Are American synagogues on the road to renewal - or perdition?

A new study of religious trends inside the largest diaspora community


The New American Judaism
By Jack Wertheimer
Princeton University Press, £24

Depending on one’s point of view, Judaism in American is either undergoing the most radical, exciting and creative of transformations, or it is mired in a profound and deeply unsettling religious crisis. That at least is the impression one gets from Jack Wertheimer’s latest book The New American Judaism.

Jack Wertheimer, professor of American Jewish history at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, is the pre-eminent expert on the condition of Jewish life in the USA. His books have informed community development strategies, tactics for religious engagement and educational policies. In his 1993 book A People Divided, he explored the issues facing the major synagogue denominations in America.
In this latest book he focuses on the lives of ordinary Jews in their local communities. Through interviews with rabbis, with people he describes as “observers of the American Jewish religious scene” and by personally attending hundreds of synagogues, he has constructed a picture of American Jewry which spans the full spectrum of observance and belief, a spectrum that is far wider and more diverse that could have been conceived a few decades ago.

Organised religion in America, as in most of the Western world, is enduring a lengthy recession. In the case of Judaism, the symptoms include declining synagogue memberships, falling attendances at services, spiralling rates of intermarriage, waning belief in God and a general disinterest in traditional practice and belief. Not every segment of Judaism is equally challenged, Orthodoxy is actually experiencing something of a revival; more people are engaged in regular study, while demographic growth is propelled by higher than average birth rates. But overall, Judaism in America is declining, in terms of numbers, commitment, identity and Jewish literacy. 

Wertheimer is too even-handed in his presentation to overtly express concern with this decline, but it is clear from his tone that he regrets many of the trends that he notes. The baton of America’s largest religious denomination has passed from Conservative to Reform, and it is within Reform Judaism that Wertheimer records some of the most striking transformations. Many are idiosyncratic, driven by the individualism of American society. He finds one family who change the date of their personal Yom Kippur to one which fits better with their social calendar. Another moves the night on which they will hold their Seder, for similar reasons. 

Ethically, the Jewish imperative to be a “good person” still holds, but the values of many people are indistinguishable from their non-Jewish peers. There is no awareness of a specifically Jewish perspective on ethical behaviour.

Both Reform and Conservative Judaism have wagered their future on a “big tent” approach, seeking formulae that include as many people as possible. Belief and ideology are subsumed into a “what works best approach”. The imperative to be inclusive has led to some non-Jewish partners in intermarried families assuming communal leadership roles. One Reform rabbi encountered a participant on his education committee sporting a large black cross on her forehead; she had just come from an Ash Wednesday communion.

Life-cycle events have become so important, and general synagogue attendance has declined so much, that on Shabbat in many Reform Temples the only worshippers are the family and guests of the bar- or batmitzvah celebrant. In the words of one senior Reform rabbi, “worship of God gives way to worship of the child”.

Wertheimer wonders at the whims of modern American Jewish life and the abandonment of mitzvah and law in favour of autonomy and personal choice. He asks why a Jew would choose to wear tefillin but scoff at kosher food laws. But he is realistic about the challenges rabbis face. “In our current hyper-individualistic age, people don’t want to be told what they should do, not a small challenge for religious leaders responsible for presenting a religious tradition replete with commandments and prohibitions.” 

Of course, this is not the first time in Jewish history that Judaism has undergone a transformation. Since the Enlightenment Jews have, to a greater or lesser extent, adapted to the surrounding culture. If things are of greater concern today, it is due not to the fact of adaptation, rather to the nature of the culture precipitating the transformation. And the question must be asked, if the forms and beliefs of the established Jewish traditions cannot invest the lives of so many acculturated American Jews with meaning, what then should be done? 

The innovative programmes, the new buzzwords like “Jewish renewal” and “Jewish renaissance” that dominate the discourse of those trying to “remix” Judaism, the transitioning, for example, of Shabbat from sacred time to an internet-free zone, are all well intended. Whether they will work, or whether contemporary American Judaism will turn out to be just another blip in the long and varied history of Judaism, only time will tell. 

Jack Wertheimer will talk about his book and other subjects at the Limmud Festival, which begins on Sunday. Harry Freedman will speak  there on his forthcoming book Kabbalah: Secrecy, Scandal and the Soul, out next month

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