Rabbi David Eliezrie, Director of North County Chabad Center in Yorba Linda, California, is the author of “The Secret of Chabad.” The following op-ed was originally published in the Jerusalem Post:
Lately, many are lamenting the decline of synagogue life in the US. In articles and at seminars and conferences, rabbis and community leaders have been attempting to meet this challenge. Recently, Reform Rabbi Jeffrey Salkin bemoaned the trends in the Reform and Conservative congregations on Long Island, saying synagogues are merging, consolidating or closing altogether.
In the midst of all this consternation, a synagogue building boom is underway.
On Long Island, a new 12,000 square foot center is opening in Stony Brook next month, and close to $20 million in projects are moving forward. The synagogue growth is from Chabad, which today has 38 centers in Nassau and Suffolk Counties, which notably are not the religious bastion of Brooklyn. The vast majority of those attending and supporting Chabad on Long Island would not self-identify as Orthodox, however they choose to connect Jewishly via Chabad, firmly rooted in tradition.
Indications of this shift became clear in the recent Pew Study on American Jews which reported that just 14% are members of Reform and 11% of Conservative congregations, representing a significant drop in membership of these movements. Furthermore, in a string of community studies undertaken by various Jewish federations, it was revealed that Jews are becoming more engaged with traditional Judaism. Today, 20% of all US Jews and 30% of Jews 35 and younger attend Chabad. The vast majority, 80%, of those who attend Chabad say they are not Orthodox-observant.
The change in the affiliation of US Jews is beginning to reflect international trends. Outside of the US, most Jews, even those who aren’t religious, affiliate with Orthodox synagogues. Only in the US have Reform and Conservative been historically dominant. Two factors are changing that reality. First, the Orthodox community is growing, with large families coupled with a strong retention of youth, who are imbued with a deep intellectual appreciation of Judaism. That is being nurtured by a vast network of Jewish educational institutions from early age to college. It’s also being bolstered by an influx of newly observant families from secular backgrounds.
The second factor is Chabad. It has emerged as the largest Jewish movement in the world and the fastest-growing in the US. In the last decade, while non-Orthodox congregations have been closing and merging on Long Island, Chabad has opened 12 new centers and added 16 rabbis to its staff. Each center is financially independent and entirely supported by local Jews. Most members are not fully observant.
Why is the traditional community growing and non-Orthodox congregations shrinking?
First, a bit of history. As Jews immigrated to the US, they were tethered to tradition. With a new world beckoning, they shredded much of their actual observance. The Reform and Conservative movements provided a middle ground for these Jews who wanted to balance their newfound identities as Americans and retain a Jewish connection. In the post-Holocaust era, liberal congregations grew, fueled by the children and grandchildren of European immigrants with bonds to the traditions of their grandparents. They provided diverse programs, dynamic English-speaking rabbis and a sense of community. As the next generations emerged, the nostalgia had faded.
While the non-Orthodox movements created a strong sense of community, their efforts to create a Jewish educational system to transmit Jewish wisdom was marginally successful. The philosophy that viewed Judaism’s foundational beliefs with skepticism did not resonate. When a teenager is told by his rabbi that the Exodus didn’t happen, then the teen wonders, “If it’s a myth why observe Passover?” The next step is to disengage from Jewish life.
Chabad provided a new paradigm for American Jews: open, welcoming and totally non-judgmental, rooted in firm commitment to Jewish belief, with rigorous Jewish education for kids and adults coupled with a willingness to engage the broader society. Chabad abandoned the classical membership model of “pay to pray.” It opened its doors and told those that walked in, “If you like what you see, share in the expense.” While not imposing Judaism, Chabad took a position that the beliefs and traditions of Judaism are rooted in a Divine revelation thousands of years ago at Mount Sinai and are not transitional. That commitment to principles resonates with many Jews who admire the idealism, even if they themselves do not choose to follow all the traditions.
Let’s not fool ourselves: all is not rosy in American Jewish life. Rates of assimilation continue to rise, and few Jews have grandmothers who speak Yiddish and remind them of tradition. Most young Jews have minimal Jewish education. Still, there is cause for optimism. The traditional Orthodox are growing, and more Jews are attending Chabad where the message is clear. It’s about Jewish observance, a renaissance of Jewish learning and a strong commitment to Israel – unadulterated, non-judgmental, classical Judaism.
And if Long Island is reflective of the rest of US, Jews have a bright future in the USA.