What is the best way to secure the future of our people, and should we be worried about our long-term survival?
Rabbi N. Daniel Korobkin
Beth Avraham Yoseph Congregation, Toronto
Rabbi Lisa Grushcow
Temple Emanu-El-Beth Sholom, Montreal
Rabbi Korobkin: We’ve been engaged in this friendly dialogue for nearly two years, and I think you know me well enough to see that my objective is not to criticize other streams of Judaism. My question to you this week is thus out of concern for the future of our people.
It’s no secret that both Reform and Conservative Judaism are on the decline in North America. Memberships are down, schools are closing, and the next generation is checking out. (Granted, Conservative Judaism appears to be declining more rapidly than Reform Judaism, but that’s shallow consolation.) Moreover, many have suggested that Reform congregations are only able to maintain their current levels by accepting more intermarried families. Even the relatively small percentage of Orthodox who leave the fold are not largely joining Conservative or Reform congregations, but are instead going completely secular.
What is the end game? Is there any plan to stem the hemorrhaging of our tribe? How can we save these Jewish souls and keep the next generation part of the faith?
Rabbi Grushcow: Denominations are modern inventions. As I often teach, we have Napoleon to thank for the current configuration of the Jewish world. The act of making Jews citizens raised the question of how to be a Jew in a world that actually accepts us.
I’m deeply committed to Reform Judaism, because I think it opens important doors and has a compelling vision of Jewish life. We don’t welcome intermarried folks because we are worried about our numbers – we welcome them because we believe they make the Jewish people stronger.
Will Judaism in 100 years have the same configurations and denominations? Almost certainly not. Will there still be different approaches and ideologies, communities and practices? Almost certainly yes.
In terms of the current difference between movements, I think a lot has to do with simple demographics – Orthodox families tend to be bigger, for example. But I’m not especially interested in a numbers game. I see exciting things happening in every part of the Jewish world.
Do we have to re-examine the synagogue model? I think we do. Should every movement do the cheshbon ha-nefesh, self-examination, to make sure we are serving the Jewish People the best we can? Absolutely. But am I worried about the long-term survival of Judaism? No. I trust God on that one.
Rabbi Korobkin: Faith and optimism in the eternality of the Jewish People is a wonderful sentiment, and it certainly is echoed in the Psalmist’s promise that “God will never forsake His people.” But that’s not really the point I’m concerned about.
We as rabbis have a responsibility to create viable and durable Jewish institutions and ways of life that guarantee a future. Orthodoxy utilizes a foundational paradigm that has never changed – that is, the system of Halachah. When Jews commit to a life of halachic practice – Shabbat, kashrut, etc. – there is a greater likelihood that their children and grandchildren will adhere to and identify with Judaism.
As warm and welcoming as your congregation is, does it have lasting power? How many multi-generational families regularly pray with you? When Conservative and Reform communities memberships are down and schools are closing, is it not perhaps time for an overhaul?
Rabbi Grushcow: We have many multi-generational families at our temple, as did my previous congregation in New York. In fact, this past Kol Nidre, four generations of women lit the candles together.
It is possible to take Judaism seriously without being within the framework of Halachah. It is possible to take Shabbat seriously without observing a traditional Shabbat. I see my congregants doing this all the time.
Although a sense of traditional obligation has its power, there is also something incredibly compelling to a Jewish practice that is chosen. That’s what keeps people in, and brings people in. Many of them are drawn here precisely because their Judaism matters to them, but more traditional settings just aren’t a fit with their values and their lives.
I say all this with respect equal to that with which you started this conversation. We both care deeply about Judaism. My own conviction is that the Jewish world is stronger because both our communities are here.