Jewish guests dance in celebration after the opening ceremony of Ohel Rachel Synagogue on Friday May
Jewish guests dance in celebration after the opening ceremony of Ohel Rachel Synagogue on Friday May 7, 2010. Photo by AP
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Membership of the liberal streams of Judaism in the United States, Reform, Conservative and Reconstructionist, are in free fall, or so the Jewish American media tells us. Their increasingly embattled leaderships are in disarray, finding it harder to keep their rabbis and lay leaders in line, let alone tend to their dwindling flocks.

The reasons for this are myriad, a combination of demographic trends, theological uncertainty, exorbitant membership fees in a time of financial hardship and the ravages of new-ageist and kabbalist sects on the one hand, and Orthodox streams such as Lubavitch on the other.

But upon reading the reports of the liberal troubles across the Atlantic, I couldn’t help but think, not for the first time, that once again, Israel is in front of the curve. We have been told for so long that the Reform and Conservative movements are the largest Jewish streams in the world, and that it was just a matter of time before the secular majority in Israel also realizes that there is a much more user-friendly brand of Judaism. But it simply failed to materialize.

No fault of the local leadership − they did everything possible. They built fancy temples and centers, offering far more community services and cultural events than any Israeli Orthodox synagogue could ever imagine. When they were accused of being “Anglo-Saxon” movements, out of touch with the local scene, they recruited young, bright Israeli-born rabbis. They fought in the Knesset and the Supreme Court on behalf of disenfranchised immigrants from the former Soviet Union, not recognized as Jews by the Orthodox rabbinate and forbidden from marrying in Israel.

Nothing worked − non-Orthodox communities remained small and isolated as the Orthodox and Haredi streams grew, and secular Israelis continued to prefer the Orthodox version for their rare synagogue visits.

Does the generation-long failure of progressive Judaism to establish itself as a force to be reckoned with in Israel have any lessons for the decline of the parent movements in the United States?

An Orthodox columnist would find it very easy answering that question − yes, he would say ‏(well it wouldn’t be a she‏), both Israelis and Americans have seen through the artificial facade of these new-fangled German-American neo-Christian heresies masquerading as Jewishness, and now they are either coming back to the fold of true yiddishkeit or have been lost forever in the sea of assimilation.

As unpalatable as this answer may be to those who do not share the Orthodox persuasion, it is hard to argue with success. But it is an inaccurate argument. Almost all the increase in Orthodox ranks is due to internal demography, and while there are those who have crossed the lines, there is no proof that their number is larger than those who have made the journey in the opposite direction.

The liberal movements are losing, not to their Orthodox competitors, as they rarely are competing for the same Jews. A Reform temple member who allows his or her family’s membership to lapse, stops participating in communal activities and loses contact, doesn’t start attending the neighborhood shul instead. The real enemy confronting the Reform and Conservative movements, both in Israel and America and other countries around the world, is apathy.

Or course, the Orthodox have an inbuilt advantage, a religious obligation to pray in a minyan three times a day, and even the most lax frummer will make the effort to do so at least twice on the holy day of rest. Orthodox synagogues don’t need to offer much more than a room to pray in, a couple of Torah scrolls and some prayer books. But that is not their only advantage. Orthodox communities have no need for an umbrella organization to set up or fund their synagogues, tend to be much more locally based and spring up almost automatically wherever a dozen families settle within walking distance. Not all the members will necessarily be fully observant − some are certainly closet heretics − but the familiar surroundings that even a makeshift minyan provides will serve as a powerful attraction. A successful minyan is also a social club, the first port of call for new families in the neighborhood and often also becomes an important center of community work. And many of these local synagogues are totally independent and do very well without a rabbi.

Do the Reform and Conservatives have any chance of imitating the Orthodox take on localism? Certainly it will be an uphill struggle, as the basic instinct is lacking there, but the local and national organizations have to find a way of encouraging and supplying the tools, while refraining from the urge to direct from above. It may be their only chance to reverse the inexorable trend of descent into irrelevancy.