The Myth of Denominational Demise

The world is filled with certainties that aren’t – like the myth that religious denominations are dead. We will eventually have three inchoate pools of people, it is said: Orthodox, “Other,” and Unaffiliated. Already Orthodoxy is less a denomination than a way of life rooted in halakhic observance, community consciousness, and synagogue centrality. “Other,” presumably, will feature the very opposite, synagogues as “limited liability communities” that collect dues in exchange for rabbis on call, life-cycle ceremonies, and occasional events like High Holidays. The growth market will be “a pox on both your houses” — the unaffiliated altogether.

Evidence for this sorry denouement includes the documented decline in religious affiliation generally, the generational replacement of the baby boomers (who joined things) with their children (who don’t); economic conditions that allow little luxury for supporting synagogue movements; an internet era that provides programming for free; the declining numbers of Conservative Jews, once the majority denomination; and the stagnation of Reform Jews who maintain their numbers only because of the in-migration of Jews by choice.

So why are denominations not necessarily on their way out?

Denominational obituaries assume that organized religion in general is a thing of the past, but it is equally arguable that religion is just changing, not disappearing. Religion, as we know it, is a post-World- War-II response to the Cold War era, baby-boomer children, and suburbia. Synagogues insulated Jews against latent anti-Semitism, and provided safe spaces to rehearse ethnic identity and support of Israel. Plenty of post-war money paid denominational offices to provide the programs that a synagogue needed to ramp up and reach out.

Denominations back then had bureaucracies that churned out personnel and services; what they did not have is a clear ideological mandate to justify the personnel and services they churned out.

No one will join that kind of denomination. But denominations are what we make of them. They can define what religion is becoming not reflect what it used to be.

Precisely this ability to evolve with the times is what makes religion in America so exceptional. Indeed, one explanation for its robustness, relative to the anemic state of religion in Europe, is America’s separation of church and state, which has prevented state support and conditioned religion instead to fend for itself. Static churches, sociologists say, die out; creative ones succeed. Denominations that hunker down with old ways of thinking are indeed doomed. But denominations that think differently have a future.

This different denominational thinking must acknowledge the fact that, unlike the Cold War era, ours is a time of spiritual search. The limited liability synagogue that trades dues for services will find competitors who offer bar/bat mitzvahs, weddings, and even funerals (not to mention high holidays) for a whole lot less than what it costs to be a member. And who needs denominations just for that?

But assume our synagogues respond to the spirituality surge and urge us on to be our better selves. Assume they deliver purpose, meaning, and a reason to be alive. Assume further that they ritualize these higher human goals by connecting people to each other, to their past, and to God. Assume also the existence of rabbis who have something deep to say – rabbis, that is, whose intellectual acumen is equal to whatever society offers elsewhere at its thoughtful best. Assume, in a word, that synagogues manage to ennoble the human condition in communities of commitment, where the scar tissue of entrenched routine is replaced by an intentional response to the human yearning to matter.

Suppose all this, and you get synagogues that need denominations.

A single synagogue has but limited reach while denominations unify a thousand synagogues to influence policy round the globe. Denominations can run seminaries that invest in visionaries who compete in the marketplace of big ideas. Only denominations can galvanize large scale investment for a Jewish future; rally opinion world-wide; or have a voice that must be taken seriously far away in Israel and in circles of power everywhere. Only denominations can argue our way to a viable vision of religion for the vast mass of Americans who yearn for a form of religion that is not Orthodox but is equally authentic and equally deep.

I write this after attending the latest biennial of the Reform Movement, which certainly didn’t look dead or dying. It reaffirmed its commitment to the marriage of modernity and tradition; the courage to take moral stands; an inclusive vision for Jewish Peoplehood; and a compelling portrait of Judaism at its moral and spiritual best. It was religion as it just might be, religion that only denominational greatness can provide.


