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Two More From Our Conference…

As we continue to conduct one-on-one, personal follow-up with the nearly 250 Jewish communal professionals and volunteer leaders that attended our conference in Washington DC last month, I wanted to post two more articles that resulted from the gathering.

The first is a profile of conference co-chair Adam Bronfman, who gave a rousing keynote speech on the first evening of the conference. JTA reporter Sue Fishkoff caught up with him afterwards and wrote a great piece about this communal leader, whose focus on meaning and values over raw demography is, we believe, the best approach toward creating a Big Tent Judaism:

Bronfman is more interested in encouraging Jews and Jewish institutions to treat newcomers with warmth than in counting “which percentage of the Jewish world does X.” Outreach, he says, should be used to help Jews find more meaning in their lives. As a philanthropist and a person, that’s more important to him than bean counting.

Great volunteer leaders must work toward their vision in partnership with great Jewish communal professionals, which is why we were also gratified to read a terrific first-person account of the conference from conference participant Rabbi Brigitte Rosenberg in the St. Louis Jewish Light newspaper, in which she wrote:

We had gathered together, participants from all walks of Jewish life, to discuss outreach and what it means for the Jewish community of the present and future. There were a variety of workshops ranging from the “how to’s” of innovative outreach methods, to understanding how we can be inclusive of the LGBT Jews in our communities, to hearing first-hand accounts from those who are Jews by Choice, those who are intermarried but raising Jewish families, and those who are intermarried and raising interfaith families. Following every workshop session there was a “buzz,” as conference participants discussed what they just learned and how these outreach opportunities might work within their own communities.

We are now working to maintain that “buzz” even as we transition to the behind-the-scenes efforts of outreach programming, rolling out the communal welcome mat to all those who would join us.



7 Comments

  1. Here’s some raw demography: The wonderful ultra-Orthodox town of Kiryas Yoel NY, which has no interfaith programming (to say the least) creates about 250 new Jews every 10 weeks. And every year that number rises.

    Just think, instead of bringing 250 Jewish communal professionals together, this year Kiryas Yoel will bring five times that many gurgling, diaper-wetting, Jews together to talk about nothing at all. And yet don’t you think that they are the future of the Jewish people?

    The future belongs to those who show up for it.

    Comment by Dave — December 2, 2007 @ 11:57 am

  2. Dave, I’ve seen you posting this triumphalism repeatedly on our site and on other Jewish sites as well. Orthodoxy is a great path for those who choose it but it’s not the only path in Judaism and it’s not “the answer” for the overwhelming majority of Jewish households in the United States.

    The Orthodox in America have had many children for many decades, but are still only 10-12% of the Jewish population. Why is that? If you look at some ACTUAL demographics, like the 2001 National Jewish Population Study (NJPS), you’ll see why. See slide 9 and 10 of this PDF from a NJPS sub-report. It explains that “A majority of Jews who were raised Orthodox no longer consider themselves to be Orthodox.” In fact, only 41% of those who were raised Orthodox now consider themselves Orthodox.

    It is too early to tell if Orthodox communities are doing a better job retaining people. Some believe they are, and point to the large bulge of young people who consider themselves Orthodox. But another explanation is that these young people are simply not yet at the age when they are able (financially or emotionally) to break away from their family.

    Time will tell, but if I were you, I’d temper my Orthodox triumphalism a bit considering the same words were flying around 100 years ago, about how little chance for survival liberal Judaism has. And yet it is still the overwhelming majority of Jews. Telling American Jewry that the only good part of Jewish life is taking place in Kiryas Joel is of very little help and more importantly, it’s inaccurate. It’s certainly not going to encourage anyone to take on a genuine exploration of what Orthodox Judaism might have to offer.

    Comment by Paul Golin — December 2, 2007 @ 12:42 pm

  3. 1/ You’ll notice I used the phrase ‘ultra-Orthodox’ and not ‘Orthodox’. Lots of people who are clean-shaven and kippot-free are referred to as Orthodox, and are barely any different than the Conservatives. If their children are behaving no differently than the Conservatives this is hardly a surprise.

    I have not stated that ‘the only good part of Jewish life is taking place in Kiryas Yoel’. I myself am obviously not from Kiryas Yoel. But good or bad is irrelevant when demographics are involved. Fucundity is relevant, as well as retention.

    2/ Places like New Town NY and Kiryas Yoel (and even Postville IA) are different. They are largely self-contained and by now have a history of keeping their offspring within.

    3/ For a nice preview of the future of American Jewry take a look at Israeli Jewry where only the fucundity of the ultras is keeping Jerusalem majority Jewish and where the likelihood of Israeli Jewry becoming majority ultra-Orthodox isn’t looking like a particularly odd prediction.

    4/ I fully realize that the vast majority of Jews won’t choose Orthodoxy but this is irrelevant. The current birthrate of the US is 2.1, exactly replacement level, and I doubt that non-ultra Orthodox Jewry, even including the intermarried who are ‘raising’ their children Jewish are anywhere near that.

    Until I see a single intermarried couple raising their kids as ultra-Orthodox Jews I’m afraid ultra-Orthodox triumphalism will triumph.

    (If you do want an example of a growing non-ultra-Orthodox community check home.earthlink.net/~tbsaz (Sun City AZ).

    In all ways the exact opposite of Kiryas Yoel)

    Comment by Dave — December 2, 2007 @ 3:48 pm

  4. Gloating over the demise of progressive Jewry

    What Dave (and those of like mind) fails to understand is that, for most non-Orthodox/ultra-Orthodox, the choice is not between Orthodoxy and Reform (or any of the other progressive streams of Judaism). It is a choice between Reform and no form of Judaism at all. For my part, I’m quite prepared to state that if ultra-Orthodoxy were the only “face” of Judaism, I would cease to identify as Jewish. I don’t believe I’m alone in this.

