There's been a lot of Facebook/twitter/etc traffic among rabbis regarding the just-released survey of American Judaism, conducted by the Pew Research organization. There's lots of data which can cause stress to anyone involved in the Jewish world. It's always possible to tell lots of different, even contradictory stories from any large data set, but it seems pretty clear that these numbers aren't great news for the Jewish world. Affiliation is down. Identification is down. Commitment to practice is down. The overall numbers for Reform Judaism are up, but that's probably deceptive; one observer commented that "Reform" is often the default answer when you ask a nonobservant, uninvolved Jew about their affiliation. Assuming that's true (and I suspect it is, at least largely) then it falsely inflates our numbers, as well as offering a pretty damning critique about how Reform Judaism is viewed in the wider world. We've always fought against the perception that we are, fundamentally, minimalist Judaism. It seems that to many, that's exactly what we are.
And so there's already been a bit of handwringing about what were going to do — how we can adjust to this new reality, what we have to change, and on what we have to focus. But, you can count me as one of those who hasn't been too worried about what I've seen.
First of all, this isn't news. The numbers might be a bit worse than some of us suspected, but the general trend has been obvious and known for many, many years. Organized Religion, and especially Religious Institutions, are in trouble. There are many reasons for this, of course; one of the biggest is a larger societal trend (and those are always difficult, if not impossible, to oppose) — the tendency of "Millennial's" to not join or identify with groups or organizations. This current crop of 20 and 30 somethings are much more willing to go to a good event or program which interest them than they are to pay dues to organization in order to become an ongoing member. But, whatever the reason, everybody I know in the Jewish world has been talking about this decline for years; I'll admit to being a bit perplexed as to why some people are reacting with near panic to this latest round of confirmation.
But, there's another reason that I'm not taking this research too seriously. Basically, whether we are gaining members or losing, or holding steady, our mission, as a Religious Institution, remains the same: to create a vibrant, engaging, relevant Judaism that will capture people's imaginations, and inspire them to lead holy lives.
Of course we have to think about which formats and strategies are most effective in this day and age. Of course we have to adjust our institutional expectations (and budgets!) as demographics and participation trends change. But, we've made the mistake before of defining our success by numbers — post-Holocaust, a lot of the Jewish world was focused primarily on "Jewish Continuity," which meant that we had to ensure that Jews stayed Jews. But, we get so focused on keeping Jews "in the fold," that we forgot to make sure there was something worth staying for. When all of your programming is focused on "you have to stay Jewish," then you've created a Judaism which has nothing to offer outside of a name tag. Why be part of the club whose only goal is to ensure the continuity of the club?
I believe in a Judaism which is based on a transcendently powerful, rational theology. I believe in a Judaism which finds expression in spiritual pursuits, and in working tirelessly to right the injustices of our world (which is, in its own way, a spiritual pursuit, of course). I know that I am a distinctly imperfect example and leader of this Judaism--I'm not claiming that I don't have work to do or anything to learn about how to go about it. But, ultimately, my Jewish life, and my professional Jewish life will be driven by this vision, not by numbers.
I believe that, if properly presented, this vision will draw people in. People will want to know how to believe in a God with knee-rattling awe while not surrendering one iota of their rationality. People will be inspired to learn how this theology calls them to help others, and to speak out for those who are in desperate need. People will be moved, and challenged, and threatened, and uplifted by practices which draw our attention to this One before Whom we stand. And, if they don't, then I'm just going to keep doing what I do, because I believe in it.
There's a Midrash (Rabbinic story) about Abraham, on his way to sacrifice his son Isaac, at God's behest. Satan shows up and tries to talk Abe out of it. "Don't you realize that Isaac is the only Jew left in the world? You're too old to have any more kids, and so if you kill Isaac, then Judaism ends right here, right now. Don't do it!" Abe's response? "I don't care. It's not up to me to ensure the future of Judaism. My job is to do what God commands me."
Our job is to search. To search for God. To search for meaning. To search for the way--the way that we must act in response to that God that we find. I think that, if we do that honestly, people will want to be a part of it. And, if not, then at least I know that I'm doing my best to do what God wants me to do. I'm doing my best to make our world a holier place.