21 responses to “The Myth of Denominational Demise

  1. Love your assumptions and am so grateful to belong to a congregation that, thanks to its rabbinic leadership, is already living them! Another thought: What do your comments about countries that do/do not practice separation between religion and state predict for liberal Judaism in Israel?

    • Good question. Actually, the main prognosticators deal with Europe as the primary alternative. They speak of, for example, a “Caesaropapist church,” by which they mean churches that had and may still have government support: Anglicans in England, Catholics in Ireland, Lutherans in Germany and so forth. All of these tend to be cases where religion dies unless it fulfills some alternative role than actually providing religious sustenance. Catholicism in Poland for example did well as long as Poland was occupied by the USSR – – Catholicism work then because it provided Polish national identity. If they are right, one would predict a slow demise of religion in Israel.

      There are other factors however. Israel may be unique. For one thing, it is a magnet for orthodoxy which grows not just because of constant in-migration but also through internal fertility. Born-again Anglicans, Catholics, and Lutherans, so to speak, do not flock that way to England Ireland and Germany. Nor do they all have lots of children.

      The unanswered question is what will happen regarding non-Orthodox Judaism in Israel. The standard scenario as explained above would project a difficult time of it.

  2. Thanks, Larry, for a thoughtful assessment of Judaism today. I remember you talking about the need for Judaism to adjust to change at a Zimmerman Institute in 1991, with your upper and lower window metaphor. It’s a framework that has stayed with me and that I have used at times to explain to people that Judaism is not static, rather it is constantly evolving in response to the needs of the people in each generation.

    Kol tuv,

    Linda (Steigman)

  3. Rabbi Hoffman,
    Yasher Koach on another compelling post – as always. I love this theme, and have long believed the demise of the movements has been greatly exaggerated. One question, or at least a comment: You seem much more comfortable with the word “denomination” than I am. It seems so… Protestant. I much prefer to speak of “movements” — especially because of the motion and fluidity and dynamism that that word implies. Do you disagree?
    Neal Gold

    • I am happy using either term. Yes, we are used to saying movements, with regard to Judaism. But there is no English adjective “postmovemental” the way there is the adjective “postdenominational.” in that sense, “denomination” is preferable. Denominationalism is actually a phenomenon associated with the middle of the 19th century, when Protestant denominations ( it is a Protestant word originally, obviously) branched out South and West to franchise, in effect, their own particular brands of Christianity. Isaac Mayer Wise witnessed all of that, and built our movement (inthe preferred Jewish term, as you say) as the Jewish equivalent of what American religion was doing at the time. So denominations and movements are essentially the same, not just in terms of what they are but also in terms of how they developed.

      Actually, a good number of words that once sounded Christian begin to sound Jewish after a while. Theologically, for example, the word, “Grace” sounds Christian to most Jews, but the concept is fully Jewish — look at Avinu malkeinu ein banu maasim. Choneinu here must mean “show us grace” in the sense of God’s granting love that is not earned (the Christian meaning) because, here, as the prayer says, ein banu maasim — we have no good deeds to justify it.

      We have two parallel cases here: the latter is a case of a concept that sounds Christian originally but has Jewish roots and should be reclaimed by Jews as our proper theological heritage as well; the former is the case of an historical phenomenon that affects Jews and Christians equally and is given a term that Jews should have no trouble recognizing as an apt description of what affects us both.

  4. Larry, loved your piece, thanks!
    We are dual-affiliated. Friday nights we use Mishkan Teffilah, Shabbas mornings, Sim Shalom. Attendance Friday nights is 20 max, Shabbas morning 50. Friday night has very little passion, Shabbas morning lots of it.
    I am a JTS grad, am having a hard time ramping up FRiday nights. Suggestions?
    Mel Glazer

    • I would have to know a great deal more about the congregation before I could say anything. In general, worship transformation is never in general: that is, even though there are general principles involved, the principles must always be applied locally – – as a former Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill famously said, “All politics are local.” worship reform has its own local quality, involving the cast of characters who compose it, technical competence of the people who lead it, space configuration and sound quality of the room, and the community that it celebrates. I wrote a book on it that you might like to look at: “The Art of Public Prayer” published by Jewish Lights. It addresses specifically those sorts of issues, and has been widely used by rabbis and cantors interested in thinking through the way worship works. There are also people who specialize in consulting with congregations interested in transforming their services, and if you contact me by e-mail, I can put you in touch with them.

