Friday, October 29, 2010

Doing Away With Denominations

I have an aversion to terms that have “post” as a prefix. For this discussion, therefore, let’s put a Post-it saying “don’t use” on post-denominationalism. This allows for a less jargon-laden consideration of the role of denominations in contemporary American Jewish life, a discussion prompted by Yehudah Mirsky’s post on a blog asking “Who needs denominations?”

In a way, most American Jews need denominations because for all of the changes in our behavior and attitudes, the familiar alignment of Conservative-Orthodox-Reform, with Reconstruction occasionally thrown in, remains a vital part of the American Jewish story. Nearly all of our demography is predicated, to an extent, on this pattern, as is synagogue life, day school and supplementary school education and much else.

It is also certain that the times are a-changing, as they have been for a long time. There is the astonishing decline of the Conservative movement, a development that will not be reversed, and the nearly parallel explosion in the number of unaffiliated Jews, arising from the reality that denominational affiliation does not resonate for a significant proportion of American Jews. Because this phenomenon is generational, it’s a sure bet that down the road the traditional categories of affiliation will be less relevant than they now are, with the important exception of the Orthodox.

Categories are employed because they make it easier to understand sociological realities. There is in this the inevitability of some distortion and it may be considerable, as is evident by the findings that by a widening margin Reform constitute the largest share of American Jewry. This claim stands on two wobbly legs, firstly since surveys ask about affiliation, for many American Jews who are in the grip of advanced assimilation, Reform is the response that is closest to the mark. Secondly, the ranks of Reform are swelled considerably by the inclusion of persons who are not Jewish, many not even by Reform’s loose definition.

Denominational affiliation is largely a post-Enlightenment (oops!) development, first primarily in Germany and then utilized in much of western and central Europe and ultimately adapted to the North American Jewish experience. In Sephardic life, such usages are generally shunned, the upshot being that while of course there are Jews who are not observant in the Orthodox sense, the communal infrastructure is Orthodox. At the personal level, Sephardic Jews range in their religiosity, so that those who are not particularly observant are still regarded as Orthodox.

Although there are Reform and Masorti congregations in Israel, Israelis do not identify themselves in denominational terms. Nor is Israeli demographic research predicated on the denominational categories employed on these shores. Rather, the tendency is to self-identify as charedi or fervently religious, dati or Orthodox, traditional and secular.

The use of denominations may facilitate statistical analysis, yet they serve as a barrier, as an announcement that this is what we identify as and that is what we do not identify as. Non-Orthodox Jews therefore do not worship at Orthodox synagogues, except perhaps for a simcha or another special occasion. The wall that is established may impact on kiruv or outreach activity and the proof may be in the point made by outreach workers that it is usually easier to attract unaffiliated Jews than those who are identified as Reform or Conservative. Here, too, the Israeli experience may be illustrative, as outreach activities in Israel have generated excitement and considerable movement across the spectrum of religious life, while American kiruv is apparently doing a lot less well.

How does Chabad figure in all of this? Some call it a separate denomination; others disagree. In fact, while denominational affiliation means much to the denominations, it is far less relevant in the work of Chabad which has emerged as the largest Jewish organization on the planet. It is continuing to expand, fueled by an army of young persons who are willing to serve, the erosion of organized Jewish life in countless places and an approach that allows it to be different things to different people. Add to this scads of empathy and tolerance, far more intellectualism than readily meets the eye and activities that provide what many actually need and what emerges is a recipe for connecting with vast numbers of Jews who are otherwise not very much engaged in Jewish life.

On campuses, Chabad is overtaking Hillel as the place to be at. There also has been significant growth in Chabad day schools and supplementary schools, at times because the local Chabad has taken responsibility for institutions and activities established by a denomination-affiliated group. Adult education is another area of substantial and an expanding Chabad presence. In short, the movement has something for nearly everyone, with very little if anything demanded in terms of traditional Judaism. Much of what occurs partakes of “don’t ask, don’t tell”. Jews are invited to show up and they are welcomed when they do.

Despite Chabad’s size and importance, there is scant research on how this comports with the familiar indices of Jewish identity. We know how denominational Jews keep or do not keep Shabbos, whether they eat kosher and how they respond to a long list of practices and beliefs. About the participants in Chabad, little is known, perhaps because participation is fluid. It is less a matter of formal identification and therefore not easy to pin down via survey research, although it would be a good idea for those who conduct our research to begin to include questions about participation in Chabad.

As denominational life changes, largely in the direction of becoming weaker, we need to know more about Chabad and much else in Jewish life that operates outside the traditional boundaries of denominations.