As a part of our Rabbi Roundtable series, we brought together leading rabbis from all corners of the Jewish world to offer their thoughts on the big questions. This week, we asked our rabbis, “Where do you see the Jewish community in 50 years?” Here are their responses:
Adina Lewittes, Conservative, Sha’ar Communities: Jewish communities of all kinds will be blooming and booming with a broad resurgence of Jewish spiritual, ritual and cultural engagement. Israel will be at peace with her neighbors and a thriving democracy. Jewish literature and the arts will be flourishing. Jewish families will no longer be hungry or at risk. Jewish education will be accessible to all. Jews will live in respectful and collaborative partnerships with other faith and ethnic communities around the world. If I don’t believe that any of this is possible, how could I explain or justify my work, my dreams, my responsibilities, my purpose, my Judaism?
Denise Eger, Reform, Former President of the Central Conference of American Rabbis: I think, sadly, it will be an even smaller community than it is today. There are more Jews leaving the formal attachments to the Jewish community because the structures of the community are not in touch with where the Jewish people are really at. I see it still in the overwhelming patriarchal control of communal institutions. I see it in the way funders’ parochial demands are very often not in the interest of the many. I see it in in fighting among organizational turf. I, however, am ever the optimist and hope that there might be some leaders — professional and lay — willing to have a real discussion about these issues and more. Whose game? I am!
Shmuly Yanklowitz, Orthodox, Uri L’Tzedek: Orthodox Social Justice: Sadly, in fifty years time, I don’t think there will be a “Jewish community.” The schism between ultra-Orthodox and liberal Judaism continues to grow and is ever-widening. Even on the perpetual question of “Who is a Jew?” we will see irreparable divides. That said, I suspect there will be different Jewish communities that will be able to thrive in unique and innovative ways. Some of us in the middle will continue to work for a concept of one united “Jewish community” even if it is an elusive abstract concept that most likely will have been forgotten to a vague, earlier epoch.
Aaron Potek, Pluralist, Gather DC: I’m not a prophet. But like our prophets, I don’t see the future through rose-colored glasses. And like the prophets, I’d rather focus on what we might be able to change. In America, there will be a growing divide between the Jews for whom Judaism is their primary identity and the Jews for whom Judaism is a slice of their identity. Ideally, these two groups would help each other better balance an authentic connection to our tradition with engagement in the real world. In Israel, we can’t rule over millions of Palestinians for another 50 years – maybe practically, but not morally.
Yitzchok Adlerstein, Orthodox, Cross-Currents: I believe that the vast majority of those who still identify with Jews and Judaism will be living in Israel. Europe today is lost to Jews. In the US, the position and clout of Jews has begun to decline. This will continue, as other groups become far more important, while Jews become both less populous and less Jewish. It will gradually become less comfortable for remaining Jews to stay in America. Meanwhile, the traditional community – the only guarantor of a Jewish future – will not be able to resolve some of the challenges plaguing it from within, like the costs of tuition and other appurtenances of Jewish life. They will be marked as cultural outsiders, as the mood of the country grows ever-more opposed to strongly held religious beliefs. Increasingly, living in Israel will become more appealing.
Asher Lopatin, Orthodox, Yeshivat Chovevei Torah Rabbinical School: As our Messianic tradition asks, I remain an optimist. God willing, we will remain a strong, diverse community in North America and the Diaspora, and Israel will continue to thrive. But I believe that we will become a truly global people, having a base in the Holy Land and sojourning for various lengths of time in several countries. The Jewish people will continue to draw inspiration from our homes and lives in Israel, but we will play an increasingly significant role in making this a better world for all of mankind.
Rachel Timoner, Reform, Congregation Beth Elohim: Ever-flowering anew, embracing the old, embodying the contradictions.