  5. Larry,
    Now we need to find a paradigm of Jewish Education that matches your vision. We have to prepare our young people to be enculturated into a faith based spirituality that has distinctive Jewish characteristics. The goals of Jewish Education that previously attempted to strengthen identity or commitment have been found to be ineffective. Only a explicit agenda of nurturing an enhancement of a powerful spiritual faith based on our textual tradition will renew Judaism. The problem is that we have no modern models for such an education and therefore we have to create new ones and rediscover ancient and medieval Jewish ones.

    • Thank you Michael. You regularly inform me regarding the state of Jewish education — the subject that you know so well. Here’s a question:

      Why do you emphasize so much the notion of “textual tradition.” We Jews like to think that we have texts in a way that others do not, but is that true? I remember being an interfaith conference of clergy/academics, in which we sought to learn from one another how we do theology. At one point a rather fundamentalist evangelical said something which led me to ask, “How do you know? How would you decide that issue in theory?” He responded, “Well, obviously, we have our texts just like everyone else.”

      Everybody has texts.How else do we know the past? How else is culture carried? Why is it that Jews obsess over textual knowledge while other religions seem not to?

      One answer, I think, is that we seem to value the Hebrew of the texts as much as we do their content. Hebrew competence is itself a value with us. I certainly concur with that, but too much emphasis on the Hebrew often leaves us shy of grappling with the textual content. So the issue is not the texts. The texts are just the carrier. The issue is the content of the texts — the ideas, the metaphors, the manner of approaching the world, and so forth. The question then for us, as for everyone else, it seems to me, is educating with an eye toward appreciating the complexity of our own particular experience with history – – the Jewish experience with God, the world, and the human condition. No doubt, you agree. What I am arguing for is a more nuanced understanding of the significance of the texts themselves, and a broader appreciation of what the texts are trying to get at.

      • I originally omitted the reference to textual tradition but then added it due to the ‘pushback’ I’ve been getting from Jewish people about the perceived Christianization of the spiritual endevour. It is almost that we have to defend against a spiritus sancti within our own community. In the beautiful wood lined study (unlike my metal filled office!) of the Dean of theology of Boston University, I was asked earnestly for my understanding of spirituality and appreciated it seems for just saying, “I think its just being with God?”. But is that enough for our people?

      • Dear Michael,

        You ask, “Is it enough for most people just to be with God?” I think it may be not enough on one hand and too much on another.

        As for “too much,” start with the realization that many Jews have trouble imagining what “being with God” could even be like. I think Christians often feel the same; how can they not? The ambivalence with the idea is built into being a modern person. But Christians are used to using God language and Jews are not. So it seems that Christians “believe” it in ways that Jews deny. I do not think the issue is belief or denial so much as it is comfort with a certain type of metaphor.

        So Jews may find the metaphor you suggest “too much,” and may conclude they are not, on that account, spiritual.

        Equally, however, Jews may want to ask if being with God isn’t too generic to serve as the paradigm for specifically Jewish spirituality. Can’t there be some sort of spirituality that emerges from Jewish tradition specifically? In that sense, “being with God”an is not enough.

        I think we need to see two kinds of spirituality: spirituality for Jews (and everyone else) on one hand; and Jewish spirituality (arising from Jewish tradition and, therefore, for Jews) on the other. Surely Christians have spirituality that emerges from a Christian ethos; the same must be the case for Jews. I wrote this up in one of my books (The Journey Home, Beacon Press).


