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Does Israel funding Conservative, Reform Jews threaten Jewish identity? - opinion

Israel’s Diaspora Affairs minister today celebrates the funding of progressive groups and causes whose same antipathy for religion and tradition have decimated mainstream Judaism in America.


Israel’s Diaspora Affairs minister recently announced that his government’s new budget will include 40 million shekels ($12.3 million) to fund progressive groups and causes in the Jewish state. This should send a tremor straight through anyone concerned with preserving the Jewish identity of Israel.

Far from being “progressive,” these groups and causes are “regressive,” proactively set on undermining the religious and cultural integrity of the Jewish people. To know what’s going to happen in Israel, you only need to look at the left-leaning Reform and Conservative Jewish denominations in America, which have precipitated the most dramatic decline in Jewish identity in modern history.

Consider what someone at the top of the Conservative pyramid – a key eyewitness, in other words – had to say about the unfolding disaster. In his farewell speech to the 2006 graduating class of the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, the Conservative denomination’s flagship institution for training clergy, Chancellor Ismar Schorsch excoriated the Conservative denomination as “impoverished,” lacking direction and passion for Judaism. He criticized its translation of the Torah, Etz Hayim (“Tree of Life”), as devoid of spirituality. The Conservative denomination’s guiding principles, he added, were “inane.” As for the rabbinical students, Schorsch blasted them for craving “instant gratification.”

Alas, in the 15 years since Schorsch’s retirement, the Conservative denomination has only accelerated its own decline – and dragged mainstream Judaism down with it. With almost prophetic foresight, many of the developments that Schorsch foresaw, such as the casting aside of Torah ethics and morals in favor of “woke” interpretations of Jewish values, have come to pass.

In truth, it does not require an individual in Schorsch’s position to predict the Conservative denomination’s ultimate demise. From its very inception, the denomination defined itself as nothing more than a collective product of its membership. When articulating its founding theology, one of its early icons, Rabbi Louis Ginzberg, said, “The sanctity of the Jewish Sabbath reposes not upon the fact that it was proclaimed at Sinai, but on the fact that it found for thousands of years its expression in Jewish souls.” In other words, who cares about God, let alone his commandments? What matters now is only what Jews consider to be important. Unfortunately, in today’s society, very little of what is truly valuable is considered worthy of admiration, not to mention saving.

With the zeitgeist doing away with Jewish tradition, it’s hardly any wonder that a 2020 Pew Research study found that no more than 8% of Jewish Americans 18-29 identify as “Conservative.” I can’t necessarily blame them. Why bother being a Jew, which involves concrete duties and obligations, when you can simply be a social-justice warrior?

Reform Judaism is in even worse shape. Temples throughout the country are staving off the threat of closure caused by decreasing membership and lack of interest by renting their space to kindergartens and charter schools (as is the case in my own neighborhood of Hollywood, Florida) – as well as to rapidly growing Orthodox congregations.

In 1983, the Reform denomination, led by Rabbi Alexander Schindler, alarmed by the decrease in membership, changed millennia of Jewish practice by adopting patrilineal lineage as a valid criterion for Jewish identity alongside matrilineal lineage, which had been the sole determinant of a person’s Jewishness. This artificially bolstered the ranks and put the Reform denomination numerically at the top of the list. Consequently, that afforded it outsized influence in communicating Judaism to the unaffiliated and the non-Jewish public.

However, the false swelling of its ranks had unintended consequences. In a 2013 study for the Jerusalem-based Jewish People Policy Institute, sociologist Sylvia Barack Fishman documented the subsequent decrease of mothers in Jewish families who identify as Jewish, and, further, the loosening of ties to Judaism that accompanied this decision. A Reform rabbi friend of mine in Georgia shared that not a single member of his temple’s entire board is Jewish. He then joked (sort of) that if he hadn’t had an employment contract, he likely would have been fired and replaced long ago! How many other Reform rabbis face the same dilemma? It’s a valid question.

A seminal study by Dr. Edieal Pinker, Yale University’s deputy dean of operations research, predicted that by 2063, the percentage of Jews identifying as Reform and Conservative combined will be no more than 39%. Of that 39%, we can only wonder how many will be Jewish in at least some substantive way, and how many will be creations of Alexander Schindler. According to the previously quoted Pew Research study, in that same 18-29 age cohort, already far more Jews consider themselves just “culturally Jewish” than those who affiliate with Reform and Conservative denominations, combined.

And it’s getting worse. According to Pinker, only Orthodox Judaism will experience growth in this century. The Reform and Conservative denominations will “woke” themselves into a permanent slumber. There’s an old line by Rodney Dangerfield: he went to his local Reform temple for Rosh Hashanah, and the sign on the door read, “Closed for the holidays.” That might have been a tummy tickler in the 1970s. Today it should be a gut punch to Reform and Conservative Jews.

Lo and behold, Israel’s Diaspora Affairs minister today celebrates the funding of progressive groups and causes whose same antipathy for religion and tradition have decimated mainstream Judaism in America. Does he, for example, really want the money distributed to the new generation of Reform and Conservative clergy, like the more than 100 “rabbis” who denounced Israel for defending itself against terrorists?

A wise person once said, “Learning through your own mistakes is a costly way of gaining experience. It’s far better to learn from the mistakes of others.” The not-inconsiderable amount of money would be better invested in supporting well-established Jewish educational and experience programs, in Israel and abroad, administered by educators who have proven track records of building Israeli society through timeless Jewish ideals, instead of those who strive to “woke” Judaism out of existence.

The writer is dean of the Hollywood Community Kollel in Hollywood, Florida, and delegate of the Eretz Hakodesh Party, WZO Congress.


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