Ari Sytner, Orthodox, Author of “The Kidney Donor’s Journey”: The Jewish people are here to stay. That much we have been assured, and against all odds, have demonstrated. However, as we are a nation of quality over quantity, there is no guarantee that our grandchildren will be a part of the next chapter of our story, simply because we were. Since living a Jewish life is a choice, it requires deliberate action and strong commitment to support Jewish survival. In 50 years from now, as the memories of our grandparents will have largely faded, it will be up to us to invest physically, emotionally, spiritually and financially to inspire the next generation, who will look to see our passion for Judaism. Simply put, the Jewish community of the future starts with how we live today.
Michael P. Sternfield, Reform, Temple Beth El: I cannot pretend to see that far into the future. What I do know is that changes that were slow to occur in the past in so many areas of our lives have accelerated at an incredible pace. Although religion tends to change at a slower pace than many other things, the Jewish community, particularly in the U.S., is rapidly changing. Obstacles to success and acculturation that were unfortunate facts of life less than two generations ago largely have disappeared. However, the unanticipated consequence is that we are rapidly diminishing. With the exception of the Orthodox, I fear that the end is in sight. It appears to me that in the foreseeable future, the Jews of America will be sociologically more and more like the Amish. However, the great news is that the Jewish people will be stronger and more vibrant than ever before. The State of Israel will continue to grow and flourish. One day, there will be an end to hostilities. We can almost see it on the horizon.
Shalom Lewis, Conservative, Congregation Etz Chaim: As the Bible cautions, I am not a prophet, nor am I the son of a prophet. Predicting the future is risky business. I remember giving a sermon on my favorite set of books, The Encyclopedia Britannica, that was published in 1932. I loved flipping through the innocent volumes. No entry on Hitler or Auschwitz. No mention of a Gestapo or cattlecars. Jews were thriving in Europe. Life was energetic and colorful from the urban centers of Berlin and Warsaw to the shtetls of Bialystok and Bratslav. Chassidisha dynasties flourished and Jews were movers and shakers across the continent. And then 1933 and in a few years, it was all gone. Who would have imagined or predicted the Holocaust? Someone once said, “Historians are pessimistic about Judaism, but history is not.” I can’t predict what will be in half a century, but I feel safe in saying that I will not be around, but the Jewish people will be.
Avram Mlotek, Orthodox, Co-Founder of Base Hillel: The Jewish community in 50 years is grappling more than ever before with the legacy of the Holocaust as the survivor’s voice will be a sound of the past. While museums and multimedia preservation will endure, Holocaust denial will also grow. Even now, in the decades plus since the liberation of Auschwitz, the sacred trope of “Never Again” has applied to Jews but not to genocides that have afflicted other nations of the world. In 50 years, Jews and non-Jews alike will struggle even more with what the historical lessons and morals are to be gleaned from this darkest period in our people’s history. In 50 years, extremes on both sides will be even more fanatic, and common ground will be harder to find despite sharing certain language and rituals. In 50 years, the Jewish community will grow and shrink, innovate, inspire and backtrack. In 50 years, we will have more Orthodox trained female rabbis leading. In 50 years, I pray the Jewish community will be reciting Hallel, psalms of praise, over a lasting peace accord with Israel’s Arab neighbors. And in 50 years, there will be Jewish communities debating whether or not to recite those psalms of praise with a blessing.
Rebecca W. Sirbu, Post-Denominational, Rabbis Without Borders: The Jewish community in 50 years will look very different than it does now. We are living in a time of flux and change. Many of the large institutions of the past 100 years are closing or changing and new ones are arising. As the Director of Rabbis Without Borders, I get to work with the more talented and creative rabbis in the US today. Many of them are at the forefront of creating new communities, modes of spiritual expression, and new ways of organizing the community. Seeds for our next stage are being planted and sewn across the country. I don’t know exactly what will grow, but I know it will be vibrant and rich.
