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For the Reform movement, the question isn’t so much whether the four-day conference is a success but whether Reform Judaism can tackle the growing disaffiliation and disengagement in its ranks.
The recent Pew Research Center survey of U.S. Jews found that while Reform remains the largest American Jewish denomination, with 35 percent of American Jews, it ranks lowest of the three major movements on some key metrics of Jewish engagement.
Reform Jews are the most likely of the denominations to leave the Jewish fold. According to Pew, 28 percent of Jews born Reform no longer consider themselves Jewish by religion, compared to 17 percent of Conservative and 11 percent of Orthodox. Half of married Reform Jews have a non-Jewish spouse. Just 43 percent of Reform Jews say being Jewish is very important to them, and only 16 percent say religion is very important in their lives.
At 1.7 children per couple, the birth rate of Reform Jews is the lowest of the three major U.S. Jewish denominations and well below the replacement rate. Fewer than half of those children are enrolled in any kind of formal Jewish educational or youth program. The median age of Reform Jews is 54.
It is in this context, Jacobs said, that he was brought on a year-and-a-half ago as president to re-examine everything the movement does. He has articulated three strategic priorities for the movement: catalyze congregational change, engage young Jews and expand the movement’s reach beyond synagogue walls. Some programmatic changes along those lines are underway.
Next summer, the movement will open two new summer camps. The 6 Points Sci-Tech Academy, a science and technology camp outside of Boston, will be its 14th overnight camp, and the movement’s first summer day camp, Camp Harlam, will open near Philadelphia.
Since May 2012, a pilot group of more than a dozen synagogues has been working to overhaul the movement’s approach to bar mitzvahs as part of a program called the Bnei Mitzvah Revolution. The effort, the movement says, is intended “to reduce the staggering rates of post-b’nai mitzvah dropout.”