The Changing Face of Judaism

The month of June brought good news and bad news to the Jewish community worldwide – it just depends on what kind of a Jew you are. If you’re orthodox you got great news packaged in the form of a study commissioned by the UJA-Federation of New York. In reality, while it is a study of New York Jews it really is a template for orthodox Judaism in New Jersey, Chicago or Jerusalem. They are growing by leaps and bounds, and although are educationally and financially disadvantaged are thoroughly committed Jews eschewing liberal causes and vote conservative. The other news, the bad news is reserved for the reform movement, the preponderant movement in America and less than a dollop in Israel. As the orthodox might say, they are “batel beshishim”, loosely understood to mean, insignificant, having no impact.

The reform movement is experiencing the reverse trend as the orthodox. Their numbers are shrinking as well as their membership dues, impacting negatively on their budgets. So while the orthodox are in ascendance, the reform movement’s star is descending, fading somewhat. Rabbi Rick Jacobs recently installed as the president of the Union for Reform Judaism personally designed his installation ceremony. Ironically his imprimatur on the ceremony is the key to understanding their hemorrhaging numbers. As part of the ceremony there was a service accompanied by the music of Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, and Debbie Friedman. In addition there was a 100-member gospel choir from the A.M.E. Zion Church having an effect on the participants described as “getting people on their feet and swaying”. It’s a sad day when a church choir has to be imported to get Jews to feel their prayers. Rabbi Jacob’s tallit was was reported with pride to be made from cloth he had purchased in Chad when he had visited Darfur refugees.

If the service was to send a message that this is the face of the new reform movement under the leadership of rabbi Jacobs it is eminently clear why their numbers are swiftly fading and explains the emergence of orthodox Judaism as a political force in America and in Israel. The ceremony struck me as a portal into the soul of the reform movement, which exhibited a need for embracing universalism rather than the unique and particular message of Judaism. Why wouldn’t the good rabbi don a tallit woven in Israel, a tallit bordered with our traditional black stripes evoking the memory of the temple? Why would they reach out to a choir group whose music is Christian spiritual, foreign to the very core concept of what tefillah is? If they were so intent on getting people on their feet and swaying why didn’t they use a Hassidic choir, authentic Jewish music, that would prompt a Jew to sway as he has done for centuries.

The reform may be reluctant to open their eyes and see that what Jews want and need is not universalism but the unvarnished particularism of our culture and history. It is the reason for the startling success of the orthodox that with little effort attract people seeking an authentic Jewish lifestyle.

I’m not enthralled with the political clout the orthodox are gaining as a result of their exploding numbers in America and Israel. But it’s better news than the alternative: extinction: unbridled assimilation resulting in part from the universalism espoused by reform Judaism. It might be a trade off in the years to come: The reform will assimilate out to the point of crossing the rubicon while the orthodox will replace them in a new twist on Replacement Theology.

About the Author
Shael was educated in the United States and Israel, served in the IDF and is an observer and commentator on the Jewish ethical, social and religious landscape in the United States and Israel. The posting of essays, musings and short stories are some of the ways he has chosen to articulate his search for Jewish values. You can visit his website at or his Facebook page Tishma.