From left, Cantor Matthew Axelord of Congregation Beth Israel, Rabbi Doug Sagal of Temple Emanu-El, and Rabbi Aryeh Stechler of Congregation Anshe Chesed discussed the challenges facing their various congregations at a community forum at Temple Emanu-El. Photos by Steve Chernela
April 24, 2008
The goal is not just “to get more Jews in the pews,” according to the panelists at a forum on the future of the Jewish community.
With careful cordiality but often conflicting views, clergy representing the three largest denominations outlined their views on how to keep existing members while also reaching out to new ones.
“Jews in America have become spiritual shoppers,” said Rabbi Doug Sagal of Temple Emanu-El, the Reform synagogue in Westfield which hosted the event. “Thirty or 40 years ago, people joined a synagogue out of loyalty to the denomination they were raised in, because it was the right thing to do. That’s not true anymore; now they are searching for what their religious affiliation can do for them.”
Such “spiritual shopping,” said Sagal, is “not necessarily a bad thing.”
With him on the panel were Orthodox Rabbi Aryeh Stechler of Congregation Anshe Chesed in Linden and Conservative Cantor Matthew Axelrod of Congregation Beth Israel in Scotch Plains. The moderator was Andrew Silow-Carroll, editor-in-chief of the New Jersey Jewish News.
The event was cohosted by the American Jewish Committee, which held a similar forum last year at Congregation Beth El in South Orange.
Sagal drew a gasp from the audience of about 200 people when he predicted a decline in the size of the Jewish community.
But, he hastened to add, the involvement of a smaller community with Judaism could prove to be one that is stronger and more substantial. “Those who self-identify themselves as Jews will be more serious and more knowledgeable — about Hebrew, and text, and prayer,” he said.
Stechler didn’t argue the point about numbers, but took a very different tack on the question of denominational identity — and whether denominational labels matter to young seekers.
“Labels do serve a purpose to identify what people feel passionate about — especially in adolescence,” said the Orthodox rabbi. “There is no harm as long as those labels don’t cause us to disassociate from people with other labels.”
He called for more unity within Orthodox ranks, and stronger leadership to smooth disputes and rivalries within Orthodoxy. There is so much dissention among the different groups falling under the Orthodox umbrella, he said, that it is sometimes easier to communicate with those in other Jewish movements than with other Orthodox Jews. “Just as it’s sometimes easier to communicate with those in your extended family than in your immediate family,” he added.
Axelrod agreed with Sagal on the blurring of denominational lines, and the need to offer many high-quality options in programming. On a typical Saturday morning, suburban Jewish families can be found taking part in all that the general community has to offer, from sports to music to SAT preparation classes, and “guilt doesn’t work” to get them to services.
The solution, he said, is to find different ways to attract them. “We are making a lot of changes to make services more user-friendly. We’re moving away from the model of the distant clergy.”
What concerns him, he said, is “the 8,000-pound elephant in the room, the subject that no one wants to discuss” — the treatment of intermarried couples. He said the Conservative movement had been missing the boat by not extending outreach to such families, and praised the Reform movement’s more accommodating approach.
“It can only strengthen the congregation” to welcome intermarried couples and their children, he said. “There are plenty of families out there, and if we are more welcoming, it would give them more incentive to raise their children as Jews.” He also noted that the non-Jewish spouses might be more inclined to convert.
Again, Stechler provided the counterpoint. While outreach is a great challenge for the Orthodox movement, he said, he supported efforts to maintain traditional standards when it comes to withholding synagogue and communal privileges to Jews and their non-Jewish spouses. “But,” he continued, “we should welcome the intermarried in our personal hearts, and welcome them to services and to Shabbat meals, even if we do not publicly recognize them.”
The role of women
Silow-Carroll’s questions ranged from the challenges perceived by each participant’s congregation, to the shifting prominence of women and possibly declining participation of men in synagogue activities, to the barriers posed by the rising cost of Jewish affiliation. He also read questions submitted by students in Temple Emanu-El’s high school program, who attended the forum along with their elders.
The panelists agreed that women’s emancipation in society has been reflected in their growing status within Judaism. Sagal said the Reform treatment of women and of gays and lesbians was a source of pride, but — to laughter from the audience — added that there was a “whispered” acknowledgement that there is a difference between men and women. Sometimes, he said, both sexes prefer to do things separately, and offered the recently created prayer retreats for men as an example.
About 200 people gathered at Temple Emanu-El for the multi-demoninational discussion about the future of the Jewish community.
The panelists agreed that the high cost of Jewish living comes with high quality. What was needed, they said, was financial help for those who cannot afford the full price of those programs — including, said Sagal, less duplication among the Jewish institutions that support Jewish communal life.
Responding to an audience member’s question about the impact of the Chabad-Lubavitch movement, all three agreed that Chabad sets an impressive example for outreach to the unaffiliated.
Stechler acknowledged that there are disagreements within Orthodoxy over some of Chabad’s teachings, but credited the hasidic movement with bringing more Jews into the fold. “I don’t see the negative in it,” he said. Axelrod said he never worries about competition, saying that “Chabad fills a niche. The fact that there are more options for Jews is a good thing.” For his part, Sagal noted a disconnect between the lifestyle represented by the suburban Chabad houses and that seen in Chabad enclaves in Brooklyn.
Perhaps the most intense concern of the evening emerged in response to a question about Judaism in Israel, and the gap between secular and Orthodox Jews there. Sagal and Axelrod said their movements were making inroads in Israel, and Stechler lamented that Orthodox Jews in Israel were not doing enough to raise the image of observant Judaism among Israel’s secular majority.
Sagal warned about rabbis who called on their followers to defy military orders.
“The day could come when Orthodox soldiers are told not to obey the secular government, although that government has the responsibility for the maintaining the safety of the Jewish people,” he said.
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