Shmuly Boteach, Orthodox, Author of “Judaism For Everyone”: I see the Jewish community flourishing and becoming much more of a light unto the nations and assuming more universal responsibilities for promoting spirituality, moral direction and moral purpose to ourselves and to all humankind.
Rachel Barenblat, Renewal, Author of “The Velveteen Rabbi”: In 50 years, I think the denominations as we know them now will have dissolved, or at least receded mightily in importance. Most families will blend different denominational origins, including non-Jewish ones. We’ll still be reading Torah and studying our wealth of sacred texts. Some of what’s cutting-edge today, like chant, and alternative God-language, and spiritual direction, will be canonized and familiar — and in need of being paradigm-shifted into something new! Direct experience will be central, especially experience of Jewish time and experience of God. Halakhists will have tackled questions like how to shift the festival cycle for space travelers or in colonies on Mars. Judaism will be thriving — even if it takes forms that would startle us today.
Benjamin Sendrow, Conservative, Congregation Shaarey Tefilla: I am optimistic. I can offer no rational explanation for the survival of the tiny Jewish people despite the endless attempts to exterminate us. There is a religious explanation, however. The Jewish people have a God-given mission to make the world better, and it is clear that the world needs us to keeping working at it. As for the Conservative Movement specifically, we will come to grips with the reality that what made our grandparents join Conservative synagogues will not be the reason our grandchildren will join. We will show young Jews that traditional Judaism has answers for their questions, not just their great-grandparents’ questions. The Jewish world will still need a halakhic option for non-Orthodox Jews.
Mitchell Wohlberg, Orthodox, Beth Tfiloh Congregation: Most experts agree that in a few decades, more than half of the Jewish people will be living in the state of Israel, while the rest who live in the Diaspora will drift further and further away from their Jewish moorings. Statistics clearly show that here in America, due to intermarriage, low birth rate, assimilation and outright ignorance, a growing number of Jews will turn their backs on their Jewish identity. 32% of Jewish millennials say they have no religion. All that is what the statistics say. But the Jewish people have always defied the statistics regarding their demise. Who could have predicted that 100 years after the Balfour Declaration, Israel would be the most powerful country in the Middle East? Who would have thought the Zionist revolution would outlast the Russian revolution? Who could have predicted 500 years after Martin Luther declared Jews to be “scum” and “their synagogues to be destroyed” that Jews would hold such prominent positions in the arts, sciences and world of technology? The future of the Jewish people? It’s up to us.
Gil Student, Orthodox, Editor of TorahMusings.com: If current trends continue… Every forecast seems to make that assumption, yet current trends never continue. Life is unexpected. Unknowns abound. In 50 years, at least some of my (hopefully many) great-grandchildren will be studying in yeshiva. One thing of which I am confident is that the Torah will remain unchanged. While new books will be published over the next half-century, perhaps in new formats and technologies, my great-grandchildren will study the same Talmud, responsa and commentaries, the same Rashi and Rambam, that my grandfather studied. Times change. Technology changes. Torah is eternal.
Nina H. Mandel, Reconstructionist, Congregation Beth El-Sunbury, PA: We need to recognize that the Jewish community is not a monolithic unit, nor can it be defined by congregational or institutional membership. My hope is that in 50 years, the global Jewish communities will be embracing the diversity of practice, region, ethnicity and peoplehood. We will have an environment where Jewish people can connect to and support one another in any of the multiple ways that our tradition fosters. I see a boom in things like tzedakah clubs and mitzvah societies, and other cohorts that allow people to be supported in their Jewish identity.
Uri Pilichowski, Orthodox, Yeshivat Migdal Hatorah: I hope in Israel, united in one cause and bringing offerings in the Temple on Mount Moriyah.
Joe Kolakowski, Orthodox, Koblentz-Richmonder Rov: I can hope the Messiah is here by then. 50 years ago, people tried to predict what the Jewish world would look like today, and they were wrong on most accounts, so it would be extreme hubris to try to do the same today for the next 50 years.