Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Reversing Decline

One of my favorite analytical Jewish mavens submitted an Op-Ed to The Forward with an optimistic view on stemming Jewish participatory attrition, if not the population decline itself.  While I am less optimistic than Prof. Cohen, Judaism has always benefited more from the discussion than any pundit's conclusions.  I get little enough chance to be part of the discussion so I' ll treat myself to this one.s

Blog      Prof. Cohen's analysis

'In 2013, the Pew Research Center completed a landmark national study of American Jews. “Portrait of Jewish Americans” found evidence that the number of Orthodox Jews in America is rapidly increasing, and the number of active, Conservative, Reform and other engaged Jews is rapidly declining, with far fewer age 30-49 than among those age 50-69. Underlying this shrinkage and aging of active non-Orthodox Jews are several factors, most prominently:
  • high intermarriage rates – 40% among Conservative Jews & 80% among Reform Jews-with non-Jews
  • low birthrates: about 1.7 children per household
  • high rates of non-marriage and late marriage
  • only 7% of the grandchildren of the intermarried are being raised as Jewish-by-religion
Accept the data as presented
American Jewry can be divided into three segments
1) Orthodox
2) Jews who are episodically or partially Jewish, and not active in Jewish life
3) The “American Jewish Middle” who are not Orthodox, but participate and care about Jewish life. Many of them belong to synagogues, celebrate Jewish holidays, raise their children as educated Jews, feel attached to Israel, have Jewish friends, and donate to Jewish cases.

There are probably a lot of subclasses to #3
Three basic principles to engage American Jews
1) Build social relationships and connections between Jews.
2) Convey meaningful Jewish content.
3) Target programs that appeal to certain stages of life — preschool kids, school kids and their parents, school children, adolescents, young adults, newly married couples, parents, older people, and other groups sharing demographic and psychographic features.

People knew this for centuries and made some effort to fulfill these needs.  Attrition in some form has also been present for centuries, well described in parts of Tanach, more recently historically in people moving toward the Hasidim or Bolsheviks from their more traditional communities or migrating to America.  All these disruptions led to reassembly of community and institutions.  In my own time we had synagogues built as people settled in new towns away from the core city, Hebrew schools leading to Bar Mitzvah, summer camps, Federations, Nursing Homes, teen programs.  Our current departure from participation has developed with the institutions already in place.  Presumably they did not create the ongoing connection that was desired of them.  That part of the analysis has been largely absent from much of the discussion of current demographics.  While there was certainly failure to engage people, in order to get the decline over about 40 years there also has to be disconnection of people who were once engaged.
Adolescence is the critical age
The most critical age for developing an identity and attachment to your religion, culture, and roots is during adolescent time, the period of 13 to 17.

The ball have been dropped before that through Hebrew School, both the kids' experience with it and the parents being inconvenienced by it at ready for an exit after bar mitzvah of the last child.  That still leaves some teen opportunity for continuation of the older siblings.

Jewish day schools are highly valuable, but only a minority of American Jewish parents will enroll their children in such schools, even if the costs were reduced. For the majority, seven or more years of congregational schooling yields measurable effects.

I found ours to be something of a disappointment, a little snot factory perhaps, breeding children of entitlement who were already engaged and easy to manage.  As a parent of a child who was more volatile I found the experience to be one of fair weather friends at a time when I could have used some real friends.  We departed.  I disconnected my Federation solicitor the next Super Sunday.  The Jewish institutions that I've entered are overflowing with these types of experiences from my childhood Rabbi who would speak well of you when you attended Ramah and turn on you when you told him the experience did not merit a return the following summer.

Most critical and effective are Jewish summer camps. Unfortunately, not every family can afford to send all their children to such camps. We need to make them by expanding subsidies, building more of them, and build a good number of low-cost Jewish overnight summer camps.

