The Center is not Holding- Part Two
June 29, 2012
This is the second in a two part sermon I began last week called “The Center is not Holding.” Last week I compared the recent New York and Jewish population studies and found some disturbing trends. The first is that, in contrast to ten years ago, there is a diminution in the numbers of Reform and Conservative Jews in both communities. The Orthodox population has risen to one-third of the total Jewish population, from about 20% just ten years ago in New York and Baltimore. This reflects the lower affiliation numbers of Liberal Jews and the growing numbers of Orthodox Jews and their high level of affiliation. Orthodox Jews are marrying much earlier and having many more children than non-Orthodox Jews. Liberal Jews report that the high cost of synagogue membership has prevented many from affiliating with a congregation.
I would briefly like to reflect on the implications of these trends for us, Reform Jews of the Baltimore Jewish community and members of a venerable, dynamic, and growing Reform congregation. So what do these numbers tell us? First, many Orthodox Jews have moved to Baltimore from elsewhere on the East Coast because of the lower cost of living and the vibrancy of the Orthodox community. Second, Orthodoxy is an attractive alternative to Liberal Judaism. Many young Jews are searching for structure, direction, and community. While Liberal Judaism offers all of the above, we certainly do not mandate the segregated and autonomous life style of Orthodoxy. We encourage involvement and immersion in our society while remaining true to our Jewish base. We do not self-segregate but combine the best of Jewish life with the best of secular ideas and culture. We advocate and work towards the improvement of our world while remaining true to Torah. Clearly, this is a difficult balancing act for many. Many Jews become completely secularized, throwing in their lot with non-religious American society. Other Jews find comfort in the other extreme, living a life in which every action is directed by Halachah, Jewish law. We see this phenomenon in the larger American society, as the split between the right wing religions and the secularized left grows ever wider. We offer a religious alternative to secularism on the left and Orthodoxy on the right. We believe that our role is to make holy the mundane, to bring order to the universe, and to realize God’s teachings in our greater society. It is hard to be in the center and that is why it is not holding.
The Reform and Conservative Jewish community in Baltimore is shrinking. Our Reform movement has four synagogue buildings and four infrastructures that are costly and difficult to maintain. Adat Chaim, a small Conservative synagogue in Reisterstown, was recently forced out of their building because they were not able to pay the mortgage. Our congregations are competing for the same members. While it would make sense for one or more of our Reform synagogues to merge, each of our congregations has a different personality and a different culture. The loyal members of each synagogue want to preserve what they have. The challenge before us, and every synagogue, is how to survive in this more difficult environment.
Clearly, we need to do better in reaching out to the unaffiliated as well as making congregational membership affordable for everyone. Perhaps even more important, we need to better state the argument for synagogue membership. We need to underscore the point that if one values Jewish life, one needs synagogues, for without synagogues there are no Jews. We make Jews. We need to better explain that we offer sacred community, a warm and welcoming environment where Torah is taught and God is sought. We help our members deal with some of the most trying moments in life, which can be both happy and sad occasions. We offer support to those in need and enable all who join us to worship, study, and celebrate in a joyful and participatory manner. We do not demand, we do not compel, we do not order. We foster a Jewish life of voluntary engagement. We work and pray that this life is compelling for others as well.
Ultimately, I would like to see a Baltimore Passport to Jewish Life, where one affiliates with the Jewish community, where one contribution enables us to belong to the JCC and a synagogue as well as making a donation to the Associated. That is something we were exploring prior to the Great Recession. It will is still an idea worth exploring so that all can be part of the Baltimore Jewish community, the finest Jewish place to live in all of North America.
Amen and Shabbat Shalom