  6. Rabbi Morton Kaplan

    In my retirement I pray at Beth El in Charlotte a congregation whose dynamic clergy exemplify to a great extent your prescription as to what a temple should be.

    Yet at services last evening I could not help but note that the same 100 or so attendees were there as at every service. And a not insignificant numbet

  7. Rabbi Morton Kaplan

    I did not complete my comment.

    A not insignificant number in attendance Jews by choice.
    If the job is being done right why do we not connect with the other 80%?

    • This will mostly be a comment on what we do not know. That is: we know precious little about why people come to services and why they do not. Most of it is guess work, educated guess work, but still — guess work. At the very least, we do not know enough.

      What we do know is the following:

      The Gallop organization has been tracking church attendance Sunday mornings for over 50 years, and no matter what, when they ask people if they go weekly, the number of people who say yes scores about the same: 40% of church members. However, other sociologists have actually counted people upon entering the churches, and they report only 20%. Americans apparently feel it is virtuous to attend, and they over-report attendance by 100%. What about Jews? There are never enough Jews in this study for us to know. George Gallop Jr. once told me that he thinks the number is about half. Whether Jews over report to the same extent or not is a good question – – I rather doubt it since worship is not as central in today’s Judaism — but if they do, we would expect 20% of congregants to say they come regularly and only about 10% actually to be there is. That 10% figure corresponds nicely with anecdotal evidence that I have gathered over the last 20 years or so from my visits all around the country. I expect that the average good turnout on a Shabbat with nothing else happening is about 10% of the adult population. It is of course higher in orthodoxy where, customarily, everyone goes, but in non-Orthodox congregations, with some exceptions, 10% is a healthy number. This varies by region. In the South in the Bible Belt people go more frequently, for example.

      Why don’t more people go? A recent Synagogue 3000 study, not yet published, suggests that it is very hard indeed to raise attendance. I will not go into detail because we are still analyzing the data, but suffice it to say that in congregations where congregants rate their services especially joyous, spiritual, and so forth, the numbers who attend do not exceed the parallel figure where the ranking is lower. Yet anecdotal evidence – – and very strong anecdotal evidence at that – – demonstrates that some places have dramatically raised attendees by providing a particular type of service. I travel all the time now, lecturing in synagogues more than ever, and I can say first hand that this is true. But I still need to know more about how that happens, when it happens, where it happens, and why. I remain convinced that the kind of service we provide does make a difference, but I need to know much more to say exactly how and to what extent.

      By the way, the congregation you mention is an excellent one. say hello to anyone I might know.

  8. Thank you, Larry, for your eloquent and insightful comments, as always.

    It is my impression that the evolution we are seeing in the movements of Judaism is being led by the congregations, not by the national movements. In our own Reform Movement, it seems clear to me that the national organization in playing catch-up with congregations that have been long frustrated by its unwillingness to respond to changing demographics, changing modes of social interaction, and the changing needs of a “generation of seekers,” as you have named it.

    My suspicion is that it has always been this way. The cutting edge of religion in America comes from the people who are closest to it—the congregations, not the national organizations.

    I agree that there are some things that only a national movement can do: be a spokes-organization for the religion as a whole, run seminaries to train future leaders, model best practices, run camps and other “big infrastructure” programs. However, I think that most of the stuff you identify as the core of what keeps religion relevant comes from individual congregations, not from movements.

    Responding to the “spirituality surge,” speaking to people’s craving for purpose and meaning, creating meaningful rituals that dramatize that need—these are the activities that are honed and developed in congregations. The experiments that determine which approaches are “fittest to survive” (to expand upon the evolution metaphor), all happen in the direct interface between rabbis, families, teachers, students, cantors, congregations, members and members.

    Honestly, I have never seen a great ritual practice or a great response to an emerging spiritual need come from a national movement. The movements can give us the tools—through seminary training, communication portals, national gatherings, etc.—to develop and spread new ideas. However, I believe that the direction of innovation is bottom-up, not top-down.