One of the challenges has been getting a critical mass of Jewish kids together in a setting where there are a lot of them in one place and they are there for the purpose of having a good time.  There are a number of experiments on this with places like Ramah and Habonim in operation for generations.  Alumni are plentiful.  Unfortunately my suspicion is that it may be those alumni of my era who get to the synagogues at age 30 having been programmed to rank Jews based on their observance who then disconnect the people they have been scripted to view as less worthy or less capable.

Youth groups are also effective when properly funded and run. Unfortunately, only two major national youth groups are currently well-funded.

The USY cliques are legendary.  As my Rav, the late Rabbi James Diamond z"l the Executive Director of the Center for Jewish Life at Princeton University observed, the best recruiter for seeking out Hillel in college was the USY experience but it was also the greatest deterrent.  There is a certain amount of manipulation that occurs there.  A person who has always gone to shul on shabbat and continues that way can be an officer but a more talented kid who joins an athletic team or musical ensemble that practices on shabbat cannot.  Once you convey a message that loyalty trumps talent, something utterly pervasive through the Conservative institutions as I have experienced them for many decades, you will eventually be left with less loyalty than you could have had and will have culled out the best talent.  If there is a message to how the Pew Report outcome got that way as the institutions function as it was getting to those results, that's it.  I think a real study on the Jewish lives and participation of Ramah alumni, if somebody of Prof. Cohen's stature might like to do it accurately would transform how Jewish leadership should set their programming to achieve their best result.

Lastly, just as Birthright Israel has proven effective for those 18-26, teen trips to Israel have the potential to transform Jewish lives, and to do so before teens reach campus.
If we can have more such trips and make them more affordable, this will have an effect on Jewish in-marriage, and help people form lifelong relationships within the community.

Again, the data might be open to question, though retrievable.  Sponsored trips to Israel for teenagers have been around for a long time and well subscribed.  Birthright excluded those alumni from its trips until recently.  The success of keeping those teenagers who visited Israel engaged in the Jewish future may have been the motivation for funding Birthright.  Those teenagers were already part of Jewish organizations through their families and the sponsoring organizations.  Whether they stayed that way as adults or became part of the Pew mainstream can probably be assessed if not already done.  It is much more difficult to assess those teens whose only connection was that Young Judea trip to Israel.
The College Years and Beyond
In college, Hillel and Chabad have a very positive effect on engaging college students. While there are many Orthodox rabbis on college campuses, not all students identify with them. We need more non-Orthodox rabbis serving on college campuses.

The large Hillel directors are a mixture of non-orthodox Rabbis and non-clergy Jewish professionals.  As graduates from the emerging seminaries and even the denominational ones find it more difficult to get appointed pulpit Rabbi, organizations such as Hillel have been acquiring their talent.  A generation ago, when the foundation for the current Pew results was being set, there were Hillels in the major universities with large Jewish populations.  They tended to attract the Orthodox, at least at the three I attended, though only one had an Orthodox Rabbi.  Effective programming for the non-Orthodox was very difficult with other competing venues for college students around the campus.  Kosher dining was the foundation for one of them as people had to eat, but maintaining Kashrut pretty much meant you were already engaged in day to day Jewish living.  Herding people from outside was a more difficult and less effective enterprise.  That is no doubt true today.
We are only beginning to systematically engage vast numbers of largely unmarried Jews during their young adult years. Among the most promising are programs to invite them to Shabbat tables, participate in Moishe Houses, attend Limmud and other Jewish learning festivals, and establish relationships with Chabad and other engagement-oriented rabbis. Any involvement of young adults in Jewish life increases the chances of their finding and eventually choosing Jewish marriage partners.

