Monday, March 21, 2011

Jewish Apathy? Who Cares? has an interesting article entitled “Why liberal Judaism is in free fall” (

The gist of the essay is that apathy is killing liberal Judaism. Maybe, but why? Most rabbis I talk with seem to think it is a cosmetic problem: more Hebrew, more hand-clapping and singing, a newer version of the siddur (prayer book), and the next thing you know Liberal Jews are as enthusiastic as the Satmar Hasidim. I doubt it.

Liberal Jews are like voters in an off year election: most of them don’t turn out (and by “them” I mean “us” and by “us” I mean me). The problem is that for liberal Jews it is always an off year election. Give them a reason to show up, however, and they might.

But maybe there is no reason. Maybe there is nothing (short of pogroms in their neighborhoods) that will bring liberal Jews to shul. If, as is true of most liberal Jews, you don’t believe that the Jews are God’s Chosen obligated to the 613 Commandments and central to the salvation of the planet and her peoples, it is hard to drag your butt to shul on Saturday to wade through hundreds of pages of mostly meaningless and often repetitive liturgy.

And yet Judaism and Jewish culture are hardly moribund. I attended a fabulous Havdallah service in St. Louis featuring the Hasidic-jazz fusion of my friend Rabbi James Goodman; the Jewish music scene in New York and LA is thriving; Jewish art, literature, and poetry are alive and well. Maybe it is just corporate religion that is on life-support.

Maybe we need to create events rather than communities. Maybe communities cannot be artificially erected and funded through dues. Maybe the old model of “If you build it (the synagogue) they will come (and pay off the mortgage) no longer works. Maybe Judaism has to happen differently. Maybe. I'm only asking questions here. And I know I'll hear from some shul-lovers who say everything is fine. Maybe it is.

I’d love to hear examples of where Judaism is working for you. Please share them in the comments section.


Mary Ingmire said...

Welcome to the world of mainline Protestantism where church membership and church attendance have been declining for a decade or more. Perhaps paying off the church/synagogue mortgage has become irrelevant to everyone except the leaders of those places. I'm curious about the relevance of spirituality to the daily lives of liberal Jews. By "spirituality" I mean one seeks to connect with God or whatever one may call a higher power.

Chéeliyahu said...

"Maybe we need to create events rather than communities."

i appreciate timely fb invitations. provides time to choose wisely and prepare accordingly; whether it's yes, maybe, or no, my own decision builds anticipation and personal responsibility; a semblance of formal ceremony is embedded in an invite, which is lacking in rote observance (where business-as-usual manifests apathy). Keeps it fresh, that way, without entertaining predictability.

i notice familiar faces on (special) occasion, but since it's left to the wind, it's more surprising to see folks attend the same event on their own volition, without the whole group think tank motivation. it's more memorable or sharpens memory that way.

i don't know, maybe it's an old shul Westernized Brooder thing. What if Gd decides not to show up is far more interesting than clergy expecting Gd to obey. om, yikes.

Chéeliyahu said...

a specific example of "where Judaism is working" from my novice perspective is "Thursday Night Chulent" and they've been mobile for awhile, gathering in temporary spaces; i appreciate their free lectures on news-chatty topics from a historical/artistic/textual lens. it's spontaneous, as far as the calendar goes, not to mention the impromptu drum circles and nigguns, but it's because they don't have it easy monetarily that i find their collective most appealing and refreshing. i've only been twice (in their former space). haven't been to a brooklyn event of their's yet.

eashtov said...
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andrea perez said...

I want to study. By studying I mean, read and debate. I love to sing, but I guess we need camp for adults rather than screeching on Friday nights.
I don't like to pretend that I am friends with people I don't know just because we are all in a room together.
I think organized religion works when it feels like people actually want you there. Maybe we've gotten too cynical to think we really belong to some group of strangers whose only thing in common is birthright?
Just thinking...What I need is study that is kind of liberal in tone. Without thinking we are better than everyone else.

eashtov said...
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Suz C said...

"Maybe we need to create events rather than communities."

Events draw people together on a one time basis; the focus is on "the show."

Community is what binds people together into shared lives, deeper relationships, mutual support and encouragement and even accountability.

Communal worship happens and is most compelling when joy springs from the fountain of love of God flowing into, through and as people bound by the awareness of the oneness with the Creator and with one another underlying our frantic searches for selfhood.

We are a committment phobic society, too impatient for the slow work of God, too afraid to put ourselves on the line or to risk knowing and being known.

