Reform Judaism magazine's Summer 2011 Cover Story encouraged reform and unaffiliated Jews throughout the U.S. and Canada to join the magazine's online think tank conversation about what we need to do to strengthen the Jewish future in North America.
In this issue, we offer readers a sampling of the hundreds of viewpoints and suggestions we received in response to four of the twelve questions we posed, with attributions—including age ranges—as appropriate, depending on the original information provided. The submissions below have been edited for clarity and to fit the space. Responses to the other questions are slated to appear in future editions.
If you have not yet contributed to the Movement-wide conversation, please give us your perspectives on the remaining questions. See “Call to Action”—and if you missed the original articles on “Reforming Judaism,” visit reformjudaismmag.org/summer_2011. Your input is valued—and you may see your ideas in a future edition.
Question #1: Rabbi Lawrence Englander says that “Jews are seeking out the Jewish community to fulfill current needs…rather than regarding synagogue membership as a lifetime commitment.” Do you agree? If yes, what needs to happen to make affiliation more compelling?
Gloria Becker, 40-59, Congregation Rodeph Shalom, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: I believe Jews are seeking out the community for both reasons. And it’s really OK when affiliation begins out of a need; we need to stop punishing ourselves for it. There is nothing more compelling than need. The more important question then follows: “What do congregations do with the people who begin with a need?”
John Crawley & Linda Radtke, 40-59, Sunny Isles Beach, Florida: The “supreme challenge” is how to make Reform Judaism more personal, rather than appealing to only one race, one income level, one education level. Many Jews become disillusioned and leave our faith because they do not feel welcomed.
We must take a lesson from the Christians. They send out large numbers of buses to transport their people to services, events, and other gatherings; we do not. Christians often visit and call their people, offer food baskets, and cut the lawns of the elderly and disabled; we do not.
We need to contact each individual Jew and make him/her feel part of our communities of faith. Every Jew must know that he or she counts—that what he/she feels or thinks is important, heard, acted upon. Without the individual person, there can be no community.
Anonymous, 60+, URJ congregant, California: My husband and I have belonged to a congregation all of our lives but find the increased use of Hebrew alienating. We also find congregations generally unwelcoming when new people appear. When we have gone to church services with friends, people come over and greet us and try to make us feel welcome. Temples generally don’t do this.
Jon Kabbe, 60+, Temple Emanu-El, Oak Park, Michigan: The research evidence is clear: Americans are the most individualistic people on the planet. The more individualist we become, the more we tend to treat each other, and organizations, from a utilitarian perspective. The underlying premise is that by getting more of what I want, I will be happier—but the research is quite clear: The good life does not work that way.
Reform Judaism has lost its value in a competitive marketplace of ideas for a life of well-being. The value is there; it’s just not espoused nor celebrated. We need to show people how being Jewish will contribute significantly to a great life. If we respond to the question “Why live Jewishly” with rich answers, affiliation will increase.
In addition, we need to address the gap between pre-organized Judaism and self-organized Judaism. The synagogue is pre-organized Judaism; much of the younger generation self-organizes their Jewish community. In the synagogue structure, getting permission is required; self-organized Judaism creates permission. Most synagogues revolve around the rabbi; most self-organized communities revolve around Torah and the participants.
I would invite the young self-organizing Jews to envision their ideal Jewish community and invite synagogue leaders to do the same. When each has a strong sense of how they want to build Jewish life, both parties can come together to design a community that encompasses both visions.
Anonymous, 60+, URJ congregant, Texas: It’s not an either/or—fulfill current needs or make a lifetime commitment—as the statement implies. Many Jews seek out the Jewish community where they go to school, then another Jewish community where they get their first job, then other Jewish communities where they move as their careers develop, then another Jewish community where they retire. Does that mean that all of these Jewish communities except the one that finally buries them have a right to say that these are not synagogue-committed Jews but only sought them out to fulfill current needs? No!
Value the Jews who are with you while they sojourn in your community. One of these days things may change, and you may find that you were just a sojourner there, too.
Anonymous, 40-59, Ohio: As I age, I feel less and less connected to my Jewish community, and less and less valued. When first we moved here and went to visit synagogues, the most emphasized conversations initiated by temple staff were about how much we could pay for membership and building fees. In this community wealth is assumed, making those of us who have careers in social service rather than more profitable professions feel like unwanted paupers. We cannot afford be a part of a congregation. Yes, we could present our tax returns and plead for lower rates, but by “afford” I also refer to our pride and self-esteem. We’d have to face these committee members at our children’s schools and at the grocery. It would feel humiliating.
