Will the movements survive the pandemic?

While American denominations are being battered by the impact of the lockdowns, the losses synagogues will suffer are a product of long-term trends accelerated by the coronavirus.

Union for Reform Judaism President Rabbi Rick Jacobs speaks at the Jewish Federations of North America General Assembly. Credit: Robert A. Cumins/JFNA.
Union for Reform Judaism President Rabbi Rick Jacobs speaks at the Jewish Federations of North America General Assembly. Credit: Robert A. Cumins/JFNA.
Jonathan S. Tobin
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS (Jewish News Syndicate). Follow him @jonathans_tobin.

It sounds like a good business plan. With American Jewish religious denominations facing agonizing budget decisions in the coming year as a result of the financial losses they are all suffering in the wake of coronavirus shutdowns, perhaps the most logical solution to their problems is for the liberal denominations to merge.

If more people are thinking the unthinkable these days, it’s hardly surprising. At one time, the mighty institutions of non-Orthodox Judaism in the United States thought of themselves as unique and irreplaceable. No longer. In a moment in history when everything familiar about our lives has been tossed aside or turned inside out by the pandemic, speculation about possible mergers between Reform and Conservative Judaism, as well as the smaller Reconstructionist and Renewal movements, is no longer something too outlandish to even consider.

Indeed, with the Union of Reform Judaism—the central organ of the country’s largest Jewish denomination—announcing that it was cutting 20 percent of its staff last week and with the other movements also facing hard times, talk of consolidation is hardly out of the question or even out of place.

That conversation was accelerated by the Conservative movement’s decision to allow the streaming of services on the Internet as a response to the pandemic. That naturally led some to question whether, now that the Conservatives were relaxing more of their Shabbat practices to allow technology to keep congregations together, if there is any real difference between that centrist denomination and its more liberal counterpart.

The answer from many in the Conservative movement is that much separates them from Reform, let alone the more radical Reconstructionist and Renewal movements. Disagreements on intermarriage—the Conservative movement still refuses to allow their rabbis to officiate at ceremonies where both parties are not Jewish—remain an obstacle to any talk about mergers. Just as important are the cultural differences between congregations that produce very different practices and traditions.

These movements came into existence as a result of a need to create new institutions that served populations no longer satisfied with what they could get elsewhere.

In the mid-19 century, dissatisfaction with Orthodoxy and a desire for a more liberal approach to Judaism, as well as one more rooted in American culture, led to the formation of the Reform movement. In the 1880s, the sense that Reform had gone too far in throwing out Jewish religious law and tradition was behind the formation of Conservative Judaism, which tried to mix respect for halachah with modernity. In the 20th century, Reconstructionism arose from Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan’s theories about Judaism as a civilization. It grew as a response to a need for what it called “post-halachic” Judaism. In the late 20th century, the need for a more spiritual approach that was consonant with the “New Age” zeitgeist of American culture led to the Renewal movement.

With each new stream came diversity, as synagogues arose out of desires for particular approaches to services—with some using their own prayer books—or as a by-product of the way local institutions played a part in broader cultural and political developments.

Yet the forces pushing liberal movements together existed before the pandemic. As devastating as the toll of the coronavirus has been on institutions, the changing demography of American Jewish life is a far more important game-changer.

On a local level, this has already resulted in Reform and Conservative synagogues pooling their resources to create a single religious school in some areas. Population shifts have led to the closure or consolidation of synagogues in many urban and suburban areas within denominational lines. And, as has happened in the past, in places where there are not enough Jews left to support multiple synagogues, one will have to serve everyone, despite the strong differences among Jews that center on doctrine and practice.

With Reform and Conservative congregants almost universally not as observant as their religious leaders, coupled with the impulse to make services more inclusive to accommodate non-Jewish spouses and family members, the trend in which the non-Orthodox movements have come to resemble each other more will only be accelerated by the impact of financial hardships.

And with “Jews of no religion”—as the seminal 2013 Pew Research Institute study of Jewish Americans termed them—being the fastest-growing slice of Jewish demography, declining rates of affiliation with synagogues, no matter what their brand might be, are also going to continue.

It is highly unlikely that there will be any formal merger of movements in spite of the financial pressures that might impel the idea to be considered. Too much divides them in terms of their traditions and culture.

While the faux optimism that mocks talk of the “ever-dying” American Jew should be dismissed, the notion that the seminaries, synagogues and other Jewish forums are no longer capable of producing a vibrant intellectual ferment is false. The question is whether that will be infused with the same strong sense of Jewish peoplehood that existed at the core of the formation of the major movements.

The contrast between a demographically growing Orthodox sector and a declining non-Orthodox world can’t be denied. But the idea that Orthodoxy is rapidly replacing Reform and Conservative Judaism as the main Jewish address for American is still premature. Moreover, the triumphalism that emanates from the Orthodox world often gives short shrift to the way both Reform and Conservative Judaism helped create a powerful philanthropic community on which they are also dependent.

The pandemic has speeded up the winnowing of American Jewish life that was already in motion. There’s no way to know for sure the shape or the direction of the institutions that will survive, albeit on a smaller scale. And there is good reason to worry about whether the surviving structures will be as focused on nurturing the essentials of Jewish peoplehood and connections with Israel as they should be. If only Orthodoxy remains comfortable with Zionism, that will undermine both Jewish unity and the ability of the community to preserve itself.

But those fears notwithstanding, no one should underestimate the ability of Jews to adapt and evolve, even if what follows may be as strange to us as the American Jewish world of today would be to those who came before us.

Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS—Jewish News Syndicate. Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.

You have read 3 articles this month.
Register to receive full access to JNS.

Just before you scroll on...

Israel is at war.

JNS is combating the stream of misinformation on Israel with real, honest and factual reporting. In order to deliver this in-depth, unbiased coverage of Israel and the Jewish world, we rely on readers like you.

The support you provide allows our journalists to deliver the truth, free from bias and hidden agendas. Can we count on your support?

Every contribution, big or small, helps remain a trusted source of news you can rely on.

Become a part of our mission by donating today
Thank you. You are a loyal JNS Reader.
You have read more than 10 articles this month.
Please register for full access to continue reading and post comments.
Never miss a thing
Get the best stories faster with JNS breaking news updates