In the final installment of famed Yiddish fiction author Sholem Aleichem’s short stories about his most beloved character, Tevye the Dairyman (of Fiddler on the Roof fame) Aleichem makes the seemingly odd choice to end the Tevye saga in a rather peculiar way- he doesn’t give Tevye a happy ending or even a true conclusion, rather Tevye is placed on a train to nowhere, with no final destination in sight.
Looking at the reality of Jewish life in the early 20th century, when the final Teyve stories were written, Aleichem’s choice actually makes quite perfect sense. At the end of the 19th century and beginning of the 20th century, Jewish life was in a state of rapid flux and change. Emancipation across Europe took Jews out of the shtetl (villages) and into the cities, almost 3 million Eastern European Jews were getting on boats headed for the United States, while at the same time others were headed to Palestine with Zionist dreams of building a Jewish nation-state and yet others were focusing on reforming Russia into a society of socialism and communism. Who knew what the future of Judaism held- and who even knew if there would be a future at all?
The year is now 2015, and Judaism is in another state of transition and flux. Everyone seems to agree that things are changing; just look at the results of the recent Pew study or daily articles in Jewish newspapers such as The Forward that proclaim the end of modern Judaism as we know it. Traditional denominations are declining daily, with the strongest example being the rapidly declining Conservative movement, once the largest Jewish movement in the United States, now down to only 600 member synagogues. According to the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, in 2013 there were 630 synagogues affiliated Conservative synagogues and just 6 years ago in 2009 there were 675. For comparison’s sake, in 1985, the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism had at least 850 affiliated synagogues. To quote ALEPH ordained rabbi, Rabbi David Evan Markus, “We are witnessing the retrenchment of denominationalism in U.S. Jewish life. The question isn’t whether it is so, but what we make of it.”
So, what will we make of it? Amidst these “denominational fault lines”, As Rabbi Markus mentions, it’s easy to forget that Jewish denominationalism is merely a modern “blip” in the long span of 3000 years of Jewish history, truly -barely two centuries over a span of millennia. And now, the denominational tide is going out. Trans-denominational seminaries, such as ALEPH: Alliance for Jewish Renewal, the Academy for Jewish Religion-New York, the Academy for Jewish Religion-California, and Hebrew College have arisen to ordain rabbis outside denominationalism, preparing clergy to serve increasingly fluid, porous and diverse Jewish communities. The Internet is democratizing access to Jewish learning and resources, fueling continued rise of independent synagogues and chavurot. Connecting with Judaism is becoming easier, and Judaism writ large is becoming much more flexible, accessible and “open-tent.”
This trend is certainly obvious in the increasing popularity of non-denominational ordination/rabbinical program. While an article published in The Forward this past week (“Where are All the Non-Orthodox Rabbis?”) lamented the shrinking numbers in the “standard” non-Orthodox ordination programs, ALEPH: Alliance for Jewish Renewal’s ordination program is growing by leaps and bounds, without any marketing or advertising efforts. ALEPH recently ordained a class of twelve new Jewish clergy this past January and currently has over 80 students in the ALEPH Ordination Program, including international students from South America, and Europe. The incoming ordination class has 12 students.
Additionally, ALEPH and Jewish Renewal rabbis are making a huge impact on the American Jewish community, serving in many diverse positions, ranging from denominationally affiliated congregations to independent congregations, hospitals, hospices, as well as the modern “congregation without walls” of the internet. They are very active in CLAL’s Rabbis Without Borders Fellowship Program, and of course we cannot forget the huge impact that Renewal rabbi, Rabbi David Ingber is making with his highly successful Romemu community in New York City, whose live streamed Friday night Shabbat services are a sensation around the country. The transdenominational association of rabbis for Jewish Renewal, OHALAH, includes more than 200 rabbis, not only rabbis who have received ordination from ALEPH but also Reform, Reconstructionist, Conservative, transdenominational AJR & Hebrew College ordinees, and (a few) Orthodox rabbis who all work and learn from and with each other. ALEPH musmachim (ordinees) who are members of OHALAH are also members of their local Boards of Rabbis all around the country.
Yes, the American Jewish community is moving out of the traditional “denominational” system into a period of “trans” or “post” denominationalism. However, organizations like ALEPH are helping reveal, restore and renew Jewish life, helping answer the call of so many who yearn for more or who have felt spiritually empty – especially the ‘next generation’ already finding its own way beyond the usual synagogues, community centers, Federations and other traditional Jewish institutions.
ALEPH: Alliance for Jewish Renewal envisions a contemporary Judaism that is joyous, creative, spiritually rich, socially progressive, and earth-aware. This vision arises out of a search for a renewed personal connection to the God of our ancestors and the legacy of our tradition, in service of our higher dreams for the future of our world.
Yes, Judaism and especially American Judaism is indeed in a period of flux, transformation, and change- but that doesn’t need to be a bad thing. As Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi z”l, the founder of Jewish Renewal often taught “Don’t drive looking through the rear view mirror. We have small rear view mirrors and very large front windshields because what happens in the past is not nearly as important as what happens in the future: where we are going is more significant than where we have been.”
 Rabbi David Markus on Denominational Ins and Outs: the New Mishkan, http://www.myjewishlearning.com/blog/rabbis-without-borders/2015/02/19/denominational-ins-and-outs-the-new-mishkan/
Josh Nathan-Kazis http://forward.com/articles/214663/where-are-all-the-non-orthodox-rabbis/