Our family is mixed in religious background, and our Christian relatives are not treated this way in their religious communities.
Tamar Myers, 60+, Temple Beth El, Charlotte, North Carolina: The problem is, if you take away the belief that every word in the Torah is true and therefore one must obey it, and you don’t fill that vacuum with something else, you will have attrition. But what is the “something else?” I think it has to be a renewed sense of peoplehood. We must bind our “new Jews” to us in peoplehood as well.
Charles Guerin, 40-59, Temple Emanu-el Beth Sholom, Montreal, Quebec: Just like a business, a synagogue needs to consider what “value added” services it can provide to enrich congregants’ lives. A synagogue can also be a place to relax and recharge with a coffee and chat, to hear music, see art, receive counseling services.
David Gluck, 60+, immediate past president, Temple Beth Shalom, Sun City, Arizona: I believe affiliation needs to start in homes. Synagogues need outreach people to offer “parlor meetings” in their homes to spark interest in their congregations.
In addition, to keep younger Jews who join congregations mainly for their children’s religious education, congregations have to sell themselves as places where these Jews will feel welcome and wanted after their children have finished their education. Temples need to establish programs and chavurot for this group. They also have to get them involved in running the congregation—if necessary, by drafting them. The more we can tie them in, the more likelihood they will stay.
Howard Herman, 60+, trustee, URJ congregation, New York: I certainly see a “shopper” mentality among the majority of our congregation: “What am I getting for my money?” “Is it worth continuing my membership?” Those answering this survey probably don’t ask those questions—they’ve found that the more they invest in their congregation, the more they get out of it.
We need to show more congregants that that is the case. Committed synagogue members need to take new members under their wing.
Retention begins on day 1.
Susan Giardina , 40-59, Temple Emanu-El, Dallas: As other faiths become increasingly radical (e.g., Islam, evangelical Christianity, etc.), Judaism, Reform in particular, continues to offer a very rational and ethical perspective on spirituality. If more people knew how sensible and amazingly wise Judaism is, there would be many more of us.
Perhaps therein lies one of the ways to strengthen the Movement.
Glenn, K.K. Bene Israel (Rockdale Temple), Cincinnati, Ohio: Sadly, it’s become all too easy for people to isolate themselves and focus only on their immediate needs. We need to teach ourselves and our kids the value of community, and set the example by being active in our synagogues and the greater community. I know it sounds cliché, but we need to be the community we want to see.
Andrew Paull, 21-39, Larchmont Temple, Larchmont, New York: In general, people are less committed to organizations in general when they:
believe what they need will not be heard—start with a listening campaign;
believe they will not have common interests with other members—expand synagogue interest groups;
do not understand what the organization stands for—ask each synagogue to articulate in real terms what it stands for and why.
Anonymous, 21-39, California: The Jewish community needs more minyans. Young people don’t want to go to a stuffy temple full of old people. They want to be with people their age.
Also, I have a young child, and aside from the once-a-month tot service at my synagogue, there’s nothing to do with him at services—no kids room, no babysitting. Lame. I do not feel part of my temple community.
Plus it needs to be cheap or free when you’re young. Maybe cheaper associate membership in satellite minyans, and we could all go to High Holy Day services together. Rabbis or lay leaders could step in and do some life-cycle stuff too. If people are connected in some way, albeit tenuously, they’re more likely to come back when they’re seeking “more.”
Leslie Saul, 40-59, Temple Shir Tikvah, Winchester, Massachusetts: I do think money is an issue. A $500 membership would be more appealing than $1500. If Harvard can raise enough money to offer free tuition, can we organize a national endowment that would bring membership costs down for everyone?
Jacob Yungman, 13-20, Temple Beth Ohr, La Mirada, California: When I was in NFTY, I loved always knowing I was part of a bigger international community (NFTY is affiliated with NETZER), and that I had friends from all over the world. I believe our youth groups should not just be affiliated with NFTY, but include NFTY in their names, i.e. NFTY–La Mirada or NFTY–Temple Beth Ohr. Similarly, our synagogues should stress in their names that they are members of the URJ—that they belong to something bigger than the borders of a city.
Also, congregations should utilize social networking sites such as Twitter and Facebook, since that’s how a majority of my generation gets the know-how on events, be it a rock concert or a midnight Purim party.
Question #2: Do you agree that “the supreme challenge” facing the Reform Movement today is “the changing attitude toward affiliation and membership…that people are less committed to organizations of any kind”? If you agree, how do we tackle this problem? If you disagree, what do you think is the “supreme challenge” and what needs to be done to address it?
