent (somewhat important.)

“Belief in God is much more common among the general public than among Jews. Even among Jews by religion, belief in God is less common than among members of other major U.S. religious groups.”

Read it all.

Please respect our Commenting Policy