    • Thank you, Jeff. I think you’re partly correct. That is to say, individual congregational initiative plays a very important role. There, on the ground, as it were, great clergy and lay leaders are formed. But are they really as independent as we imagine? Some are, but they remain isolates, with change a difficult prospect, unless larger institutional change supports them. Let us look at worship in the Reform movement as our example.

      The late Debbie Friedman did more to change the nature of worship music than any single other person. There were, of course, other composers and many cantors and rabbis too who sought musical reform. But it took the movement to grow that individual tendency into a continent-wide response. Our colleague at the URJ, for example, Danny Freelander, worked assiduously, year after year, to model different worship at biennials, board meetings, and other sites where large numbers of congregational representatives would observe it. Eric Yoffie devoted part of a biennial sermon to it. Eventually, the independent experiments here and there reached a tipping point and became the thing to aspire to.

      Some years back, I ran into a colleague who was having trouble in his congregation and surprised me by saying: “It’s your fault. You are the one pushing all this worship change on the movement, but here I am out in the field never having been trained for the change. My laypeople attend biennials and board meetings and then return home fired up by what they have seen, expecting me to do what you do with the best worship talent in the country at these showcases that you organize.”

      This colleague gave me far too much credit. But he had the process right. Change requires dissatisfaction and vision. Most people need to observe a vision of what might be possible — at least in technical matters like worship, they rarely figure it out themselves. See, therefore, how the movement is what made this possible institutionally.
      1. The college had to support me; and to do so even when numerous stakeholders in the old system objected to everything I was saying;
      2. It took a far-seeing layperson to endow a Chair of Liturgy, Worship, and Ritual, at the New York school – – thereby further enhancing the opportunity for a new message of worship to develop.
      3. Give credit also to the School of Sacred Music which had begun supporting new cantorial faculty who stood for change (like Cantor Benjie Ellen Schiller and Merri Arian, to name but two).
      4. And again, it was a lay board leader who saw to it that Debbie Friedman’s music and name would persist through time.
      5. Also, it took a URJ (once the UAHC) to bring the best worship initiators from around the country to its conferences and show laypeople what was possible. The biennial showcased new young composers like Debbie Friedman herself and so many more – – too many for me even to begin to name.
      6. I haven’t even begun to talk about the prayerbook– – that too takes a movement. Many of our colleagues have written their own prayer books, some of them quite superb. But nationally speaking, the number remains relatively tiny. It took the CCAR with collaboration from the URJ, the ACC, and others, to create a new book that permits and even encourages the kind of worship we are talking about.
      7. And once again, it took the College to make sure that the leaders we are talking about were trained; and that they were able to form a cadre committed to a certain vision of Reform and a certain faith in a kind of worship that might best express Reform for a new era.
      You emphasize, properly, the role of innovation at the congregational level. I’m giving you the other side of the coin, the altogether necessary institutional role of a movement and a seminary, out of which institutional, not just privatized, vision is formed.

  9. Rabbi Rogerio Z. Cukierman

    While I agree with the post’s conclusion that denominations are a very important and positive force in the American Jewish community, I am not sure I agree with all the arguments.

    “A single synagogue has but limited reach while denominations unify a thousand synagogues to influence policy round the globe. Denominations can run seminaries that invest in visionaries who compete in the marketplace of big ideas.”

    After I went to HUC for graduate school (and was really happy with the education I received there), I decided that the Rabbinical School of Hebrew College, which is not affiliated with any movement, would be the best place for me to pursue my rabbinic education. A proud alum of both schools, I find that argument that “denominations can run seminaries” reflects reality only partially, to say the least.

    “Only denominations can galvanize large scale investment for a Jewish future; rally opinion world-wide; or have a voice that must be taken seriously far away in Israel and in circles of power everywhere.”