David Mollen, 60+, Temple Sha’arey Shalom, Springfield, New Jersey: I don’t agree that there is a changing attitude toward affiliation and membership: I see people “affiliating” enthusiastically to their families, their friends, their country....The problem isn’t that people don’t want to affiliate; it’s that what we are offering doesn’t compete successfully against their other choices. They have more choices nowadays and we need to be competitive!
Sharing this definition of religion may help demonstrate our importance: Religion is the field that enables people to ask the questions for which there are no answers.
Terri Forman, 40-59, Congregation Emanu-El, San Francisco: People do not care about membership; they care about belonging. Open your doors, be welcoming, and listen to the ideas of the people who enter.
Carol Martin, Central Synagogue, New York, New York: Slash membership dues for young people. In the U.S. children can be on their parent’s health care plan until age 26, but in our synagogues they have to start paying dues immediately after college, when many of them do not even have a job.
There needs to be a plan to recapture young people immediately after college. Create occasions where the leaders of industry, banking, thought, and spiritual life—ideally, all of whom are members of the same synagogue—meet with college graduates. Bring new graduates—who have expertise in reaching their generation—in on the planning.
Lisa Book, 21-39, Congregation Beth Israel, West Hartford, Connecticut: When I first joined my synagogue eight years ago after graduating from college, where I’d been active in Hillel, I got some funny looks and funny questions. Many people assumed I was the rabbi’s daughter visiting from out of state. Yes, I do happen to be her age, but really, how sad is it that people see a young person and automatically assume she’s the rabbi’s daughter? And why aren’t there more young people here?
One issue is dues. At our synagogue there is a reduced membership for people under 34 or 35 that has been very useful to us as we went through graduate school and began to raise a family. But my suggestion is as follows. How about no dues for people under 26? Then increase dues a little from 26-30, raise them again 31-34, then raise them again 35-40, and have people pay full membership at age 39. You’ll get people in when they’re young, and hopefully keep them engaged in Judaism, even if they move out of state. Also, I think going to local Hillels around May and introducing your synagogue may help, as well as having events outside the synagogue. I remember reading about a congregation near the ocean that held summer erev Shabbat services on the beach. How much closer can we get to the Almighty?
Anonymous, 40-59, URJ congregant, Minnesota: Synagogues have to help members wrestle with ultimate questions and find answers of significance. If temples are mere social clubs, they will not survive.
While the outer trappings might change, the search for belonging and meaning will never change. My vision is a Movement that is more welcoming, more caring, more willing to meet people where they are, and more able to engage with them on the deepest levels of their search for meaning.
Martin Graffman, 60+, Temple Beth Sholom, Santa Ana, California: The modern liberal Jew is sophisticated, independent, courageous, and inquisitive. He needs a Reform Judaism that promotes these and other contemporary life-affirming values, and he needs to recognize his religion as the Source of these values.
If he cannot identify his primary benefactor, he will continue to go elsewhere, i.e., disaffiliate.
Roger Vossler, 60+, URJ congregant, Colorado: While the Reform Movement incorporates many diverse theological perspectives and practices, it seems to have nothing for Jews like me who are atheists and do not want to be religious. There are many ways to be Jewish, and fortunately a number of them have nothing to do with religion. This important and growing trend needs to be addressed.
Carol Winer, 60+, Central Synagogue, New York, New York: Gen Ys and Boomers are completely committed to changing the world. To involve them in congregations, we need to be aware of their values and create the conversations to demonstrate our resonance with those values.
Cantor Kerith Spencer-Shapiro, 40-59, Temple Sholom, Broomall, Pennsylvania: Let’s bring Judaism to the fore through cultural venues (i.e. the concert hall and stage) and our leisure time activities (i.e. bike clubs, hiking clubs).
Rabbi Joseph A. Skloot, 21-39, Temple Emanu- El, Westfield, New Jersey: The supreme challenge to Reform Judaism today is inertia. We cannot continue to run congregations as we always have. The communities that are thriving today are doing things really differently.
Here are some ideas: (1) independent prayer communities or minyanim; (2) full-time Hebrew school teachers; (3) abandoning large and unwieldy buildings; (4) moving back to the inner city; (5) incorporating meditation, dance, theater, etc. into regular communal worship; (5) membership caps; (6) membership requirements and prerequisites (for study, worship, and social justice); (7) online b’nai mitzvah training; (8) expanded use of nature and the outdoors; (9) replacing specific dues amounts with suggested donations.
