— by Kenneth R. Myers, Esq.
The sociological and religious challenges to the continued existence of the American Jewish community as we know it were discussed last week in a symposium called “Creating a Modern Jewish Community,” at Congregation Adath Jeshurun (AJ) in Philadelphia.
The symposium featured three well known Jewish scholars: Steven M. Cohen, Ph.D., of Hebrew Union College, Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson of the American Jewish University at Los Angeles, and Rabbi Sharon Brous, founder of IKAR, a progressive egalitarian congregation in Los Angeles that has achieved a following among the youthful demographic that has drifted from the traditional institutions.
An audience of several hundreds attended the lecture, that was followed by a panel discussion.
Continued after the jump.
Taking apart the recent Pew study of Jewish population trends line by line, Cohen built a convincing picture of a community in three parts:
- a healthy growing Orthodox segment;
- a growing entirely unaffiliated group of people who may accept classification as Jews but have no specific relationship to Jewish religion, institutions or practices; and
- those in the middle, within the range of Jewish existence that has been our norm: Conservative, Reform and unaffiliated but identified and committed Jews.
This middle part, according to Cohen, has a 71% rate of intermarriage, and the resulting families most often do not consider themselves Jewish.
There are five million identified Jews in America, but Cohen noted that there are additional two million children of a Jewish parent who say they are not Jewish. Further contributing to the shrinkage, the central segment of Jewish society is marrying later and having fewer children than required to maintain its numbers.
The response proposed by Cohen is a community effort to reach out to the 16-35 year old demographic with more and better funded opportunities to meet and socialize with Jews. This includes Jewish camps, youth organizations and Israel travel.
Jewish day schools are fine, but efforts to get more children into them “hit a wall,” and so other techniques are needed, according to Cohen. He noted wryly that parents have a limited influence on their children in this age group, but suggested that grandparents can play a strong role in developing a Jewish identity among the young.
Rabbi Artson attacked the difficulties in presenting organized religious teaching and practice to a generation inured in scientific thought. Bringing his own experiences with family into the discussion, he built a concept of personal religious practice without the heavy hand of the traditional 613 mitzvot.
Individual prayer is a form of connection to a society that prays, and by doing praying, establishes connection with a higher committed relationship, he said. This relationship focuses on the attributes we attach to our maker: goodness, forgiveness and response to prayer, and through that focus, creates a meaningful religious experience and congregation.
Rabbi Brous expanded the discussion to the new religious communities based on connection. Noting that our community has created large, beautiful synagogues and temples, buildings that stand empty for most of the year, she urged that we find adherents wherever they are located, in living rooms or coffee shops or bars.
Brous concluded her talk with a brief prayer service in her own unique style, asking each person to think of a need or desire, and after a period of contemplation, to join her in a wordless song.
This Symposium is the first of several programs dedicated to Rabbi Seymour Rosenbloom, who has announced that he will be retiring from AJ next year, after 36 years as its spiritual leader. In brief remarks, he noted that AJ has had just three rabbis during the past 100 years, but has repeatedly changed and reinvented itself as needed. And it will do so again under a new rabbi, he said.