The news was a jolt for a country settled by colonists seeking religious freedom, established as a republic by founders who included religion in the very first amendment in the Bill of Rights, arguably was saved by a president who employed Biblical allusions in his Civil War speeches, and today is governed by the second chief executive to be a regular attendee at Catholic Mass:
For the first time since Gallup began examining the question 80 years ago, a majority of Americans no longer belong to a house of worship.
A jolt, to be sure. But the reaction in the Jewish community might well be summarized briskly: Been there, done that.
The Pew Research Center’s Portrait of Jewish Americans, published nearly eight years ago, found that only 39 percent of the country’s Jews lived in a household where at least one person belongs to a synagogue.
There has been a yeasty debate among scholars and Jewish leaders about every element of American Jewish life rendered in statistics – how to count how many Jews there are in the country, how to account for different aspects of Jewish identification – but a demographic group that for the most part prizes its position in the mainstream of the country is not completely immune to broader national trends.
Indeed, as David Campbell, the Notre Dame University scholar widely regarded among the preeminent experts in American religious life, put it in an interview, “The story for American Jews is complicated. Many do not think of themselves as religious but they retain their Jewish identity.”
True enough. At the same time, one of the great debates in modern American Jewish life – and one of the great but portentous unknowns – involves the future of formal synagogue membership and, by extension, the economic model of the contemporary synagogue.
A great unknown, but one with enormous implications.
Consider Gen Z Jews, generally defined as people born between 1997 and 2015. This group accounts for about 10 percent of the Jewish population, according to the respected American Jewish Population Project at Brandeis University, which identified one of the largest Z clusters in the nation (12,000 people) to be in Cambridge and Newton. How these young Americans approach synagogue life – and whether they assume a secular posture – will help shape the profile of Jews in the country and the destiny of brick-and-mortar synagogues themselves far into the future.
“Jews are very much like other Americans, with an erosion of affiliation,” said Campbell, who along with Geoffrey C. Layman of Notre Dame and John C. Green of the University of Akron, published the influential book “Secular Surge: A New Fault Line in American Politics” (Cambridge University Press) in January. “There is an increasing number of Americans who are truly secular. It is not only that they are not religious. It is also that they define themselves – they think of themselves – as secular. But at the same time, there also are ‘religious secularists,’ people who think about the world in secular terms but who retain a vestige of religious identity and in some cases are actually connected to a religious community.”
Two elements – indicators, you might say – bear watching for their influence on the future of American institutional Jewish life.
One is the future of Conservative Judaism. Jonathan Sarna, the prominent professor of Jewish history at Brandeis, has pointed out that membership in the Conservative movements has dropped by about half since 1970 and he offers a poignant explanation: As a movement in the middle – between Orthodox and Reform – Conservative Judaism is vulnerable to the same fate as political moderation in a broader culture divided by left and right.
Which is to say: “The hardest place to be is the middle.”
But like all broad trends, the generalizations obscure specific local examples. Listen, for example, to Rabbi Michael Ragozin of Congregation Shirat Hayam, in Swampscott, the product of the 2005 merger of two important North Shore synagogues, Temple Israel and Temple Beth El:
“My perspective is very local, but for us here in Swampscott, it’s not a problem. We decided that our approach to Jewish life would be authentic to what we are and draws from what is best from the Jewish tradition. We are not unwilling to use musical instruments on Shabbat, and we didn’t wait for the Conservative movement’s approval to have services on Zoom. It’s hard to get it right in the business of spiritual life. My goal is to serve the Jewish people and not to serve a Jewish institution. I worry about what works for the people.”
The second indicator is the trend of synagogues to abandon the model of annual dues and to ask congregants to contribute an amount they believe is appropriate and comfortable. A decade ago, fewer than 10 synagogues pursued this approach. Now the figure is around 100, including, among others, Congregation Shirat Hayam, Temple Emanu-El of Marblehead, Temple Ahavat Achim of Gloucester and Chabad of the North Shore.
“The reason for this success is that this is more in keeping with a relational model between congregant and institution,” said Rabbi Daniel Judson of Hebrew College in Newton, who has conducted a study on this phenomenon. “People feel when they are told what to do it feels like it is a club or a gym. But when they are invited to determine for themselves how much to give, they have a deeper relationship. It seems like an institution they are committing themselves to.”
Indeed, the research sponsored by Synergy, a division of UJA-Federation of New York focused on helping synagogues thrive, found that “the positive cultural impact of the change is as important as the financial ramifications.”
The Synergy study found that synagogues pursuing the voluntary dues model were on average drawing more families and bringing in more money – not a huge amount, but something along the lines of a 2 percent increase in revenue. That may not be Wall Street returns, but it may assure that when it comes to Gen Z and other Jews, they may return to synagogue after all.
David M. Shribman, who teaches American politics at McGill University’s Max Bell School of Public Policy in Montreal, is executive editor emeritus of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. He led the newspaper’s coverage of the Tree of Life synagogue shooting that won the Pulitzer Prize.