Last week, the Union for Reform Judaism announced it was laying off 20% of its staff, citing an existential threat to their organization and their denomination as a whole in the wake of the economic crash caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. In response, Rabbi Rick Jacobs, head of the URJ, said he is considering the possibility of merging parts of its operations with those of other liberal Jewish movements.
It made us wonder: Are we heading to a post-denominational Jewish world?
We wanted to know what Jewish American rabbis thought, so we reached out to as many as we could. We asked three questions:
Will Jewish denominations survive the pandemic? Should they survive? What would American Judaism be without denominations?
Here are their answers:
Ed Feinstein, Conservative, Valley Beth Shalom in Encino, Calif.: Everything will change. The coronavirus crisis and the economic tsunami that is coming will affect every Jewish institution - synagogues, federations, schools, camps, seminaries, JCCs, cultural initiatives - and all the national organizations that connect them.
The Great Depression of the 1930s did not itself radically transform Jewish life, but rather, it accelerated trends that were already latent. So too, the current crisis will forcefully push forward questions we were already asking, about the purposes, priorities, structure, and ultimately, the necessity of each of our institutions.
The denominational organs, like every other institution, will not be immune. It is likely they will not disappear, but morph into forms more suited to the needs of the next moment of our communal life. This reflects an age-old pattern of Jewish life - the remarkable adaptability, inventiveness, and resourcefulness of Jewish culture, its genius for turning catastrophe into creativity.
Our history shows us that the “ever-dying people” is in fact, an ever-renewing people. And so it will be again.
Rebecca Sirbu, Conservative, Hadassah: Many people are fiercely loyal to their particular denomination, and significant differences remain and are growing between the Orthodox movements and the liberal movements. These will remain separate and divided for some time.
But for years now, the liberal movements have been growing closer together in observance, practice and ideology. Combining the administration of the movements and the rabbinical schools would save a significant amount of money on overhead and could be done while allowing for rabbis and congregants to still chose their particular brand of Judaism. Both the Reform and Conservative Movements, the biggest liberal movements, already allow for quite a wide variety of differences among their leadership and congregations. Widening the tent a little more to both the right and left should not be overly difficult.
For American Judaism to continue to thrive, we need more streamlined, cost-effective denominational systems. We need choice in our observance and ways to easily find communities that will connect us to others and give us meaningful experiences.
Rabbi Gilah Langner, Reconstructionist/Renewal, Shirat HaNefesh, Chevy Chase, Md. and Kol Ami, Arlington Va.: I’ve often said that 20 years from now, we’ll have two denominations — Orthodox and not-Orthodox. If anything, I’m inclined to think this pandemic will accelerate the consolidation, not because the various movements aren’t doing an extraordinary job supporting their own congregations and wider Jewish life, but rather, because our movements are moving toward one another.
Individual synagogues have their own styles and customs - may they long endure! - but the things that appeal seem to find a home across denominational lines — the musical bands that used to be a hallmark of Reform temples on Friday nights are now found in Reconstructionist and Conservative shuls. Chanting practices, meditation, Torah study — we all delight in them, in various mixtures.
I’m not advocating for the movements to disappear and affiliations to crumble; we would be so much poorer for it. But I’m noticing that the lines are blurring, and as a progressive Jewish American community, we are finding our way to shared new practices - spiritually engaged, more silence and more music, intellectually open and serious.
My great-grandfather was a Hasidic rebbe, my grandfather an Orthodox rav; my father was a Conservative rabbi, and I became a member of a havurah. As a rabbi affiliated with the Renewal movement, I have served Reform, independent, and Reconstructionist congregations.
We are all so much richer for the movements that American Jewish life has developed - each one problematic and glorious in its own way - a rich array of options converging and diverging on their paths up the mountain.
Aaron Bisno, Reform, Rodef Sholom Congregation in Pittsburgh: Who would have imagined the future would arrive so fast and so forcefully? If ever we thought our denominational movements, the hallmark of American Judaism in the 20th century, would protect us from the onslaught of change in the 21st, we now know our faith was misplaced.
Over 10 years ago, then-President of Hebrew Union College, David Ellenson, warned that more and more American Jews are indifferent to denominational labels and would not hesitate to move among movements on their religious and communal quests. Therefore, Rabbi Ellenson argued, the task of denominational Judaism was “to make Judaism relevant, compelling, joyous, meaningful, welcoming, comforting and challenging” to Jews with infinite options.
