Pain in post-denominational Judaism

Shrinking seminaries. Massive layoffs at mainline denominational headquarters. The local Episcopal diocese just sold off several lovely sanctuaries.

What happened to the nonprofit that used to publish our Sunday School materials?

Catholic schools closing, while the number of teaching sisters continues to crash and it seems like our priests are getting older and more exhausted.

Does anyone know where my parish can buy a good hymnal? What, you ask, is a hymnal?

That nearby Southern Baptists are reporting slight declines, while yet another independent evangelical-sort of charismatic-media savvy megachurch is booming right down the block. Another one will take its place in a few years.

What is going on? It's one of the biggest stories on the religion beat and that has been the case for a decade or two. On one level, it's the decline of the old American mainline, which continues even as the old-new evangelical "seeker friendly" mainstream starts to weaken. It's the "emerging" post-doctrinal church and, now, the emerging synagogue.

It's a mess. To be specific, it's the post-denominational mess. And now it's beginning to hit hard at the structures of American Judaism, especially on the left. I can say that because of a very newsy report in The Jewish Daily Forward that ran under the ominous headline, "Liberal Denominations Face Crisis as Rabbis Rebel, Numbers Shrink." The only major problem that I have with this strong news feature is that it is written for a niche audience that understands much of the background, so it's a bit hard for outsiders to grasp. For example, you have to know that the "Conservative Judaism" movement is on the left, in the spectrum of Jewish life and faith.

But this is big news. Period. Here's the top of the report by Josh Nathan-Kazis:

Conservative Judaism's membership rolls are in free fall.

According to a strategic plan for renewal issued in February by the denomination's congregational arm, the number of families served by synagogues belonging to what was once American Judaism's leading stream has shrunk by 14% since 2001. In the denomination's Northeast region, the number of families has dropped by 30%. The new draft strategic plan by the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism proposes ways for the USCJ to regain some of that lost ground. And the plan comes, as it turns out, at a fraught moment not just for Conservative Judaism, but for all the synagogue organizations that anchor America's liberal Jewish streams.

Within Reform Judaism, the Forward has learned, a group of dissident rabbis is seeking to shake up a movement long seen by outsiders as untroubled by internal dissent. While the specific agenda of the group is unclear, its heft within the movement is undeniable: The group consists of 17 senior rabbis from large Reform synagogues that foot a significant portion of the movement's budget. In this sense, the Reform rabbis bear some resemblance to influential synagogue leaders within Conservative Judaism whose near-revolt in 2009 led to the strategic plan that the USCJ has just issued.

All of this is causing seismic shifts in structures. Note in particular the reference to heavy hitting rabbis throwing around their economic weight. Folks, there is no painless way to divide a shrinking pie and, in a post-denominational world, the folks with numbers often try to find ways to hang on to more of their money or to find new ways to control how that money is split. Did anyone follow the wars over Southern Baptist strategies for the convention's future?

I do wish that this excellent story had included material on two trends that are so important in the future of liberal Judaism, as opposed to Orthodox Judaism. What are those topics? Yes, intermarriage is a subject that must be discussed. Then again, so is the issue that looms over American Catholicism -- birthrates.

This is a major Jewish story. Yet I was glad to see that the Forward editors knew that it was more than that.

How does the feature end?

The weakening of denominational organizations is not unique to liberal Jews, according to Mark Chaves, a professor of sociology, religion and divinity at Duke University who studies congregational life in America.

"What is unambiguously a trend is lower amounts of money being given by churches to denominational offices, and that is causing financial turmoil at the denominational level," Chaves said. "Protestant churches are asking themselves ... 'What do we get from the denomination?' "

All kinds of believers, and their leaders, need to read this story. Thus, some journalists in other newsrooms need to chase this Forward story.

So I will ask the obvious question: Where is the New York Times on one?

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