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Jewish Journal

Power, Politics And People

by Susan Jacobs

November 20, 1997 | 7:00 pm

New York publishing executive Steven Baum is a lifelong Conservative Jew who recently joined a Reform temple, and he's not happy about it. "There's hardly any Hebrew," he says. "They don't wear yarmulkes. It's just not the Judaism I grew up with."

So why did he make the switch? Because, he says, his oldest child was reaching bar mitzvah age and his Conservative congregation had introduced a rule that bar mitzvahs must attend services with their families twice a month for the year before being called to the Torah. "There's just no way we can do that," says Baum (not his real name). "We had no choice. My shul drove me out."

Steven Baum is one of a growing number of American Jews who are victims of the most troubling and least discussed conflict in Jewish life today: the war between the Jews and their rabbis.

It's a war that cuts through the heart of every Jewish denomination, but most sharply through the two biggest ones, Conservative and Reform. It leaves rabbis feeling lonely and abused, and congregants feeling angry and abandoned. Indirectly, it is helping to embitter the conflicts among the denominations.

To hear the rabbis talk about it, the problem is simply that Jews are wandering off the reservation. But it isn't true. Most American Jews are still quite Jewish by their own definitions. Those just don't happen to be the rabbis' definitions.

Upward of 80 percent of all American Jews attend a Passover seder and light Chanukah candles every year, according to most recent surveys. Nearly that many fast on Yom Kippur and send their children for bar mitzvah training (including those married to non-Jews). As many as 95 percent say that being Jewish is very important to them.

The trouble is that's quite enough for most of them. Only about a quarter to a third do much more: going to synagogue regularly, lighting Sabbath candles, participating in organizational life, celebrating Israeli independence day. For the rest, Passover-Chanukah-atonement-bar mitzvah is as Jewish as they want to be. Like it or not (for the record, this correspondent doesn't much like it), they are going to show up three times a year, year after year, period.

This is not any rabbi's conception of Judaism. Rabbis are trained to lead their congregants toward ever-higher standards of piety. Watching the flock sit there and glare at them, flatly refusing to move, must be deeply frustrating to the shepherd.

In fact, it's one of the little-noticed side effects of the modern era. When the ghetto gates were thrown open 200 years ago, rabbis lost their age-old authority to enforce rabbinic law by fining violators or casting them out of the community. Jews were suddenly free for the first time in history to do whatever they pleased, and that's just what they did. Rabbis have been fuming about it ever since.

The rabbinic frustration has flared up into helpless rage in recent years, fueled by the nationwide panic over intermarriage rates. For many rabbis and their closest lay allies, nonobservance and intermarriage are two sides of the same deadly coin, like marijuana and heroin. Skip services, end up in the gutter with grandchildren named Chris.

Lately, rabbinic alarm is turning histrionic. At the recent Dallas convention of the Reform movement's Union of American Hebrew Congregations, the union's president, Rabbi Eric Yoffie, devoted most of his surprising keynote speech to attacks not on the Israeli chief rabbinate but on backsliding Reform Jews. "Never in our history has the gap between the serious Reform Jew and the non-serious Reform Jew been so great," Yoffie told the delegates, adding that the non-serious "are the majority, even in our synagogues."

Conservative rabbis are, if anything, even more upset. At a recent Conservative symposium on Long Island, some of that movement's leading rabbis expressed "despair" at the low level of ritual observance among their congregants. To the rabbis, Conservative Judaism is a doctrine of binding rabbinic law -- evolving, updated, streamlined and user-friendly, but still binding. Only a fourth to a third of their congregants buy into it at all. This depresses the rabbis deeply. "An ignorant, empowered laity is dangerous," said Rabbi Neil Gillman, a distinguished professor of philosophy at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America.

How do the lay folk react to all the fireworks? Based on anecdotal evidence and fragmentary hints from surveys, it appears that in the seven years since the Great Intermarriage Scare began, nonstop rabbinic breast-beating has essentially heightened the polarization between the deeply committed (25 percent or 30 percent) and the three-times-a-year majority.

Day-school attendance is creeping up, taking in a somewhat larger minority of Conservative congregants. At the same time, afternoon-school attendance is shrinking, as more and more families settle for the two-years-and-out model of bar mitzvah training. Similarly, sales of kosher food are booming among a growing minority, while surveys show that a strong majority now expresses no alarm at the prospect of intermarriage.

Overall, both Conservative and Orthodox Judaism have lost ground as shares of the Jewish population in the last generation. The Conservative movement, for generations the largest American wing, has dropped to second place in the last decade as it raised its standards of piety, driving increasing numbers of young families into the less rigorous Reform movement. Reform Judaism, in turn, finds itself under pressure to shift from its longtime tradition of voluntary halacha and begin to adopt standards of behavior for members.

If and when that happens, it's not clear where the rest of the Jews will go. They clearly don't want to leave Judaism. But they don't want anyone telling them what to do either. Just ask Steven Baum.


Dues and Don'ts

Brandeis study finds benefits in free-membership policy at synagogues

By Susan Jacobs, Jewish Telegraphic Agency

A Brandeis University researcher is maintaining that synagogues can increase their numbers by offering free membership.

Joel Streiker bases his thesis largely on a recent study he conducted for San Francisco's Temple Emanu-El, which last year began to offer new members free membership for one year. Between July 1996 and June 1997, 220 people joined the Reform congregation. Usually, 50 new members join every year.

In his survey, Streiker found that 78 percent of the new members said that the dues policy was important in their decision to join the synagogue. About 73 percent of those surveyed had never belonged to a synagogue as an adult.

After one year of free membership, nearly half of the new members decided to pay the annual dues and become regular members of the congregation.

"There is a perception in the Jewish community that Jewish living is expensive," said Gary Cohn, executive director of Temple Emanu-El. He said that the congregation wanted to tell prospective members that "the most important thing is to get connected."

Although members who could not afford dues were never turned away from the temple, "people are embarrassed to ask," said Cohn.

The no-dues policy eliminated this embarrassment.

Temple Emanu-El's membership dues are $1,400 for families and $800 for single adults. Different rates are available for young adults and senior citizens.

A similar program is now being tested at Congregation Shearith Israel in San Francisco, said Streiker, but such programs require considerable financial risk by the congregation.

"Emanu-El has a lot of financial resources. Any synagogue that tried this would have to have deep pockets," he said. Temple Emanu-El did not lose money, because nearly half of the new members decided to begin paying dues, he added.

Streiker was enthusiastic about the potential success of such programs, but said, "If synagogues don't have anything to offer, after a year, new members will drop off."

According to the study, the cost of membership is often a deterrent to potential members for financial and psychological reasons. New members were "reluctant to make large payments for benefits they didn't know about or didn't appreciate," said Streiker.

Emanu-El has been inundated with questions from other congregations about the program, said Cohn, who estimates that as many as 20 congregations across the country will adopt similar programs within the next year.


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