Jul 11, 2010

how the recession is affecting the Jewish religion

An article in Newsweek about how the recession is affecting the Jewish religion attributes the "wild success" of Chabad to their emulating the Christian model to bring unaffiliated Jews in.

Funny how that can easily be understood as they believe a dead man is the Messiah and missionize unrelentingly. Yet it means, in the context of the article, that they stand out there and try to bring people in and don't ask for money in advance.

I would argue otherwise. In 2008, 2.7 million Americans called themselves religiously Jewish, down from 3.1 million in 1990. Wouldn’t the central challenge of American Jewry be to encourage the broadest range of people (including the intermarried, like me) to identify as Jewish and to raise Jewish kids? Costly barriers to entry need to be taken away, or, at least, reimagined. “We have this very bizarre pay-to-play philosophy,” says Jay Sanderson, president of the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles. Christian churches, Sanderson points out, begin with an invitation to prayer; they ask for money later. “The Jewish community’s first instinct is ‘give us money,’ instead of ‘come in.’ ” Sanderson points to the wild success of the Chabad movement, the black-clad proselytizers who stand on street corners worldwide, extending invitations to Jewish passersby. Come pray with us, they say; come eat with us. “Chabad,” says Sanderson, “is working on the Christian model.”

It would be a mistake to assume that Jewish success depends on emulating Christians. Throughout the 20th century, as Jews became prosperous, they built massive synagogues and community centers. Many looked like churches, with stained-glass windows and organ pipes; their pews were full of Jews who had, in a very real sense, nowhere else to go. The country clubs wouldn’t have them; their community, religious, and social life revolved around the temple. Today, American Jews have all kinds of choices about where to spend time and money—Jews no longer need a Jewish pool to swim in—and the buildings have become a burden. “The bills are very high,” says Arnold Eisen, chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, who paid $4,000 this year in temple dues. “People need sacred spaces, but when you’re looking at budgets, you’re looking at heat and air conditioning.”

Eisen believes that money questions will force a painful transition in American Judaism. He agrees that the “middle group is in play” and so is seeking to reduce costs to families through something like corporate downsizing: making alliances across denominations, sharing spaces, rabbis, and staff. “Jews have been around for a long time,” says Eisen. “We’ll adjust.”

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