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

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.

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Intermarriage on the rise: How does Catholicism view Catholic-Jewish weddings?

Intermarriage on the rise: How does Catholicism view Catholic-Jewish weddings?


Is it sinful for Catholics to attend a wedding between a Catholic and a Jew, performed by a rabbi?



But there’s much more to be said about how Catholicism views interfaith marriages. (The church is more open on this than those who adhere to Jewish tradition, as we’ll discuss below.)

An official U.S. Catholic website says that until recent decades “the idea of a Catholic marrying outside the faith was practically unheard of, if not taboo,” and such ceremonies never occurred publicly in a church sanctuary. Yet today, in some parts of the U.S. up to 40 percent of Catholics are in “ecumenical marriages” between Christians of differing affiliations, or “interfaith marriages” with non-Christians.

The site says “because of the challenges that arise, . . . the church doesn’t encourage” interfaith marriage but does seek to support such couples and “help them to meet those challenges with a spirit of holiness.” Under the law code that covers all Catholics worldwide, says a Canon Law Society of America commentary, there’ve been “extensive changes” in the direction of leniency in marriage rules since the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) and mixed marriages have become “more commonplace and socially acceptable.”

In Catholic belief, a marriage between a Catholic and a Jew (or someone from another non-Christian religion) is not a “sacrament.” Importantly, this doesn’t mean the church questions that the couple is truly married as a civil matter, nor does it express any disrespect toward Judaism, with which Christianity has such great affinity.

The technical term used in marriages with non-Christians is “the impediment of disparity of cult.” If an interfaith couple wishes a wedding in a Catholic church, canon law prescribes that the local bishop must issue a “dispensation” on the basis of “just and reasonable cause,” which occurs far more routinely than in past times.

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Baltimore Sun gets the little picture: Convert-era Orthodoxy comes to local Greek parish

Baltimore Sun gets the little picture: Convert-era Orthodoxy comes to local Greek parish

More than 30 years ago, there was a big story that rocked the rather small and obscure world of Eastern Orthodox Christianity here in the United States.

That was when a flock of evangelicals -- led by a former Campus Crusade leader, the late Father Peter Gillquist -- were embraced by the ancient Antiochian Orthodox Church. Regular GetReligion readers know my own family later joined that number, through a close friendship with another leader in that flock, the late Father Gordon Walker of Franklin, Tenn.

The mainstream press gave the "evangelical Orthodox" story a modest amount of ink at the time. Like I said, it was an important story in a small, but growing, flock. The key was that it was a sign of things to come for the faithful in the world's second-largest Christian communion.

Years before I converted, I wrote a column about the growth of an American expression of this ancient faith, built on an interview with the late Archbishop Iakovos of the Greek Orthodox Church. He was born in Turkey, but by the end of his life he could see ripples of change in America. The converts were coming, whether some Orthodox leaders wanted them or not.

"I cannot visualize what an American Orthodoxy would look like. ... But I believe that it will exist. I know that it must be born," said Iakovos. ...
"I do know this for sure. The essential elements of the Orthodox tradition will have to remain at the heart of whatever grows in this land. The heart has to remain the same, or it will not touch peoples' souls. It will not be truly Orthodox. I know that this will happen here, but I do not know when it will happen or how."

That was 1992. Why bring this up now? Well, the Baltimore Sun recently published a lengthy and admirable feature about a local development in this larger national story. This piece offered an in-depth look at the story of a former Southern Baptist (from East Tennessee, of all places) who has found his way into the Greek Orthodox priesthood.

To be blunt, there is only one problem with this story: It never really places this one priest in the context of this larger, 30-year-old trend in Eastern Orthodoxy. It also failed to note the degree to which this trend had already had a big impact in Baltimore, especially as symbolized by one of America's best-known "convert friendly" parishes.

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Poignant think piece: Demographics are destiny in many dying Jewish communities

Poignant think piece: Demographics are destiny in many dying Jewish communities

One of the things I am working on, at the moment, is a memo for seminar on religion reporting that is tentatively slated for this coming summer in Prague. The name of the memo, which will become one of the lectures that week, is this: "The Seven Deadly Sins of the Religion Beat."

After consulting with some former GetReligionistas, I have a list of about 11 deadly sins -- so there is some editing and condensing ahead.

Nevertheless, I know that one of the deadly sins that is sure to make the cut will center on an idea from M.Z. "GetReligionista emerita" Hemingway. She suggested: "Ignorance of religious landscape outside of big cities."

Dead on. There is a tendency for reporters at big news organizations to assume that all big religion stories and trends emerge in big places, in big flocks, with big buildings (that photograph well) and that are led by big people (who function as semi-political leaders or celebrities). If you know anything about the history of religion, you know that this is often not how things work.

I think, in particular, that journalists often struggle to find ways to convince editors that it is important to notice when institutions decline, as well as when they grow. Here at GetReligion, I have said, over and over, that the decline of America's liberal Protestant establishment is probably the most under-covered story of the past 50 years. Without the demographic collapse of the oldline churches, you would not have had a giant hole in the public square for the Religious Right to (in part) fill.

I thought about all of this when reading the top of a poignant think piece that ran this week at The Forward, with this headline: "These Are America’s Most Endangered Jewish Communities." Heads up, journalists: There are all kinds of stories in this piece to localize.

The bottom line is the bottom line: There is no painless way to cut a shrinking pie and, at some point, the pie may vanish altogether.

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Washington Post describes Bernie Sanders as a normal, cultural Jew (with a few mysteries)

Washington Post describes Bernie Sanders as a normal, cultural Jew (with a few mysteries)

Long, long ago -- during my graduate-school time at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign -- I took a readings course in what the faculty called post-Holocaust Jewish sociology and ethics. It was, needless to say, an interesting experience for a guy who grew up in Texas as the son of a Southern Baptist pastor.

During that course I learned, as one scribe put it, that the most "controversial issue in modern Judaism is God." Years later, in Denver, I learned that you can put "marriage" near the top of that list of hot-button issues -- "intermarriage" to be precise.

I also remember thinking that, in many ways, being Jewish in New York City was -- in a strange way -- rather like being a Baptist in Texas.

Say what? Well, there are so many Baptists in Texas that it's impossible to stick any one label on them. There are Baptists in Texas who are to the right of the Rev. Jerry Falwell (junior or senior) and there are Texas Baptists who are theologically to the left of the local Episcopalians.

This brings me to that very interesting Washington Post story that ran under the headline, "Why Bernie Sanders doesn’t participate in organized religion."

Growing up, Bernie Sanders followed the path of many young American Jews. He went to Hebrew school, was bar mitzvahed and traveled to Israel to work on a kibbutz.
But as an adult, Sanders drifted away from Jewish customs. And as his bid for the White House gains momentum, he has the chance to make history. Not just as the first Jewish president -- but as one of the few modern presidents to present himself as not religious.

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