Gabe Kahn writes in his Garden State of Mind “Looking back to save our future” (April 18), “Only after we let both of those crucial components [faith and traditions] go by the wayside did we begin to fragment and disintegrate.” As I understand his position, until the mid-19th century there was only “traditional” (i.e., Orthodox) Judaism. Well, then, where did the letting go of faith and traditions come from? According to Kahn’s position, it could only have come from Orthodoxy since that’s all there was! And in fact, the early Reform rabbis had been trained by the Orthodox, so if you want to fault someone for these developments (which I do not), look to Orthodoxy.
Kahn also writes that Orthodoxy is the fastest growing denomination. However, I think we need to look at that often-quoted belief in a little more detail. According to the 2013 Pew study “A Portrait of Jewish Americans,” 7 percent of people raised Reform have moved to Orthodox or Conservative Judaism, but around 25 percent of the people raised Orthodox have moved to Conservative or Reform, so clearly Orthodoxy is not growing quickly because it is attracting Conservative or Reform Jews. Evidently it is growing because of its relatively high birth rate. And that of course is fine.
But in what way is that a solution to our problem, which is that 11 percent of those raised Orthodox, 17 percent of those raised Conservative, and 28 percent of those raised Reform now describe themselves as “Jews of no religion” or “non-Jewish”? Or to put it another way, Jews raised non-Orthodox would rather not be Jews than be Orthodox. So Kahn’s statement “the old methods have always worked and are still doing well today” is at least an overstatement.
The problem of our losses is in fact tied into an overall societal trend which involves most religious groups, Jewish and non-Jewish, and in fact a great many non-religious organizations. Our solution therefore will come more from societal changes rather than from facile and outdated appeals to “tradition.”