    As a Reform Jew myself, I am REALLY proud of the work of the RAC in the U.S. and of the מרכז לפלורליזם יהודי in Israel in favor of Social Justice and religious pluralism and of their affiliation with the Reform movement. But, I am equally proud of the work PJA/JFSJ does in the States and ACRI does in Israel, and they are not affiliated with any denomination.

    “Only denominations can argue our way to a viable vision of religion for the vast mass of Americans who yearn for a form of religion that is not Orthodox but is equally authentic and equally deep.”

    There are so many initiatives redefining what the Jewish community looks like, building communities that are committed to religious expressions that are authentic and deep . Some of them are affiliated with movements, but a lot are not. Take, for example, the Moishe/Kavod House in Boston, which is not affiliated with any movement, and could not be more authentic or deep.

    By overstating the importance of the movements in all forms of Jewish participation, I feel you take the risk of failing to show they have any relevance nowadays.

    For me, the importance of the denominations are in preserving Jewish pluralism at the local level, allowing groups with distinct ideological identities to organize and build their own spiritual communities. The movements provide scale for small communities, enabling them to access the resources that otherwise would be available only to bigger congregations (prayer books, curricula, social justice programs, summer camps that respect a specific ideological approach, etc.). To some extent, they allow these small communities to exist, and that should be enough for us to be thankful to the denominations.

  10. I’m right behind the argument that Judaism needs strong seminaries and visionaries and teachers. And I’ll agree 100% that one synagogue is less effective than 1000 in producing such crucial efforts and in advocacy. However, I believe your blog above is actually arguing, despite intentions, for a larger, post-denominational “liberal Judaism.”

    The above argument sets up both “denominations” (plural) and Reform Judaism, particularly, as opposed to “Orthodoxy,” inaccurately set up as a monolith, a kind of “straw anti-denomination.” This is a great and dangerous form of hubris: Reform Judaism is no longer the only non-Orthodox option for leading a Jewish life — has not been for decades.

    But I also participate in the wider Jewish life of my community — in Conservative, Modern Orthodox, Reconstructionist, Humanist and independent worship and learning. I would welcome a Reform Judaism that is more articulate in what it believes and promotes and how it develops teachers and, perhaps, visionaries. But it’s a grave mistake, IMO, to believe that only Reform brings modernity to Judaism or that “orthodoxy” does not itself struggle with “authenticity.” The Jewish landscape today is far different from the one face by early Enlightenment reformers.

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  12. Having read your later piece, “Denominations, he final moral Test” (, I’m still left a little puzzled.

    While you make a strong case for denominations as organizational entities in terms of their function in training rabbis, developing modes of Jewish spirituality, and having an impact on the wider world, I’m unclear why the existing denominational structure is useful. It is, frankly, somewhat unclear to me, why we need a Reform, Reconstructionist and Conservative movement. At this point, especially around the edges, it all begins to look the same.

    In your follow up post, you posit: “Jews who care deeply about egalitarian worship, a tradition of prophetic ethics, and spirituality will be happiest in Reform. Other denominations can and should make their own claims to specificity.” As a Reconstructionist Rabbi, I find myself somewhat taken aback. Admittedly “Prophetic Judaism” is language that the Reform movement has long used, but otherwise, it seems that you could equally well be describing Reconstructionist or Conservative Judaism. Add in the Reform movements increasing use of Hebrew and ritual observance, and the distinctions become even less clear.

    My goal is not to say that movements have no purpose or place, nor to say that everyone is really a Reconstructionist now, but to push a little bit on how we really define our movements. In teaching my undergraduates, I constantly remind them that Judaism defines itself by behavior not belief. I wonder if the movements in America might be better served by trying to define themselves in terms of behavior and practice rather than philosophical positions. At this point, I, and my colleagues from other movements in town, often find ourselves explaining our philosophical and halachic differences more in terms of historical views rather than current views.

    I don’t have a clear answer or solution. Bu I think we do need to re-evaluate how our movements self-define, and be open to the possibility that we need to move on to other, more useful ways of organizing the American Jewish religious community.

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