If this was true just 10 years ago (and it was!), it is surely the case today!
We can no longer afford the polite fiction that America’s liberal Jewish movements are in actuality distinct one from another. We share too much and have too much to achieve for us to remain committed to a communal architecture of yesteryear, wed to redundant organizational charts that fail to reflect present needs, and, most significantly, beholden to institutional egos that frustrate collaboration and shared outcomes.
It’s time to abandon the narcissism of small differences. We not only need one another; we are one another. Imagine what American liberal Judaism could realize if we would just stop competing with ourselves!
Nicole Guzik, Conservative, Sinai Temple in Los Angeles: Collaboration, innovation, and empathy between movements does not translate into collapse, destruction or demise. Quite the opposite.
During this pandemic, we have seen an unprecedented coming together of pastoral minds. The ability to peek into each other’s shuls and institutions has dissolved unnecessary competition and instead, invites a professional urge to be stronger, more creative, and extend a willingness to comfort Jewish souls no matter one’s denomination.
Budget cuts may signify a necessary yet temporary ceasing of programming, but this does not signify a disappearance of a movement’s core values, mission, and calling to the world.
I hear each movement’s voice loud and clear. I thank God with an immense gratitude that our movements are finally speaking with one another, each adding its unique relevance, ensuring that no Jew is left in the dark.
Joshua Stanton, Reform, East End Temple in New York City: Some people trace the Reform Movement in Judaism to Moses Mendelssohn, who boldly translated the Torah into German in the 1780s in Berlin. Others trace it to the New Israelite Temple Society of Hamburg, which built a diaspora temple as a symbol of intellectual progress and social integration. Others trace its roots to Baruch Spinoza, who was unfairly banned by the Portuguese Jewish community in Amsterdam for his forward-looking ideas.
Still more trace it back to the 12th-century philosopher Moses Maimonides, and the remarkable generations of Jewish thinkers who spoke Arabic and produced ideas that integrated Greek philosophy and Talmudic scholarship. Some are bold enough to claim that rabbinic Judaism itself was a reform movement, which took root in the smoldering ashes of the Second Temple in Jerusalem.
The reason one cannot plot the starting point of the Reform Movement with precision – much less predict its downfall – is that Reform is not about institutions, so much as an approach to Jewish thought. It is about historicity, rationality, intellectual bravery, and self-critique. It is about making change with intention. It is about continual evolution, and at times outright revolution, in the way in which we approach Jewish practice and belief.
While many Reform Jews are pained to hear of the Union for Reform Judaism’s reduction in scope, size, and service, we have faith that Jews will always be moved by progress – inspired to renew the institutions that further it and co-create new ones altogether. Further changes in the Reform Movement’s structure, including the possibility of a merger with other denominations, would be testament to the relationship it retains with its intellectual progeny and enduring purpose.
Michelle Missaghieh, Reform, Temple Israel of Hollywood, in Los Angeles: The great value in maintaining denominations is the freedom and creativity that a myriad of approaches to Jewish practice and belief encourages. They help Jews (across America and around the world) share resources and ideas, but also encourage each community to adopt and then adapt these very ideas and resources for their own unique and ever-changing communities.
Denominations mean small and large synagogues alike don’t have to reinvent the wheel each time we want to lead an Israel trip for teens, send our kids to camp, write a siddur, plan for the High Holidays, discuss membership models and even support each other through re-envisioning our synagogues during and after COVID-19.
Denominations are not cookie-cutter approaches but forums and systems that can help each community ask questions with other communities that share their same values but also want to push themselves to innovate and be responsive to our ever-changing world.
Getzel Davis, Non-denominational, Harvard Hillel in Cambridge, Mass.: Denominations will survive the pandemic, but with diminished influence. This moment is accelerating the pre-existing long-term trends away from denominational and synagogue affiliations. The decline of these institutions will be most painful for those of us who were well served by brick and mortar synagogues, denominational movements, camps, and youth groups.
