Is the Reform Glass Half Empty or Half Full?

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The U.S. presidential podium at the Union for Reform Judaism's 2011 biennial convention. December 16, 2011.Credit: AFP

Call it coincidence or just interesting timing.

More than 5,000 Reform Jews from across North America are streaming into a massive hotel in Orlando, Florida to kick off the 2015 URJ Biennial event just as events of the past week have thrown a spotlight on the key territory that the North American Reform Movement stakes out in American Jewish life, and the pressure it faces from two directions.  

On one end of the spectrum, two powerful institutions of Orthodox Judaism have just launched an unprecedented forceful assault against one of the tenets of the Reform movement - gender equality - specifically the phenomenon of women serving as rabbis. The contrast couldn’t be more stark. In the Reform movement, women have been ordained as rabbis since 1972, and are so common as to be pedestrian, commanding pulpits at some of the largest and influential congregations in North America. Most young Reform Jews can hardly conceive of a world without female rabbis - here at the Biennial, you can’t turn around without bumping into a woman rabbi.

But mainstream Orthodoxy is digging in its heels on the issue. The Rabbinical Council of America passed a resolution on Friday declaring that it was officially forbidden to “ordain women into the Orthodox rabbinate, regardless of the title used; or hire or ratify the hiring of a woman into a rabbinic position at an Orthodox institution.” In coordination, the Ultra-Orthodox Agudath Israel of America issued an even more sweeping rejection of the egalitarian stream of Orthodoxy, known as Open Orthodoxy, saying that “is not a form of Torah Judaism (Orthodoxy), and that any rabbinic ordination ... granted by any of its affiliated entities to their graduates does not confer upon them any rabbinic authority.”

While this particular fight is technically a battle within Orthodoxy itself, the statements send a message to non-Orthodox movements like Reform as to how strongly their outlook on gender is rejected. While no one expects the Orthodox to endorse Reform life or practice, this full-throated repudiation of female rabbis is a clear reminder of their disapproval of what has become a key element of Reform life, an identity issue that hits harder than disdain over keeping kosher, driving on Shabbat, or alternative liturgy.

It also sharpens the message - also, nothing new - that American Jews looking for an officially sanctioned egalitarian religious community life, which includes women in positions of leadership and authority - must look to the non-Orthodox movements. This offers these movements an opportunity, and a challenge to show that they can provide enough authentic spiritual and intellectual resources to those who may be put off by Orthodoxy’s hard line and seeking an alternative.

On the other end of the spectrum comes news that offers an even bigger challenge to Reform: evidence that there are clearly growing numbers for whom any Judaism - traditional or liberal - is superfluous.

The new findings from the 2014 Pew Religious Landscape Study released this week that shows that young Americans as a whole have less and less use for religion at all and that the U.S. public overall is becoming “less religious.”  

The Pew statistics demonstrate that it is not only synagogues who will have to work hard to survive as the percentages of Americans who say they believe in God, pray daily and regularly attend religious services show significant decline - and the younger the population surveyed, the more entrenched those trends become.

In the 2007 Pew study, 83 percent of adults surveyed describe themselves as religiously affiliated - in this new study, only 77 percent of adults, did so. The Pew research says the growth in non-affiliation is driven by the millenial generation, those born between 1981 and 1996.

The number of Americans who say they have “no religion”” as opposed to being non-practicing members of a religion is growing dramatically - in Pewspeak, they are being referred to as the “nones.”

So where does that leave Reform Judaism? As a movement and a membership organization, their challenge is to keep “Jews” from turning into “nones” - and attempting to bring the unaffiliated “nones” back into community life, if possible.

A huge number of the sessions of the Biennial stretching over the next week focus on how to make Reform Judaism welcoming to the Jewish “nones” - disaffected and unaffiliated Jews who either walked away from synagogue life or never experienced it to begin with. The new Pew survey numbers demonstrate that if it wants to survive, and, hopefully, grow, the Reform movement will have to double down on these efforts more intensively than ever.

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