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A month after High Holy Days, a rabbi told of his despair to a colleague: “We had 300 for Yom Kippur. I saw all these people straining, reaching out for the Torah. It almost brought me to tears. But then I thought, what does it mean to them that they come once a year? Days later for Shabbat (Sabbath), we were back down to thirty. Then, a week later, on a Friday night, I was leading a service for four people again.”

Why is this happening?

Our experience suggests that a large number of Jews are, at best, finding the life of Jewish congregations often devoid of supportive community and irrelevant to the daily challenges and pressures in their own lives. At worst, they are finding worship and holiday celebrations (except possibly for Passover, Chanukah, and High Holy Days) irrelevant or incomprehensible, and thus without meaning.

The myth of modern American Jewry, according to one non-affluent Jew, is that all Jews “give tzedakah in large quantities. . . . send their children to camp, to Ivy League schools and to Israel for the year after college. . . . buy annuities, take cruises and retire to Florida. . . . [and] don't worry about paying their health insurance premiums.” But the practical reality, as she notes, is that more than a quarter of American Jews have annual incomes, as single adults, at or below the poverty line. This group includes elderly on Social Security, immigrants, and divorced women and their children. Not far from them on the income ladder are Jewish white collar workers and professionals working in the public and nonprofit sectors, and small business entrepreneurs.


We know that economically marginal Jews, and many affluent Jews too, have been out-migrating from Jewish congregations and Judaism, and that they are increasingly experiencing all the social pathologies of American society: their children are misusing alcohol and drugs, and are victimized by gangs, their elderly parents and spouses are mistreated in nursing homes, their loved ones are dying from AIDS, their retirement plans are upset by corporate takeovers, their jobs are requiring exhausting freeway commutes, and much more. We also know that out-migration from Jewish congregations and Judaism is positively correlated with the more severe “social pathologies”—divorce, alcoholism and drug addiction, domestic violence, and suicide—and their incidence among Jews has been growing (except possibly for domestic violence). As a leader of an upscale Reform congregation told us, “We and our kids are involved in destructive and delinquent activities like everyone else.”

Both the synagogue as an institution and the Judaism it promotes are almost completely divorced from these pressures of daily life, notwithstanding commitments in recent years to intensify Jewish education for young people and outreach initiatives to intermarried couples. For many Jews, given the overall demands in their lives, synagogue or temple affiliation and the exploration of Judaism are not worth the time, energy, and money they require. In the words of one non-affiliated, ethnic Jew: “I've heard of groups of people meeting to learn more about Judaism. I have friends who have been in groups like that. But I can't see myself there. I guess I don't want it enough. The truth is, I'd probably study Italian—we're planning to go to Italy—before I'd study Judaism.” Given what he knows about the benefits of Judaism, learning Italian has more practical value.

When we examine our own experience with Jews who are religiously disaffected and disaffiliated, we find a large gap between what they say they want or believe is possible in congregational life and what they say is missing when talking about their own lives. We identify the following as missing: (1) meaning, specifically a unifying purpose in one's life—not the scattered bits and pieces of daily activities; (2) order, which is to say that many are hungry for consistency and purpose in their daily lives—but no one asks for order in the service of meaningless or pointless activity; (3) community, which reflects a loss of face-to-face relationships in which individuals are bonded by shared norms and common action—many miss the communities of their youth and feel such community simply does not exist anymore; and (4) ecstatic experience, which for most people is missing altogether, unless one counts the “high” associated with various forms of destructive behavior, such as drinking, drugging, domestic and criminal violence, promiscuous sex, gambling, and spending binges, or the obsessive acquisition and exercise of high position, prestige, and power.

The out-migration and its causes demonstrate the logic of collective action; it is what we should expect Jews to do under the circumstances. The scale of out-migration suggests widely shared experiences of boredom, isolation, pointlessness, and meaninglessness in congregational life. Given this analysis, we are not surprised to see in the outreach literature the conclusion that education as a prevention strategy, except for full-time day school, does not appear to be effective in dealing with out-marriage. We are not surprised to learn that whether or not rabbis officiate at interfaith marriages has little effect on couples' decisions to affiliate and live Jewishly or to out-migrate.

Social workers and religious educators must of course continue and expand their outreach to intermarried Jews—but it is not enough to rescue the people who are, so to speak, swept “downriver”; we must also go “upriver” to see what is causing so many people to be caught up in the “threatening currents” of out-migration. We recognize that sociological, therapeutic, problem-solving, and educational approaches to Jewish out-migration are essential—we understand them and their value, and practice them ourselves—but the deeper problem is intimately linked to religion and spirituality, and how they relate to our actions as Jews and as Americans.

Crisis of Faith

We believe that the primary fact of contemporary Jewish out-migration is that Judaism and the American Jewish population are undergoing an historic crisis of faith, one that involves all the country's congregational communities, but with varying external causes and internal dynamics. (Mainline Protestant denominations have lost 15 to 25 percent of their members in the last two to three decades. Catholic losses probably would be comparable except for the influx of new immigrants.) By crisis of faith, we mean that most Jews do not have confidence in their own personal faith, in their synagogue, in their religion, or in their God: they do not believe that these things, even if they were fully invested in them, can actually create community and transform the world of pressures and problems, particularly those that are destructive to their lives, their families, their synagogues and temples, and the larger world in which they live.

Traditional Jewish authority and its reciprocal, covenantal community, shaped and matured in the shtetl, have not worked well as the basis for authentic Jewish congregational community among geographically dispersed and denominationally disparate Jews in the United States. The authority has been undermined and the practices abandoned as archaic, even by most congregationally affiliated Jews. It is not surprising that under these conditions many Jews have lost their faith. The religious authority sustained by the communal expression of that faith, the authority that ensured the successful fulfillment of the faith in daily life, has disappeared for most Jews. (In one Conservative congregation the rabbi estimated to us that 95 percent of the members do not keep kosher, and the synagogue's kitchen and dining utensils and facilities were not kosher.)

Jewish out-migration can be understood strategically as reflecting the “institutional inadequacy” of synagogues and temples to meet the needs of contemporary Jews for personal faith, religious authority, and covenantal community. Put another way, we have lost the community that supported the authority that sustained the faith. The most damaging consequence is that the Jewish synagogue or temple, as an institution, is not responding with a Judaism that is relevant to the absence of community and the immediate destructive pressures faced by many Jews—so they are walking apart or away from organized Jewish religious life.

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Updated: 4/6/19