From my perspective engaging students at Harvard Hillel and couples through Unorthodox Celebrations and Zivug Counseling, I see thousands of Jews who care deeply about exploring their identities and spirituality. They search for opportunities for deep connection but care little about denominational affiliation. They seek communities that feel welcoming, “real,” and accessible and strive to share their values. They don’t care if all members agree on what happened (or didn’t) at Sinai, and most are indifferent to aligning with a denominational “team.”
What I see today is a move towards home and family-based practice. It has never been easier to withdraw from Jewish community in our hour of isolation and, yet, for those who choose to connect, there are unprecedented ways to enrich one’s life at home.
I have great faith in the Jewish people, to adapt and thrive in our new reality. I am more suspect of our denominations.
Amy Schwartzman, Reform, Temple Rodef Shalom in Falls Church, Va.: Despite the profound illness and devastating human loss due to the coronavirus pandemic, and the fiscal impact, we may just find ourselves in the middle of a perfect storm that will trigger profound changes for our congregations and their denominational movements. Diminishing resources may force like-minded denominations – such as those that comprise progressive Judaism in America – to turn this terrible disruption into a new, more collaborative model that allows us to more fully share our resources, expertise, and creativity.
By pooling our resources, our collaboration might very well yield products that are more dynamic, more relevant, and more readily available. And it would allow us to deploy our remaining assets with laser-like focus, sharpening the ideologies and clarifying the missions that are particular to our movements and thereby strengthening each movement’s unique value proposition.
The rising tide of this perfect storm in other words might lift all boats. For me, the essential core of Reform Judaism, in which I am grounded and loyal, would be stronger. At the same time, the reach and influence of progressive Judaism would go further and would more deeply inform American Judaism. As we say in Hebrew, gam v’gam – winners all around.
David Wolpe, Conservative, Sinai Temple in Los Angeles: It is hard to see the landscape’s eventual shape when you are still in the storm. Human beings form groups and if they are individualists, they form groups of those who choose not to form groups.
Whether future groupings will call themselves “denominations” may vary, but as long as there have been Jews, there have been those who clustered around certain levels of strictness or laxity, ritual emphases, Rabbis or other orientations. So grouping is robust and lasting.
What those groups will look like or call themselves may change, but the fluidity of the online world, where everyone can be a student of everyone, may lead us to fuzzier boundaries. Or to more rigid ones in reaction. Or neither. The future has an annoying coyness about revealing itself before it arrives. I simply don’t know. I’ll wait until after it happens so I can say I saw it coming.
Analia Bortz, Conservative, Congregation Or Hadash in Atlanta: I can’t image American Jewry without denominations. The Jewish denominations are a beautiful tapestry of intricate embroideries, a true piece of art.
The many voices among the Jewish people contributes to the nourishment of our ancestral tradition, and we need those voices in order to survive as a people of seekers and not to be anchored in a single, authoritarian voice.
I hope we come out stronger after this difficult time. I hope for a time in which we will be able to respect our differences and celebrate our similarities.
Sam Levine, Conservative, East Midwood Jewish Center In Brooklyn, N.Y.: The question for me is, as denominational umbrella organizations shrink and become even less influential — or possibly fold altogether — will synagogues and congregants continue to affiliate with movements?
The trend for years has been toward non-denominational identification. In the absence of a strong centralized headquarters, it is doubtful that “denominations” will have much relevance a generation from now.
But the human impulse to gather in groups will likely see the current movements survive in some form, and will possibly lead to the creation of new organizational models to support synagogues and other Jewish institutions.
Denise L. Eger, Reform, Congregation Kol Ami in West Hollywood, Calif.: With the heartbreaking news that the Union for Reform Judaism must make budgetary cuts that will result in the loss of talented and dedicated workers and that the Ramah camps of the Conservative movement are facing unprecedented deficits, it should come as no surprise that the Jewish world is reeling from the economic fallout associated with the COVID-19 pandemic. We are in a moment of huge disruption. But as difficult as disruption is, it can be a catalyst for positive change.
In every crisis there are opportunities. There are opportunities now for each of the denominations, which are largely 19th century and early 20th-century institutions, to modernize and finally catch up to the 21st-century world we live in.
The current economic impact of the pandemic has speeded along necessary changes, and provided opportunities for collaboration and coordination between the denominations, which will be good for American Jewry. Though leaner for the moment, let them be strengthened by our renewed commitment to living thoughtful and spiritual Jewish lives.
