Jewish Journal

The Future of Jewish Communities

by Pini Herman

December 19, 2013 | 12:23 pm

Reader Jeremy Lyons of Toronto, Canada submitted these quesions to me:


Dear Dr. Herman,

I would appreciate it if you could answer the following questions pertaining to the future of Jewish communities in the U.S.:

1. Do predict that many synagogues will be forced to shut down in America in the coming years due to the fact that many not-so-observant Jews won't marry nor reproduce to the same extent as the baby boomer generation?

It's hard to predict....Bar Mitzvahs, pre-school educational programs, day schools, religious schools and even some weddings are often financial loss-leaders for many synagogues. High Holiday and major donations are where aging baby boomers may become become critical as the main donors, support and participants of coventional synagogues. Synagogue formation, successful synagogue mergers, synagogue retention of congregants might actually improve as those family units which abandoned membership post bar/bat mitzvah of their last child may renew their connections. 

2. Do you believe that the Jewish population will soon be very polarized in terms of what movements are followed (i.e. Jews will mostly be either Reform or Orthodox)?

No I don't think polarization will increase between Jewish denominations.  Reform Judaism is moving rightward and becoming more traditional and the lack of a discernible Jewish denomination left of Reform Judaism is creating the fastest growing group of "Just Jewish" or "Jewish not by Religion."  This does not mean that this group of Jews of No Religion is any less spiritual than their denominational counterparts, it just means that organized American Judaism hasn't caught up with them.  If there is no adaptation to this fast-growing Jews by no religion group, that is where I think significant polarization will occur.

3. What's your perspective on Chabad? Do you think that the increase in Chabad centers could cause many synagogues to close down?

My perspective on Chabad is that they "stage" Judaisms tailored to fit in to any niche that they perceive may sustain a Chabad center. The problem of Chabad is that they are world wide and less than an inch deep.  From your question you may be alluding to the perception that Chabad may have "parasitic" relations to Jewish communities which may bring about the demise of those communities conventional synagogues.  This "parasitism" may be a transient stage which often leaves vivid memories and impressions in the life of a numerically declining Jewish geography which would in itself, without a Chabad presence, cause the eventual demise of a conventional synagogue.

The closure or failure rate of Chabad centers is probably much higher, though less heralded, than the closure rate of conventional synagogues.  The Chabad model is designed to enter those geographies that cannot fiscally maintain a conventional synagogue.  The conventional synagogue might have faced closure anyhow. Chabad enters a financially un-viable environment for the conventional synagogue and provides Chabad type religious services to the point where the Chabads are not viably supported and have to close down themselves.  During an interim period it may look as though Chabad is building itself by removing Jews and Jewish resources for an existing conventional synagogue, often Orthodox, rather than Conservative or Reform synagogues, and it may look like the "kiss of death" for an existing synagogue, but may just be part of a normal process which maintains a geography's Jewish services for some time longer...or until a demographic renewal of Jewish life which brings about the critical mass which recreates conventional synagogues in that geography.
The Jewish community essentially benefits from a "practical vow of poverty" of Chabad Hassidic families as the Christian community benefits from the Salvation Army's poverty wages of their officers and the Catholic community benefits from the vow of poverty of its religious orders.  Conventional synagogues have a certain wage scale for clergy and overheads that can't be maintained in certain Jewish geographies and Chabad Centers are able to survive in those Jewish geographies.

A Chabad Center with a "membership" of anything approaching a modest conventional synagogue of say 200 "non-Chabad" family units hasn't come to my attention.  Chabad centers exist in the spaces where conventional synagogues can't and really are threatened themselves when the critical mass of Jews in their geographies decide that a conventional board-led, rabbi-hiring synagogue is the model that is preferred for their geography and form or reinvigorate their geography's non-hasidic style governance synagogue.

Pini Herman, PhD. specializes in demographics, big data and predictive analysis, has served as Asst. Research Professor at the University of Southern California Dept. of Geography,  Adjunct Lecturer at the USC School of Social Work,  Research Director at the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles following Bruce Phillips, PhD. in that position and is a past President of the Movable Minyan a lay-lead independent congregation in the 3rd Street area. Currently he is a principal of Phillips and Herman Demographic Research. To email Pini: pini00003@gmail.com To follow Pini on Twitter:


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Bruce Phillips is Professor of Sociology and Jewish Communal Studies at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, Los Angeles. He has conducted Jewish population...

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