I think the issue is not that we don't present in enough over the top ways. The issue seems to be more that we not only don't communicate our faith well, and especially don't explore God/relationships nearly deeply enough.
Expect more. Where there real meaning and sigificance for real lives, there will be people.

eashtov said...

Shalom Rav and All,

That which used to be the sole provenance of non orthodox synagogue membership is available for free, online or ala carte at far less cost. Other than for a life cycle event, or an occasional high holiday worship service, most non orthodox Jews couldn't care less one way or another about a synagogue as a place that provides the opportunity for Jewish community, whatever that might mean.

Other than political liberalism (a standing joke about Reform has been to say that its theology consisted of the Democratic Party platform with holidays thrown in), anti anti semitism and an accident of birth, there is no meaningful agreed upon articulation of non-orthodox Judaism. The non orthodox movements and their synagogues will eventually go the way of the Catskills and the Jewish Deli, sadly for the same reason: irrelevance. The further away we get from the Eastern European immigrant experience, the more irrelevant Jewish ethno-cultural markers become for most Jews. Quite simply, nostalgia is insufficient as an engine for Jewish continuity.

Clara Peller zl’ of “Wendy’s” fame had it right when she famously asked:

Non Orthodox Judaism, its leadership and its institutions ought to be answering her question. For, "In the absence of vision, people will be unrestrained.”
Mishlei (Proverbs) 29:18

Where are the non-orthodox visionaries that will provide the necessary focus?

The irony is not lost on me that a Pastrami sandwich from the slowly dying Jewish Deli:

juxtaposed with Clara Peller’s question (which clearly, crisply, concisely and compellingly frames the non Orthodox status quo), represents a metaphor for what needs to be rediscovered in order to create a meaningful contemporary non Orthodox Judaism. Her last line “I don’t think there’s anyone back there,” is spot on. Based on measurable results, the status quo is broken and beyond repair, and visionary leadership toward a passion producing picture of a preferred future is nowhere to be found.

Non orthodox Judaism (not to be confused with peoplehood/ethno-cultural Jewishness), must be re-envisioned, retooled, and re-engineered to become a relevant, practical, application oriented way of life that is consonant with the 21rst century reality that Jews find themselves a part of. Rabbis and other Jewish teachers must let prospective congregants know through bimah teaching, other educational efforts and experiential opportunities that indeed, they have walked or are walking in their prospects' moccasins. They must give folks answers to the questions, “Why Judaism? Why be Jewish? Why do Jewish?”

Then and only then can one even begin to think about an effective delivery system. Will this be the non orthodox synagogue? Who knows?



jlevenstein said...

I live in rural Pennsylvania, and we have just begun a monthly minyan. There are synagogues that are about 45 minutes or longer away from us, but in this area, they might as well be in Chicago.

We identified over 40 households in the area with at least one Jewish member. Our typical attendance is over 25 adults and over 10 children. Our liturgy is liberal and egalitarian and after a brief service we have a pot luck lunch.

Even though we are in the early stages of our minyan, the community is becoming cohesive. When I'm out, I'm frequently stopped by people who tell me how much they enjoy the minyan.

This experience is confirming my intuition. The solution to liberal Jewish apathy is to go smaller and more intimate. When we get large, we get swallowed up by the organizational issues of the synagogue and making sure we do everything the "right" way.


I've struggled with what works for me Jewishly for some time now. Like many non-Orthodox Jews of a certain age, I flirted with other paths -- Quakers and Buddhists, mostly -- before returning to my Jewish roots. But now I once again find my attention wandering. As Rabbi Rami suggested, it can be mind-numbing to mumble through hundreds of repetitive pages -- even if it is sacred mumbling.

Aron said...

Currently, I use lots of different resources to fulfill my need to connect with others Jews. There's blogs like this. There's on-line services that groups like Our Jewish community and Punk Torah do. I'm also part of a local Recon chevurah called Little Minyan that I attend about once a month.

Sometimes the lack of having one single place to call home has its limits, but it works for me as a father with 2 young boys. The main thing I'm working on in my mind is having "nature" gatherings with other Jews in the park to try and combine these together into an intimate gathering that's generated our out personal interest, not something hoisted upon us by a group or synagogue.

The author of this blog is said...

Sulam Yaakov / Jacobs Ladder

Angels ascending
and angels going down
I love to go up
but when I descend
I usually miss a couple of rungs
and come down with a bump
from which it can take
a long time (if ever)
to recover

Sulam Yaakov / Jacobs Ladder II

Angels ascending
and angels going down
I love to go up
but when I descend
I usually miss a couple of rungs
and come down with a bump
from which it can take
a long time to recover
and by then I've already
wondered upwards again