Adina Lewittes, Non-denominational, Sha’ar Communities in Fort Lee, N.J.: Where someone makes their Jewish home is less important than that they keep their windows open. The pandemic has forced us inside and locked us out of our shuls, but it’s also created unprecedented access for us into each other’s religious and communal lives. For the last few months, we’ve been online attending each other’s classes, listening to each other’s music, even opening our hearts to each other’s prayers.
What should survive this crisis is the renewed openness we’ve discovered to hearing other Jewish voices and appreciating the harmonies they bring to our shared Jewish chorus. What should survive is our willingness to learn from each other, share pieces of our spiritual lives, and even be inspired by each other. Then, the virus might be remembered not just for the distance it forced between people and their communities, but for the healing connections it fostered between communities.
Robert Levine, Reform, Congregation Rodeph Sholom in New York City: Denominations will survive the pandemic, but must quickly adapt to the needs of those seeking answers and solace in the “new normal.” In this effort, they will need to exude flexibility, creativity and a healthy dose of humility.
No longer will most Jews join synagogues because they are part of a particular movement; they will join only if we respond to their needs. They will join only if they find a truly caring, welcoming community, deep spirituality, and compelling educational, social justice and personal growth programs for all ages and stages. They will want to see a clear pathway to ease their aching souls.
Instead of retreating to our comfortable corners, our leaders should acknowledge that heading into a very uncertain future, we are in this together and do need each other. Truth be told, we all can do a much better job respecting and supporting each other.
Avram Mlotek, Open Orthodox, Base Hillel in New York City: In some ways, Jewish denominations have been around since Biblical times, with the twelve tribes of Israel. Religious movements have been a fundamental part of the development of Judaism; could we imagine Judaism today without Hasidism or Religious Zionism? Ultimately, Jewish denominations will survive because Jews will survive, and what’s a Jewish conversation without a myriad of opinions?
But often these denominations can divide us unnecessarily. White supremacists and Islamic fundamentalists do not check to see which rabbinical association a synagogue is affiliated with before they wreak terror.
If Jewish denominations are to survive the pandemic, let every denomination proudly proclaim their ahavat Yisrael, their love of their fellow Jews. And may we remember the Jews for whom the denominations do not accurately capture their religious yearnings.
Asher Lopatin, Modern Orthodox, Kehillat Etz Chayim in Detroit: I used to have dream in which Hebrew Union College, the Jewish Theological Seminary, Hadar, and Chovevei Torah were on one campus, while sustaining our debates and disagreements and styles. Needless to say, nothing of the sort happened. But I still believe just as strongly that the ideas and passions of the Jewish denominations - Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist and Renewal - are as relevant today - and as valid.
On the other hand, sadly, we are still bogged down with expensive institutions and buildings that distance the movements from one another and that diminish the rich, deep and productive conversations that we could have if we were all together, sharing our buildings - like synagogues and rabbinical seminaries – and partnering in our educational and outreach know-how and activities.
My own Modern Orthodox synagogue, Kehillat Etz Chayim, shares a building with a Conservative Synagogue, Congregation Beth Shalom, and the arrangement is rewarding on many levels, even though we pray separately and remain separate communities.
For the long-term survival of the precious ideas, traditions and energy of our denominations, and to keep their individuality and distinctiveness, we have to figure out how to share resources, work together, and partner wherever possible.
The parts of our institutions that are costing so much are also the parts that unnecessarily keep us apart, keeping us from cooperating and learning from each other in a way that will enable us to face the challenges of today and tomorrow – as unique streams of Judaism.
Lawrence A. Hoffman, Reform, Professor Emeritus, Hebrew Union College in New York City: Think of Judaism as a grand work of art spanning the centuries, the Jewish people’s glorious experiment in the mysteries of life, the purpose of existence, a full and spacious vision for this grand gift of God that we call the human condition. Art evolves, mutates, surprises: Classical baroque is not Russian romanticism; impressionism is not cubism. Artists take their stand in a given artistic tradition, not in “art” as a single generalized ideal.
