American Jews are caught in a crisis and their rabbis aren’t helping. Synagogues are closing, congregations are ageing, and the non-Orthodox majority is dwindling. For every 100 non-Orthodox Jews in their 50s, there are just 55 children with the same religious orientation. If the Jewish community does not take action, its numbers will shrink. The era in which Jews played a vital role in American life will end as the entire community becomes demographically diminished and socially insular.
Yet the main Jewish religious movements are not grasping the root of this problem—the failure of Jews to marry other Jews. None is explicitly pursuing strategies to promote marriage within the community. Reform Jews are making matters worse. The Conservatives are confused. The Orthodox are fooling themselves into believing that they are the answer. The decline of their non-Orthodox coreligionists harms them as well.
Reform Judaism, currently the largest denomination, is encouraging demographic failure. The movement accepts intermarriage despite evidence that its occurrence leads to fewer Jews. Most intermarried couples do not raise their offspring as Jews and, not surprisingly, these children themselves marry non-Jews at a rate of 76 percent. The result is that now there are not enough young people in Reform synagogues to keep them going. According to one survey just eight percent of Reform synagogue members are young adults—while 22 percent are over the age of 65.
Reform Judaism continues to welcome intermarriage despite this evidence. Around half of all Reform rabbis conduct marriages between Jews and non-Jews, with increasing numbers of rabbis joining their ranks. Instead of encouraging Gentiles to convert to Judaism to marry Jews, some Reform rabbis question the whole point of conversion. They even perform marriages jointly with non-Jewish clergy, in contravention of the rules of the Reform rabbinic body, the Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR).
Reform rabbis now propagate the notion of patrilineal descent without any qualification, which is both false to the text of the CCAR’s 1983 resolution on “The Status of Children of Mixed Marriages” and self-defeating. It is false because the resolution acknowledged as potentially Jewish only the children of Jewish fathers and non-Jewish mothers who were raised within the Jewish fold. It is self-defeating because it weakens the Jewish identity and commitment of Reform youth. Rabbi Eric Yoffie, previous president of the Union for Reform Judaism, said that “if current trends continue, approximately 80 percent of the children who have a bar or bat mitzvah in our congregations will have no connection of any kind to their synagogue by the time they reach 12th grade.”
Meanwhile, the Conservative movement is in even worse demographic shape than the Reform. During the first decade of this century the number of Conservative synagogues fell by six percent, while membership declined by 14 percent. In 2010, only nine percent of adult members of Conservative congregations were under 40—those over the age of 65 outnumbered young adults three-to-one. The Conservative intermarriage rate is 33 percent and rising.
The Conservative movement is confronting its intermarriage problem with resolute confusion. The United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, the movement’s synagogue organization, mentions intermarriage as an issue in its latest strategic plan, but makes no suggestions for encouraging marriage to other Jews.
At the same time, the Conservative rabbinic corps is drifting toward accommodating the intermarried and discouraging the conversions needed to prevent it. The Rabbinical Assembly’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards voted in 2010 to allow the burial of non-Jewish spouses in a separate section of a Jewish cemetery. The sole opponent on the committee, who lives in Israel, argued that the decision removes any incentive for non-Jews to join the Jewish people: “Why would they bother converting?”
The only source of good news appears to be the growing Orthodox population. The Orthodox intermarriage rate is around six percent. Just as important, the Orthodox have no difficulty reproducing, a task that has befuddled the other denominations. The Jewish population of New York, Westchester, and Long Island rose by nine percent in the decade to 2011 in large part because of the high Orthodox birthrate, according to the 2011 UJA-Federation study. Orthodox children are now close to two-thirds of the Jewish children in the New York metro area.
It appears that Orthodoxy will flourish while the other movements languish or perish. As Rabbi Norman Lamm, the chancellor of Yeshiva University, has said, “With a heavy heart we will soon say kaddish on the Reform and Conservative movements.” Other Orthodox rabbis have openly expressed pleasure and dismay at the waning of the non-Orthodox. Rabbi Yitzchock Adlerstein wrote that the “mixed emotions” stirred by the New York population survey were best communicated by imagining that you are "watching your sworn enemy go over the side of a cliff in your new Lotus.” Adlerstein hinted that result could be increased anti-Semitism, because without the connections that the non-Orthodox have made to non-Jews, Jewish life would become less easy in America “in times of stress.”
The Orthodox assumption that they will replace the non-Orthodox is a delusion. Orthodox Jews constitute less than 15 percent of the American Jewish population. Their high birthrate cannot compensate for the massive losses among the other denominations and the unaffiliated. Also, the substantial reproduction rate among haredi Jews, the so-called ultra-Orthodox, may not continue indefinitely. As they climb the economic ladder, their families are likely to become smaller.
The decline of the non-Orthodox will damage the Orthodox in three ways. First, a substantial part of the growth in Orthodoxy, particularly Modern Orthodoxy, has come from non-Orthodox groups. The baalei teshuva, “repentant” Jews who reject non-Orthodox Judaism, have more than compensated for those leaving Orthodoxy. They also provide a connection to non-Orthodox communities through their extended families. In some cases they are the first observant Jews in their families for generations. This pool of potential recruits would be gone without Reform and Conservative Judaism.
Second, without Reform and Conservative Judaism, American Jews will have fewer choices in the future for their religious practice. The options will be Orthodoxy or other religions.
Third, the non-Orthodox movements, and to a much lesser extent Modern Orthodoxy, connect Jews to American society. The Orthodox often have difficulties in dealing with other Jews, let alone maintaining any meaningful relationship with other religions. Orthodox life can be insular because it is so all-enveloping. America accepts closed communities, like the Amish, but the price of social isolation is a lack of cultural and political influence.
American Orthodox rabbis lead congregations filled with Torah study and bursting with children. After decades of being dismissed as relics or characterized as extremists by the non-Orthodox, the Orthodox are witnessing what looks like the irreversible decline of the religious competition. That feeling of vindication, however, will prove brief when they realize they will also suffer from the demographic self-destruction of today’s non-Orthodox majority.
Andrew Apostolou is a historian based in Washington D.C.
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