How many people will be in the congregation? Where will they be gathering? What will their backgrounds be? What will be the nature of their connection to the Jewish community? How will they wrestle with the contradictory aims to be traditional yet modern?
As each new wave of Jews enter adulthood, they bring with them values and concerns based on the lessons their parents taught, lessons taught intentionally or otherwise. A changing relationship with religion is not new, Judaism has been in constant evolution since the collapse of the Temple Priesthood two thousand years ago. Yet the ideological values and demographic trends we’re seeing emerge now are unique in the history of Reform Judaism as a movement.
Modern American Judaism will have to navigate declining rates of religious affiliation; navigate a new phase of life – coined “Emerging Adulthood” – which delays marriage and children (life events which traditionally bring people into the synagogue); and navigate attitudes which see, by default, old establishments as self-serving and unethical (yes, even yours).
These can be hard words to hear. Their story tells us we’re headed towards an existential challenge. And it will be a challenge, but there is a clear path towards triumph. Victory – meaning, the continued existence of Reform Jewish Congregations – begins with the belief that, now and forever, Judaism is vitally important to ourselves, our community, and the world. We must teach people to see beyond immature views of religion which see all worship as praising invisible sky creatures. We, the active participants in our congregations, know the value of Judaism. We know that the spiritual, ethical, and philosophical teachings are nuanced tools capable of bringing our loftiest values – wholeness, justice, and compassion – shelemoot, tzedek, v’rachamim – to an imperfect world. No technological advance can ever supplant the centrality of Jewish teachings towards achieving these goals.
It is this essential responsibility to be ambassadors of Jewish teachings which we must cherish; no matter what our Shabbat services look like 30 years from now, as long as the worship is centered on teaching our values, Judaism will be relevant. We must not be shy about what we hold dear. Rituals are important, time-honed practices designed to bring out our values, but no matter how those rituals are preserved or are changed, we cannot forget it is not the rituals, but the values they represent which are the key.
Just before the decade ended (a few months ago), over five thousand of the Reform movement’s leaders gathered in Chicago to sing songs, welcome in the Sabbath, study the Torah, and plan the future of our movement. It was the 2019 Union for Reform Judaism Biennial – my first – and I can only describe the atmosphere as “industry convention meets Jewish summer camp”. With 20+ discussion tracks running simultaneously from 8am to 10pm for half a week, there were opportunities to learn new music, study with modern-day sages, and schmooze with our movement’s movers and shakers.
But most important to me were the discussions about the future of modern Judaism. Forward-thinking leaders showed the importance of inclusivity: we should feel comfortable bringing our full identity with us into synagogue, not having to hide aspects of ourselves, or serve as a representative of a minority. We learned of social trends which see little merit in loyalty towards institutions, caring more for individual relationships, valuing true currency only in authenticity. We saw the harsh demographic reality as congregations across the country struggle with engaging young adults in a financially sustaining manner. And we talked about the ongoing struggle between our American Jewish values and those of the state of Israel. What I learned is that the path forward, no matter which path it is, will be successful only as long as it conveys the fundamental truth of Jewish values. A Jewish congregation that gathers for the right reasons will always be relevant, no matter what form it takes.
Worship at Reform congregations thirty years from now may look drastically different from today’s, but it will still promote the same values we hold dear. The path forward will not resemble the routes we’ve been traveling on for the past 50+ years, but the path is navigable so long as we are clear and effective teachers. Judaism’s next challenge isn’t how to stay relevant – it always will be – but rather, how that relevance intersects with institutions like ours. There exist vibrant, growing communities with deep roots in their hometowns, congregations that have strong religious leadership in their clergy, congregations that are uniquely poised to define the next generation of blending tradition with modernity. Support and celebrate them as we explore new takes on long-standing traditions, knowing that despite whatever form the worship takes, our core Jewish values will be steadfast and unchanging.
Adapted from an article I wrote for my congregation's monthly newsletter, published March 2020.