As its own work of art, Judaism supports independent schools of religious artistry; these are our “denominations.” All Jews share a common heritage of historical memory, textual tradition, calendrical cycle, and so on. But we share them differently, and that is all for the good. Music needs Bach, but also Tchaikovsky; museums are richer with Monet in one room and Picasso in another.
At their best, denominations are not just programs and shared best-practices: They are evolutions of Jewish artistry in the making. You cannot combine, erase, or homogenize them any more than you can combine, erase, or homogenize Vincent Van Gogh, Henry Moore, and Andy Warhol. Denominations need to flourish as what they are. Losing any single one is like lopping off the museum room with Rembrandt or with Chagall.
In an age of choice, we need strong Jewish addresses all along the spectrum of Jewish life. Losing any single one would be catastrophic.
Yoshi Zweiback, Reform, Stephen Wise Temple in Los Angeles: The Rabbis of the Midrash famously teach that there are seventy faces to the Torah, suggesting that are at least seventy ways of interpreting every verse, every law, every word.
Ours is a multi-vocal tradition – there has never been and will never be one way of understanding, living, or loving our tradition.
The various denominations and streams of Judaism represent – institutionally – those many voices of Judaism. Although they will certainly look different on the other side of this challenging moment, our denominations have much to offer and I hope and expect that they will continue to provide guidance, a sense of community, and direction as we go forward, with God’s help, from strength to strength: מחיל אל חיל.
Emily Cohen, Non-denominational, Lab/Shul in New York City: There is much we could gain from a post-denominational American Jewish landscape. At this moment, the financial benefit cannot be overstated; denominational mergers could diminish redundancies of infrastructure and allow for sharing all manner of resources. And, of course, there’s the reward of deepening into pluralism. As a Reconstructionist rabbinical student, studying with Reform, Conservative and non-denominational students enhanced my learning immensely. As a rabbi, I serve a proudly non-denominational Jewish community and enjoy the rich mix of people from all Jewish (and not at all Jewish) backgrounds who join us.
At the same time, denominational affiliations enable us to align with sacred communities reflecting the Jewish expression we seek. Our differences in halakhic practice and philosophy do matter. While there are ranges within denominations, there are also clear lines. Particularly when such lines include definitions around who is a Jew and which marriages merit officiation by one’s rabbi, any consolidation of movements would lead to complexity and potential hurt for clergy and congregants alike. There may indeed be reason for denominations to unite, but this decision cannot be made solely for economic reasons. We must carefully consider our sacred, profound differences and how these differences would manifest in a post-denominational landscape.
No matter what happens to our official denominations as we cycle slowly into our post-pandemic reality, collaboration matters more than ever.
May we lean vulnerably into our shared sacred story and embrace the multitude of ways in which we can support one another within and beyond our denominations.
Sara Hurwitz, Orthodox, Yeshivat Maharat in Bronx, N.Y. CEO and Shark Tank entrepreneur Mark Cuban recently suggested that despite the pandemic, we should be investing in ticket sales. Why? His prediction is that when social distancing restrictions lift, people will flock to the communal events that feed their spirit and soul. People are craving human connection and gatherings.
Although shul, and by extension, synagogue-based programming, are not quite like a baseball game, I think that when the gates open, we will be flooded.
Orthodox shuls will survive. Communal prayer is a foundational part of our practice, and whether people gather for social reasons, obligation, tradition, to feel inspired, or even, for the few who want to hear a good sermon, shul is the gravitational pull that brings people together.
But I don’t think synagogue life will be exactly the same. The rabbis who are nimble and can adapt to the changing needs of their congregants will not only survive, but they will thrive. Rabbis have to be willing to implement the creative tools that isolation demanded of us - like reaching more people for non-Shabbat gatherings with online platforms, or home deliveries for more people who were already homebound, or finding opportunities for female clergy who have been leading rituals over Zoom since there was no need for a minyan.
So, yes, people are looking forward to returning to the tradition they are used to. People need spiritual guidance and are looking to their rabbinic leaders to help make sense of our world. But we would be losing an opportunity to reinvigorate what community gatherings look like if we don’t listen and adapt to what people are actually seeking.
Elyse Wechterman, Reconstructionist, the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association: We haven’t had strict adherence to denominational lines of allegiance or rules of engagement for many years – if we ever did. Even before COVID-19, we saw the rise of independent training programs for clergy, the growth of unaffiliated or multi-affiliated communities, and projects across denominational lines and among different sectors of the community taking root.