    I will be the first to admit that, on the face of it, the Orthodox/ultra-Orthodox are doing a great job when it comes to growth and retention, and there’s something that progressive streams of Judaism can learn from them in this regard. Having said that, however, we also need to remember that, in one way or another, the vast majority of Jews over the last two centuries have been in flight from Orthodoxy. From that perspective, its ability to attract and retain looks less impressive, and appears to be limited to those born within the community.

    The use of their reproductive abilities as some sort of demographic weapon says little about ultra-Orthodoxy’s claim to be the sole “authentic” form of Judaism, any more than does the 17th-century Polish garb. This is pretty much the same kind of “theology of success” as was used by Christianity against Judaism for centuries, i.e. “we are successful, so we must be right/God is on our side”.

    With all respect, places like New Town NY and Kiryas Yoel sound pretty much like ghettos to me. Few would argue with the fact that the ghetto was extremely effective in preserving the Jews as a people in the Diaspora, but few would want to live in one today.

    As for Israel, I am not alone in seeing the Haredi population explosion there as part of the demographic threat to Israel, rather than as part of the solution. This is due to their refusal to perform military service and participate wholeheartedly in the workforce and the economy/society as a whole. An Israel with a Haredi majority would not last longer in a dangerous Middle East than one can say “behead the Jews”. Even dissociating themselves from those nasty Zionists would not spare them the same fate as everyone else (look at Hebron in 1929 and the Jewish Quarter in 1948/9).

    The fact that Orthodox/ultra-Orthodox brand of Judaism has little or no appeal to the majority of Jews not raised in it is then laid at the door of the non-Orthodox. In marketing terms, this is shifting the blame to the customer instead of to the product or marketing, where it properly belongs.

    With all the risks to posterity, I for one will take my chances with a progressive Judaism that is responsive to both the benefits and risks of living in an open society.

    These comments have been cross-posted to my Blog here:

    Altneuland: Gloating over the demise of progressive Jewry
    http://blog.altneuland.info/2007/12/gloating-over-demise-of-progressive.html

    Comment by Maskil — December 5, 2007 @ 9:41 am

  5. Dave,

    Although as an Orthodox man I am with you in terms of seeing the trend of an ultimate increase in the world’s Orthodox Jewish population and corresponding reduction in the world’s non-Orthodox Jewish population, I cannot share your enthusiasm wholeheartedly.

    First of all, as Paul and Maskil point out, there are significant segments of the Orthodox world that are not retaining their children. They attempt to expose their children to as much of the secular world’s lures as possible, and draw only a red line at intermarriage or kosher or shabbat, etc. It’s unfair to put their kids in this position, and it ultimately hurts the klal when any youngster ultimately leaves a life that should have been devoted to G-d, instead of devoting it to being able to afford a mercedes. In order to really increase the numbers of Orthodox Jews (and I don’t only mean only ultra-orthodox…although myself the product of a hareidi yeshiva I am not so blinded as to be unable to see the beauty in other Orthodox expressions, though they are not for me) we must be examples of holy people…at work, in synagogue, on the ballfield, wherever.

    I have seen far too many Orthodox Jews talk excessively during shul or be more interested in the playoff scores that the rabbi’s drasha, or litter the sacred streets of Eretz Yisrael, or cut someone in line at the store without a second thought to be as optimistic as you are about our ultimate demographic success. If we act like the holy people we are supposed to be, then you may be correct. If we do not, then demography will not ultimately be to our advantage. Nor does demograpshy really matter that much, though it would certainly be beneficial to us and the world if the Jews were more attached to the G-d of our ancestors. Each Jew is precious, religious or not.

    Second, I think as Torah Jews it is unseemly to gloat. Whether or not you meant to gloat, it clearly came across as such to the non-Orthodox Jews on this blog and it would be befitting of you to either apologize or to calrify that you did not mean to come off as gloating. I have found myself apologizing a number of times, on this blog and elsewhere, when taken the wrong way or when saying the wrong thing. I am sure you meant well, but they don’t know that. We are all Jews and love between us is the most improtant thing.

    I, like you, believe that the Reform movement (which is different from saying “reform jews”) was even more shortsighted and damaging to the Jewish world than the Orthodox rabbinate which, during the early early years of Reform, failed to convincingly make the case for tradition, as did Sampson Raphael Hirsch to the community he rescued from reformation. As Maskil correctly points out, we live in an open society now and if, as we believe, Orthodox Judaism is the true path, the most meaningful path and the correct path for Jews to follow, its about time we improved our marketing. It would be a shame not to when we have such a wonderfully rich and meaningful product!

    Happy Hanukah to all,

    -marc

    Comment by marc — December 5, 2007 @ 2:06 pm

  6. 1/ I have no doubt that for a large number of Jews that if it were a choice between ultra-Orthodoxy or non-Judaism they would choose the latter. But with the fading of Conservative and Reform Judaism that may just happen.

    2/ I’m not Orthodox of any kind myself. I’m just observing what is obviously happening. As my favorite pundit puts it: ‘The future belongs to those who show up for it’.

    3/ It is true that for the past few centuries that most Jews have been in a flight from Orthodoxy. But those ‘in flight’ had birthrates beyond the replacement level. This is no longer true.

    Interesting non-Jewish fact: 40% of hospitalizations in Utah result in a baby. Anybody noticing a growing Mormon presence in public life? Works for Jews as well.

    4/ Do ultra-Orthodox have a tendency to push in line (pushy Jews? Perish the thought.) Maybe, maybe not. But unlike other Jews they may be pushing in line to get more diapers.

    Comment by Dave — December 23, 2007 @ 6:07 pm

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