Linda Spindel, 60+, Ohef Sholom Temple, Norfolk, Virginia: It is important to hold services in other locations in addition to our sanctuaries: a site near elderly residents, another in a central location that makes for an easy drive, even one in a park, for those who might find the experience very spiritual. If we want to maintain and grow our numbers, we must be mindful of people’s needs.
Fran Krimston, 60+, Temple Ahavat Shalom, Northridge, California: The synagogue should be the center of Jewish life, offering lifelong learning and a safe place for everyone from preschool to old age. It should be the center of our religious, social, and ethical lives. Let’s really offer everything under one roof. Just imagine!
Mark, 40-59, URJ congregant, Texas: I have seen married children of members leave the congregation because they no longer feel connected to it. Such a lack of loyalty is not a problem, but an opportunity to consider a new paradigm of belonging. In a time of transition, it is hard to know what that paradigm should be; however, those congregations that embrace change and try new ideas are more likely to find the answer. Successful organizations do not stand on past successes. Success comes from trusting the new leadership to make good choices and, most importantly, to learn from failures so that the organization as a whole moves forward.
Anonymous, 40-59, URJ congregant, Ohio: We need to be creative to make membership and participation affordable. What if people volunteered time and expertise in lieu of paying full dues?
Leslie, 21-39, Arkansas: While in college my peers and I ran worship services, educated each other, and provided social interaction (usually revolving around the promise of free food). Because I felt like I was contributing to my community, I was at services every Friday night, often Saturday during the day, and almost every Sunday for bagel brunch. Now, as a young adult, I don’t feel like there is anything for me to contribute to a synagogue or Jewish community; therefore, I have not affiliated. I miss it supremely. And I know many other young Jewish adults like myself.
Jordan Friedman, 13-20, Illinois, Beloit College Hillel: People need to believe in something (or, excuse me, Something) bigger than themselves. In the absence of such a belief, they often succumb to narcissism. If we were to more strongly affirm God’s place in Reform Judaism, perhaps people would be more motivated to care for their fellow human beings, in whom resides a Divine Spark which must be respected.
S. Taub, 40-59, Temple Emanuel, Greensboro, North Carolina: We need to explain to people, especially young people, why affiliation makes sense. Having avoided being evangelical for so long, we are no longer in the habit of pitching our own religion. Now we have no choice but to tell others why Judaism and the Reform Movement are worth preserving.
When younger Jews ask, “What does Judaism stand for that would make me want to affiliate?” we need to answer their questions: We stand for empathy, for identifying with the oppressed. We stand for conduct trumping faith. We stand for life being more important than afterlife. We stand for viewing religious law through a prism that elevates compassion above everything else. We stand for not condemning others for their religious beliefs. We stand for valuing moral truth over literal truth. We stand for examining morality thoroughly, because it is important enough to warrant our close attention. We stand for studying what’s important seriously and honestly.
As for the question, “If I want to be a humanist, why do I need to be Jewish to do it?” we can respond: Judaism has proven to be a more effective mechanism for producing large numbers of humanists than any other mechanism in history. And this connection is not erroneous; Judaism was designed to produce humanists. Consider what being a “light unto the nations” and tikkun olam mean.
And as for questions concerning the strictness of Jewish law, we can say: When our rabbinic lens entails makes violating the Sabbath mandatory in order to save a life, or commands those who are ill to eat and not fast on Yom Kippur, it’s clear that Judaism is, first and foremost, not about the law itself, but about how we approach the law.
Question #3: Do you agree that one of the best ways to make the Reform synagogues and the Reform Movement less vulnerable to economic downturns is to stop depending on membership dues and religious school fees? What are the best alternatives?
Gloria Becker, 40-59, Congregation Rodeph Shalom, Philadelphia: A congregation is not a building. It is a group of people with a common goal and purpose. There are so many models of congregations without buildings. We should see what we can learn from them.
Steven Kandler, 60+, Barnert Temple, Franklin Lakes, New Jersey; Temple Beth Shalom, Livingston, New Jersey: If it is possible for the Orthodox to pray in the back of an airplane, why can’t we meet anywhere the community desires?
David Gluck, 60+, immediate past president, Temple Beth Shalom, Sun City, Arizona: Congregations need to cooperate on joint fundraising. All congregations can take on the challenges and split the proceeds.
And the Union for Reform Judaism ought to rebate a portion of its own fundraising to its congregations. The burden on member congregations is almost intolerable at times. The URJ currently helps congregations in arrears; it should focus on helping congregations avoid getting into trouble in the first place.
Carol Martin, Central Synagogue, New York, New York: Perhaps we need a restructuring of membership dues. There needs to be a way of enabling everyone to feel that his/her financial contribution is a life-enhancing gift, not a response to pressure from his/ her synagogue.
