Poignant think piece: Demographics are destiny in many dying Jewish communities

One of the things I am working on, at the moment, is a memo for seminar on religion reporting that is tentatively slated for this coming summer in Prague. The name of the memo, which will become one of the lectures that week, is this: "The Seven Deadly Sins of the Religion Beat."

After consulting with some former GetReligionistas, I have a list of about 11 deadly sins -- so there is some editing and condensing ahead.

Nevertheless, I know that one of the deadly sins that is sure to make the cut will center on an idea from M.Z. "GetReligionista emerita" Hemingway. She suggested: "Ignorance of religious landscape outside of big cities."

Dead on. There is a tendency for reporters at big news organizations to assume that all big religion stories and trends emerge in big places, in big flocks, with big buildings (that photograph well) and that are led by big people (who function as semi-political leaders or celebrities). If you know anything about the history of religion, you know that this is often not how things work.

I think, in particular, that journalists often struggle to find ways to convince editors that it is important to notice when institutions decline, as well as when they grow. Here at GetReligion, I have said, over and over, that the decline of America's liberal Protestant establishment is probably the most under-covered story of the past 50 years. Without the demographic collapse of the oldline churches, you would not have had a giant hole in the public square for the Religious Right to (in part) fill.

I thought about all of this when reading the top of a poignant think piece that ran this week at The Forward, with this headline: "These Are America’s Most Endangered Jewish Communities." Heads up, journalists: There are all kinds of stories in this piece to localize.

The bottom line is the bottom line: There is no painless way to cut a shrinking pie and, at some point, the pie may vanish altogether. Here is the overture of Sue Eisenfeld's piece:

There are 51 names on the list of the dead and the dying. They range in condition from having been diagnosed with a fatal disease, to being in the throes of death, to having already passed from this world, nothing left but a memory. They are in Auburn, Maine, and Niagara Falls, New York, and Lake Charles, Louisiana, and Sumter, South Carolina, and for all of them, they have exhausted all hope of survival.
They are some of the once-thriving small-town Jewish communities of America -- places that many Northerners and Southerners, Jews and non-Jews alike, never even knew existed, now or throughout history. They were the places where Jewish people -- merchants, often -- settled in large numbers as early as the 1700s and were thriving contributors to civic life; places where Jews fought in the Revolution, the War of 1812, and on both sides of the Civil War.
“A whole culture is being lost,” said Susan Good, a lifelong former congregant of Temple Meir Chayim in McGehee, Arkansas, which closed its doors last summer. This temple had been planning for “the end” for more than 20 years, working with the Jewish Community Legacy Project, a group that helps congregations in small communities, drained of their Jewish populations by educational opportunities and the lure of better jobs in bigger cities, to die with dignity by developing “living wills” to ensure the legacy of sacred objects, buildings and cemeteries.

There are so many poignant details, but this one jumped out at me:

In Natchitoches, Louisiana, Mark Sutton, a descendant of one of the first Jewish settlers of the town -- the oldest settlement in the Louisiana Purchase -- whose family hasn’t practiced Judaism in two generations, is the lone caretaker of the crumbling Jewish Cemetery, mowing the lawn of the graveyard which dates to 1854.

Where did the people go? That's the most basic question to ask, but that really isn't what this essay is about.

At the very least, it is clear that the Jewish population in these communities declined because young Jews either left the faith, left the community, left the region or all of the above. There are secular stories in those facts and faith-driven stories, as well. Can the body of a Jewish community live on after the spirit of worship has gone? Do Jewish "nones" support the very institutions they have rejected?

As I read the piece I kept thinking of a saying that I first encountered among the leaders of ethnic Eastern Orthodox Christian congregations. The logic of the statement is brutal: God has no grandchildren.

What does that mean? It means that each generation has to make its own decision -- home by home, one set of parents after another -- about whether to practice and hand on its faith. However, the children will decide whether or not they claim that bridge to the future.

Yes, I understand that for many Jews we are talking about a culture more than a faith. That debate about whether the former can survive without the latter is at the heart of this story and has been for several generations. What is the basic DNA that produces Jewish marriages, Jewish children and Jewish institutions?

You can feel the tension at the end of the piece, during a worship service for Jews (and their supporters) called together to, well, show that it is possible to make a last stand.

The rabbi did not speak overtly about raising funds to save the temple, or about tzedakah, what some might define as giving to charity, or a way to enable righteousness, justice, or fairness -- such an important part of Jewish life. He spoke of a different kind of giving. He told us to do our part in saving these places by joining them as members, to sit in the pews of dwindling congregations, to be the lifeblood -- or the defibrillator -- to keep something valued from slipping away.
“Go, be Jewish!” he seemed to be saying directly to me. Partake. As a cultural but non-practicing Jew and someone who has always lived in large Northern or mid-Atlantic metropolitan areas, I had never felt the call to join a synagogue or engage in religious practice before. I had had the freedom and opportunity to be Jewish whenever I wanted to be. Here, though, in this moribund synagogue, one of dozens with the same fate throughout the United States, the message I heard was, “Don’t take anything for granted; it might not last forever.”

Read it all. Localize it. Then realize that the same spiritual crisis is taking place in all kinds of sanctuaries in which the demographics, and the doctrines, are destiny.

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