A few weeks ago, after a well-received sermon at a Westchester synagogue, I was approached by one Dr. Solomon Dinkevich, a professor of mechanics and applied mathematics who has also written on Jewish topics, including perhaps most famously, a calculation of how Noah could have possible fit all those animals in the Ark.
Dr. Dinkevich pressed into my hands a different article that Shabbat, about the demographic trends within Jewish denominations. By now we’ve all seen these articles, often accompanied by charts, that show that the more kugel you eat, the more Jewish grandkids you’ll have. Ok, not really. They show what the Orthodox keep saying: that Orthodoxy has the highest birth- and retention-rates of the Jewish denominations (and the more to the right you go the better), that the Conservatives are barely replacing their own, and that Reform Jews are a-dwindling away.
It feeds into that Orthodox fantasy that one day, many years from now, they will wake up and find that ‘heterodox’ Jews ahve simply disappeared, vanished into a puff of smoke in the shape of themselves.
It’s also horseshi- ehem. The only thing that this study shows is the the setbacks suffered by Jewish movements, not the Jewish community itself. In other words, it’s true that fewer and fewer Jews are identifying themselves as Reform, or Conservative. On the other hand, more are identifying as Reconstructionist or Renewal, denominations not presented in the study, or in many studies. Even more identify themselves as nondenominational. Some see this as a negative, a sign of lack of ‘affiliation’, lack of true membership in Jewish life. Surprising then that minyanim like Hadar and Kol Zimrah, rising stars in the Jewish institutional community, take these labels for themselves, as do many other innovative new Jewish organizations, from JDub to Reboot to the granddaddy of them all, Birthright Israel.
But beyond the fact that Jews today are less likely to identify with a denomination (unless they’re Orthodox, in which case they most certainly choose not only a denomination, but a prefix, like Modern, or Centrist, or Ultra, or Hassidic, etc.), even within the denominations there is a shift. The institutions that brought us to this dismal place are changing, and the leaders who shepherded the process are being replaced. Every day we hear about nwe Jewish leaders, bright ideas, innovative projects and a rebirth of zeal, energy and light in the Jewish world. Demographers love to use the caveat “assuming current trends hold” – which, of course, they never do (Falling Rock Zone? Shouldn’t that sign say “Road Closed”?) Demographic studies can offer a snapshot of what’s happening today, but they are notoriously poor at predicting the future. And really, aren’t such studies used more often not to deal with the problem they ostensibly point to, but to delegitimize opposing groups?