Charles Guerin, 40-59, Temple Emanu-el Beth Sholom, Montreal, Quebec : Encourage people to include their synagogue in estate planning. A suggestion of 10% in everyone’s will would be relatively easy for people to swallow.
Rabbi Joseph A. Skloot, 21-39, Temple Emanu-El, Westfield, New Jersey: Congregations should spend less on the physical plant and more on people. We should meet in homes and spaces shared with other places of worship and use the savings for more program staff (rabbis, cantors, educators, Jewish professionals of all kinds), so that congregants get as much personal contact with Jewishly committed and knowledgeable people as possible.
Adam L. Inlander, 40-59, Executive Director, Temple Beth Shalom, New Albany, Ohio: The best way to make synagogues and the Reform Movement less vulnerable to economic downturns is for the Movement and synagogues to work for a more just society in which severe downturns that result from extreme wealth being concentrated at the top no longer occur.
Question #4: Are you optimistic that the Reform Movement in North American can adapt to “the new realities” (e.g. financial, demographic, aversion to affiliation) because “we always have” in the past?
Richard Holtz, 60+, URJ Board, Temple Beth-El, Ormond Beach, Florida: Yes, but not because we always have in the past.
I have always dedicated 10-25% of my time to causes, including being a volunteer fire officer and paramedic. In the Reform Movement we don’t embrace volunteerism the way we embrace contributions, and that is wrong. We can’t ask someone to join and pay money; we need to want him/her to join, volunteer (be part of the Movement), and pay money but not make that the driver. If we do, we will have a smaller membership of elitists, and eventually fail.
Once we change our mindset, people will want to join and be involved with us.
Adam L. Inlander, 40-59, Executive Director, Temple Beth Shalom, New Albany, Ohio: I am optimistic. Ours is the most vibrant, exciting and celebratory of all the Movements, and people will always be attracted to this kind of Judaism.
Fran Krimston, 60+, Temple Ahavat Shalom, Northridge, California: I have confidence that we will survive, but we may look different. Perhaps we will have an inter-denominational synagogue with many service times. Many synagogue members do not understand the differences in religious perspectives. With education, they could move toward a more universal Judaism.
Maybe our education programs will be combined to offer a broader array of classes for children and adults. And we will hopefully see greater collaboration and partnership among synagogues in the same area, rather than the competition we witness today.
Mark F., 40-59, Temple Shalom, Dallas: There is no reason to believe that this time is different. If anything, our scriptures have shown us that our ancestors have always met adversity with candor and vigor, and found ways to overcome seemingly insurmountable problems. The opportunity to dedicate ourselves to moving the community forward is a great motivator.
Jon Kabbe, 60+, Temple Emanu-El, Oak Park, Michigan: I find a great lesson and guidance in the story of Exodus. Like our ancestors who departed a familiar place to trek through the desert, we can expect our journey through this time of change to be uncomfortable. We will want to turn back, and we will feel resentful for having left the known for the unknown. Yet, in the end, we will have reached a better place.
At this pivotal time in our history, the Reform leadership invites you to contribute your ideas and views to strengthen the Jewish future in North America.
We offer you three options to add your voice (anonymously, if you wish) to this historic conversation:
Option 1: Answer one or more of the questions at reformjudaismmag.org/thinktank. You may see your responses in a future edition, as we continue to compile and publish readers’ answers to those questions, among them:
Should our Movement develop a more flexible type of community that meets Jews wherever they happen to gather?
Does the survival of Reform Judaism in a society in which the only constant is change require creating a community that stands for something timeless? If so, what do we stand for that will endure?
Would breaking down barriers between the different Jewish movements be a positive development in the evolution of Judaism in North America?
Should we re-envision our Movement’s scope—and its name—to encompass the majority of liberal Jewry in North America? If yes, what would you call this Movement?
What is your vision for shaping our Movement’s future, 20, 30, or 50 years from today?
Option 2: Answer one or more of the following five Think Tank Visioning Process Questions at urj.org/thinktank. From your answers, and those of other Reform Jews participating in focus groups throughout North America, Reform leaders are crafting a new vision statement that will align the mission of the Reform Movement as a whole and guide its work going forward.
What is the most valuable aspect of being a Reform Jew?
What future possibility for Jewish life gives you energy?
In what ways would a Reform congregation be so compelling that it would be the center where you seek to explore your Judaism?
How could Reform Judaism transform the Jewish community beyond your synagogue walls?
What could the Reform Movement do now to help you and your community?
Option 3: Answer questions from both options 1 and 2, and have maximum impact.