In his forthcoming book The New American Judaism, based on extensive and in-depth research, Jack Wertheimer presents a portrait of the state of religious life among the various religious denominations. Allan Arkush, in his review, concludes that there is little reason to expect that non-Orthodox Judaism has much of a future in the U.S.:
There is plenty in the book . . . to reinforce the fears of pessimists. . . . But [Wertheimer] also sees many signs of vitality. Within the admittedly ailing Conservative movement, for instance, a considerable number of rabbis are now ambitiously “playing to the themes of the day: inclusiveness, spirituality, musical creativity, shorter services, non-judgmentalism, personalized attention, caring communities, relational Judaism, and Judaism beyond the walls of the synagogue.” In the “more cohesive, participatory, and spirited communities” they are forging, “the elite meet the folk where they are.” . . .
Wertheimer’s account of current experiments with a “new/old Judaism” in liberal synagogues and elsewhere throughout the country is [hard] to dismiss, especially since he retains a keen awareness of their shortcomings even as he takes heart in their existence. Whether these are signs of a true revival of religious but non-Orthodox Judaism remains to be seen. If I’m skeptical about that, it’s not only on the basis of my own experience but because I can’t believe in the long-term survivability of any form of Judaism in our modern liberal democracy that isn’t rooted in solid convictions and consolidated by a disciplined and more or less segregated communal life.
The Modern Orthodox possess both of these things in good measure, and the ultra-Orthodox do so to an even larger degree, and will go on, for the most part, doing what they do. Some Jews who are much less rigorously religious may yet manage to sustain a strong presence on the scene, but it is undeniable that their overall numbers are shrinking. Those Jews who cannot quite say yes to God but cannot say no to Jewish peoplehood will fit, a little uncomfortably, into some of these communities, perhaps coming to shul infrequently and late, but . . . participating enthusiastically in the Jewish conversations at kiddush. And the large majority of the rest of America’s Jews will in all likelihood (although not inevitably, I must remind myself), like millions of their predecessors, disappear in the great American melting pot that continues to bubble away.
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