Many of us have been working hard to establish cross-movement or “post-denominational” partnerships in things like retirement savings vehicles, ethics conversations, anti-harassment policy and training, and rabbinic continuing education and creativity. Nowhere has this been truer and more exciting to see then in the burgeoning field of Jewish Social Justice.
At the same time as we see these flowering partnerships, we must also recognize that the Jewish people has never been monolithic or univocal, in fact, from the days of Hillel and Shammai down through the modern era, difference of views, perspectives, approaches and styles are not only tolerable but necessary to the creative vibrancy of Jewish life. The specific training I received, the specific frame of reference, style, aesthetics or hashkafah of my denomination, is unique.
The denominations of tomorrow can provide diversity of Jewish thinking and approaches for a radically shifting Jewish people.
David Markus, Non-Denominational, Temple Beth El of City Island in New York City: Judaism always has flowed in streams that shift with the times. Culture, language, ethnicity, gender, sexual identity, climate, politics and technology shaped every Jewish vector of identity, belief and practice that Jews ever have known.
Amidst Jewish history’s millennia, denominationalism is a relatively new river – barely 200 years old. Since then, denominations developed, branched, merged and diverged as potent channels. Through them have come beliefs, liturgies, publications, shared frameworks of identity and experience, camps, leadership ladders and more – often for the good, sometimes maybe not.
But it’s the inherent nature of channels to shift with climate. So too with Judaism’s denominations. Governance systems, education standards, clergy roles, ethics constructs, the role and limits of expertise, how we see and are seen in a digital world – these and other channels are leaping out of old riverbanks.
The wise will focus more on the flow than the channels themselves. Denominations that adapt will thrive as blessings for an ever fertile Judaism for a future evolving now.
Joshua Davidson, Reform, Temple Emanu-El in New York City: At their best, denominations are not merely subdivisions of a wider faith community; they are social movements that bring their unique understanding of Jewish values to bear on the challenges of their particular adherents and the world we all share. There is no reason to believe that this pandemic will weaken our respective relationships to our ideals; on the contrary, it will strengthen them.
While many would seek to divide the Jewish community into the Orthodox and the non-Orthodox, the nature of Jewish life is infinitely more nuanced. The Orthodox community is far from monolithic, with many congregations and rabbis having introduced the beauty of traditional ritual to ideological liberals. And in the non-Orthodox world, the Reform movement plays a critical role in advancing all forms of inclusion in modern Jewish life and leadership, with other movements often following its lead.
As individuals, each of us seeks to feel a part of something greater than ourselves, to attach our efforts to a larger cause.
Synagogues do, too. We join a movement not only for what we get, but even more for what we give.
If Jewish movements did not exist, we would create them.
Jason Rubenstein, Non-denominational, Joseph Slifka Center for Jewish Life at Yale/Yale Hillel in New Haven, Conn. Sustaining an institution right now is a Herculean task: The cost-cutting, fundraising, and heartache are too much to bear. Add to that a group of commentators taking the opportunity to pounce and declare that you won’t - or, worse, shouldn’t - survive… This strikes me as a kind of ona’at devarim: speech that borders on malicious.
I’m on the side of anyone and everyone who is working to build Jewish life right now. Can we take this crisis as an opportunity to err on the side of too much solidarity and goodwill, not too little?
The question is, what should denominations be? One of the great lessons of the 20th century is that chaotic competition produces better outcomes than centrally planned administrations (and that the inequities created by competition need addressing, for sure). If the pandemic presents an opportunity, it is for the liberal denominations to reorganize as networks of loosely allied, small-scale institutions in shifting partnership and competition with wide swaths of the Jewish world.
Shmuly Yanklowitz, Open Orthodox, Valley Beit Midrash in Phoenix: A religious denomination provides people with a sense of shared values. It also helps people identify through expressing what they are not, and national and international denominational organizations help to build umbrella groups to support local infrastructure.
And yet, many Jews in the modern world do not find meaning in denominational labels, and it’s here that we find an opportunity to build new platforms, from a pluralistic center of folks who believe Torah learning can be transformative and that the Jews have a crucial role to play in repairing society. Here, we have the opportunity to allow the older denominational labels to enhance those who they enrich and be ignored by those who have no need for them, but never allow them to divide us unnecessarily.
