Can Orthodox Buck Movement Toward More Liberal Branches of Jewish Faith?

As Denominations Struggle, Fighting to Keep Young in Fold

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By Josh Nathan-Kazis

Published October 02, 2013, issue of October 11, 2013.
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Ron Rosenblatt’s parents grew up Orthodox. Ronsenblatt had his bar mitzvah in a Conservative synagogue. His children were raised as Reform Jews.

Rosenblatt, 71, a dentist in Los Angeles, now attends a Reform synagogue a few miles from the Orthodox congregation where his parents were married. His trajectory is typical for an American Jew, the new 2013 Pew Research Survey of U.S. Jews reports.

In fact, none of the major Jewish denominations can hold on to a majority of its members. Pew data shows that startlingly low retention rates among all three major Jewish denominations are leading to a demographic explosion among Jews who say they identify with no denomination at all.

Pew Survey! Click Here! Click for more on the survey.

The picture is of a denominational rockfall sliding from more traditional streams through the Reform movement and out of the denominational structure altogether.

Most people who grew up Orthodox or Conservative are now either members of a more liberal denomination or don’t identify as religious at all. So while the Orthodox population is more or less static, the proportion of Jews who say they are Conservative has shrunk, and the proportion of Jews who say they have no denomination has jumped to 30% from 20% in a similar study 13 years ago.

It’s not just Jews who are slipping to liberal denominations from strict ones. Generational shifts between denominations are a common theme across American religions.

In the 1960s, as evangelicals became wealthier and more mainstream, they left their Baptist churches en masse for the more liberal mainline Protestant churches, leaving behind congregations associated with low socioeconomic classes.

“That was a very steady flow of people for a lot of years,” said Mark Chaves, a professor of sociology, religion and divinity at Duke University. This tide slowed in the 1990s, as evangelical churches were more successful at appealing to middle-class professionals. “It became less important as a status marker for people once they became college educated… to not be a Baptist anymore and be a Presbyterian or Methodist,” Chaves said.


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