Chabad, I mean. They’re eating our lunch. (No offense intended to Chabad members–it’s a compliment to you, a smack at most of the rest of us.)
Let me explain.
Take a look back at that article that started the series off. Only one of the “start-up” synagogues mentioned is a liberal Jewish congregation. The other two? Chabad.
(“Liberal” here unfortunately means “everything not Orthodox.” Way to cede the debate, everyone. Nice job. But I digress.)
What the heck is going on here? I’ve got some ideas.
Money is certainly part of the issue. The traditional synagogue structure we know (where “traditional” = how it’s been since you’ve been paying attention) is premised upon high overhead costs for members; Chabad doesn’t really do this to people.
But there’s something else going on. Going back through that article, the story of the mother who left the Reform synagogue for one of the Chabad congregations is very telling: she left because the synagogue leadership didn’t care whether she was there or not, and the religious school didn’t teach Hebrew or much that she found meaningful or important as the concerned parent of a Jewish child.
Chabad filled that gap.
Now, if someone really clicks into Chabad in a real, I’m-a-baal-teshuva way, that’s great–it’s where that person probably belongs. But not everyone who goes to Chabad really does fully click in that way; I imagine many or even most don’t really do so in the end, but I don’t know for certain. The problem, of course, is that where we in the “liberal” denominations could be providing many of the things people get from Chabad, we don’t. This is especially problematic in someplace like the U.S., where most religious groups–Jews, Christians of most stripes, etc.–are marked by relatively free movement between communities/churches/synagogues based on not too much more than what fits best for the congregants, who don’t always (fully, sometimes at all) grasp doctrine.
I think there are a few related issues that feed this problem for “liberal” Jewish groups.
One problem is that we’ve sold ourselves short by selling ourselves. If your competitors don’t charge simply to allow people to feel like they can show up or look for help, and you do charge, you lose. You lose because you lose the economic value proposition game–why pay more when you think you can pay less?–but more importantly, you lose because you aren’t what you should be: open, welcoming, and trying to help.
Another problem is that we’ve sold ourselves short by failing to sell ourselves. I’ve already alluded to this one. By calling ourselves “liberal” Jews, we cede the language game to an unacceptable degree. Why are there halakhically non-observant, “liberal” Jews who donate to observant “Orthodox” causes whose ideologies would otherwise be unacceptable to the donors? In part because we on the “liberal” end have taken up the “conservative” name, incorporated it into a form of “liberal” Judaism (Conservative Movement, anyone?), and ceded “Orthodox” to 20% of the Jewish community in the United States. And in our “liberal” Judaism, we often make it clear that we’re making accommodations to the modern world that allow our members to feel better about non-observance.
So in the marketplace of Jewish ideas, as they come through to the average Jewish family looking for a place in the Jewish community (or who encounter a place in the Jewish community), we have “liberal” Judaism, which packages itself as a compromise, and “Orthodox” (and, especially these days, Chabad) Judaism, which packages itself as simply Judaism. In the latter of these categories, Chabad is the most outgoing and welcoming generally. Who would you, all things being equal, go with?
So what do we in the “liberal” Jewish community do about this? Oh, but if I told you my ideas, you wouldn’t have to come back for the rest of the series!
Related articles from elsewhere
- “Just Jewish” (jewishhorizons.com)
Related articles from this blog
- Series alert: member poaching and pay-as-you-go synagogues (sjewindy.wordpress.com)
- Member Poaching Item 1: Rabbinical Roles (sjewindy.wordpress.com)
- New-ish Jewish (sjewindy.wordpress.com)
- “I’m Hardly Jewish” (sjewindy.wordpress.com)
- Radio Free Judaism (sjewindy.wordpress.com)