We don’t need to critique denominational labels harshly in the name of “enlightened post-denominationalism” for those who really value their sense of security within denominational comfort and ideological alignment. Nor should we worship denominational labels and impose them on others who have no need for them, limiting the freedom of ideas or the maximal participation from diverse populations.
The pandemic is putting all that we know and cherish in the Jewish community and beyond at risk, and this is a time for us to not only defend what we cherish but what others whom we cherish, cherish as well.
Shlomo Zuckier, Orthodox, Yale University in New Haven, Conn.: Orthodoxy, and especially Haredi Orthodoxy, is fundamentally decentralized. Religious praxis largely emerges bottom-up instead of being imposed top-down by national or even local organizations.
Ironically, many Orthodox rabbis and organizations today are urging their congregants not to form minyanim, for the sake of public health. (They have been largely successful, and their many bold decisions affirming life have earned them added credibility and appreciation from their communities.) If you closed every Orthodox shul, school, camp, and organization, similar ones would quickly spring up. With or without Orthodoxy’s putatively central denominational institutions, it will remain largely unchanged.
Denominations are tools – community-organizing mechanisms, providing economy of scale and various services and guidance. If they serve to foster religious growth and communal strength, they can be crucially important. If they no longer serve those goals, their fossilized remains are no more than dead weight.
Josh Yuter, Modern Orthodox, Jerusalem: Unlike Orthodox Judaism, Reform and Conservative Judaism and other denominations have central organizations representing the interests and setting the ideological direction of their respective movements. This arrangement benefits the community by providing clear direction of the denomination’s principles, but can also create tensions when an individual member community decides its needs differ from the central authority.
Should the parent organization of the denomination fail, the effect on member congregations will vary in proportion to the extent they depend on the “home office.” Member communities who wish to share in the uniqueness of the denomination will have to find other ways of maintaining denominational cohesion.
It is possible that the financial challenges represent another data point supporting the narrative that Reform Judaism is dying. But it is equally possible that the very nature of denominations might be evolving to a truly “post-denominational” Judaism.
Stewart Vogel, Conservative, President, Rabbinical Assembly: Predictions of a post-denominational Jewish world were plentiful prior to the current pandemic. The pandemic has only accelerated the cracking of our denominational structure and its impact on our governing Jewish denominational bodies.
Jewish denominations were created and thrived as attempts to articulate a new vision about the role of mitzvah (legal obligation), ritual and Jewish life. In the Conservative movement, aside from vibrant and successful synagogues, it allowed for the creation of institutions and programs of excellence like Solomon Schechter schools, Camps Ramah, USY youth programs as well as our seminaries, to name a few.
The post-denominational world is reflective of a social trend where people feel less connected and committed to a community beyond themselves. While it may reflect the loss of relevance of Jewish movements within the lives of the new generation of congregants, without a vision beyond ourselves, we cannot fulfill the teaching of Hillel, “If I am only for myself what am I.”
The weakening of the Jewish movements will translate into a diminishing voice and influence in Jewish life and the world around us. It will mean that smaller communities that cannot make a go of it on their own will not receive the necessary support.
Unless new organizations are able to pick up the slack, it could be the end of important programs and services provided to the Jewish community.
Amichai Lau-Lavie, Non-denominational, Lab/Shul in New York City: “What will it take for all the liberal rabbinic seminaries to merge so that instead of 10+ institutions all over the US graduating 100+ new rabbis each year, there will only be one central address, serving all denominations, with more quality control, fewer and more qualified clergy, and significant savings for the American Jewish community?”
I asked that question several years ago at a panel with several of the heads of these institutions, held at the Jewish Emergent Network gathering. The only real answer was — maybe this will happen when there is no more money to run these seminaries separately. Only dire need will motivate this radical, yet quite organic and wise shift.
Are we there yet? No. I suspect denominational reality will persist in the near future as many people crave what they already know when there is so much unknown in our lives. But I hope that this crisis will also lead to creative, visionary and strategic partnerships across denominational divides that will offer future generations a robust and attractive framework remixing the best assets of all denominations with a stronger, cost-efficient, and forward-thinking stand.