The number of people who find their marriage partners that way is probably minuscule compared to the number of people who latch onto each other in their college classes or their work places.
Non-Marriage Is a Major Challenge
Engaging non-Jewish spouses
We can be better about inviting and inspiring non-Jews who marry us to convert to the faith. It can make a significant difference if the newly married are welcomed into the faith and the community, and are treated as one a fully equal member of the community.
Unfortunately, very few such husbands and wives ever do so. Obviously, conversion of non-Jewish spouses means that their children will be raised Jewish.
But even without conversion, we can do a much better job of making our non-Jewish family members feel fully part of the family and community.
It is important to note than an official conversion is not necessary. What is necessary is to make people part of the family and a part of the community. This can be very meaningful, and many people have been inspired by such warm invitations, and explore the religion further on their own.

This part has been in evolution, and not entirely voluntary evolution, for a considerable time.  I think all congregations now treat their intermarrieds courteously, but as recently as the 1980's that was not the case and various litmus tests still remain as part of organizational official policy.  As a teenager in the 1960's the Conservative Rabbis started responding to the first widely publicized exposee on intermarriage, Look Magazine's "The Vanishing American Jew" with a concerted effort at getting their congregants to support a form of what we would now call shunning.  You could not actually excommunicate Jews but you could keep them from becoming officers of Jewish agencies, restrict employment by Jewish agencies, deny aliyot and not acknowledge a donation celebrating the birth of a grandchild to a devoted synagogue member who's child intermarried.  Some of these policies remain nominally active today.  But for the most part the non-orthodox have become increasingly inclusive and some almost perfunctory in granting conversion.  It brings people into the fold but there is also a price to playing too loose with the Halacha that has sustained Judaism indefinitely.  These couples are part of the Jewish organizations and leave their imprint in many ways.  Whether they are able to challenge what they inherit as the status quo in a way that expands the organizations that welcome them has not been adequately tested.

I will close with an anecdote from about a year ago.  I attended a concert in which my wife was participating near the University just after shabbos one winter.  She had to arrive early so I wandered on the main street checking out a few pubs to see if I could get a craft beer before the concert.  I had a beard, knit kippah and appeared old enough to be a professor emeritus.  As I walked on the sidewalk and into a couple of pubs to check the crowd and selection, a few kids spotted me, wished me a goot shabbos which had already ended, expressed how I reminded them of the Jews of their home town, and made a remark or two about Hebrew school.   Being on a time budget, I exchanged greetings but did not engage in conversation.  These kids are not likely to be serious participants in the Jewish world now but they could be.  Somebody needs to pursue their interest personally with conversation and invitation.  Then once there, treat them as the important people they really should be.  

Derech Eretz Kadmah l'Torah

Thursday, August 6, 2015

Open House

Like many synagogues around America, AKSE has grappled with declining membership as a chronic financial leak for about a generation.  It has become a very expensive consumer purchase when viewed that way.  Creating other ways to view the expenditure have been largely dysingenuous and not very successful.  People have other ways to purchase a Bar Mitzvah if they want to purchase a Bar Mitzvah.  Different schemes have been tried.  No fee High Holiday entry the Rabbi's first year on the false hope that his presence would be an attraction.  It wasn't and the data of the ensuing seven years suggest that it isn't.  Our Hebrew School has given the best education around for the few who want it but you can really have your kids processed through Bar Mitzvah without learning much of enduring value.  Other congregations have replicated that experiment many times.

So the latest brainstorm is to bring them into the building on a Sunday morning, give them a bagel, let them chat with the Rabbi and President and see if they might want to spend 2% of their family's gross income to continue.

Wonder how much planning and analysis went into preparation for this.  There are places that captivate you when you walk in the door.  The welcome center at Temple Square did form me.  So did the reception room for the Washington University Medical School graduation.  When you walk into these rooms you see Mishpacha, big screen TV's of people who have been enjoying their affiliation.  There is no ulterior motive.  WashU has already gotten our tuition and their students moving forward to carry on the University's good name there and elsewhere.  The Mormons celebrate their success amid adverse historical challenges without caring one way or another whether any visitor joins and later tithes.  Both organizations have joy to convey to those who enter.  AKSE's poobahs probably need to take the hint and create something a little more worthy of celebration than what I've encountered, then ask guests to the party.

Image result for open house