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Study Finds Reform Judaism Faces Serious Problem of Erosion

Reform Judaism in America, which is currently marking the 100th anniversary of its central congregational body, the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, and which has had a phenomenal growth in the past three decades, faces serious problems of an erosion of its strength through intermarriage and lack of strong theological commitment. This conclusion is reached by Prof. Sefton D. Temkin, of the Department of Judaic Studies of the State University of New York at Albany, in the lead article of the 1973 American Jewish Year Book, which has just been published. The Year Book is published jointly by the American Jewish Committee and the Jewish Publication Society of America.

The author notes that the number of affiliated congregations of the UAHC increased from 300 in 1943 to 703 in 1970. However, he continues, the “religious boom,” which affected many organized religious groupings as well as Reform Judaism, has slowed down in the past decade and some of its advances “are apt to appear illusory.”

Prof. Temkin suggests that two areas of activity much stressed by Reform Judaism in recent years, civil rights and interfaith work, “seemed to have yielded little.” In education, he continues, UAHC has shown imagination and enterprise in the educational materials it has published but the educational aspects of its program need to be intensified in view of the problems of intermarriage and assimilation.

“However.” he adds, “it appears that the Reform Jew’s self image is not that of religiosity, and to get him to give a high priority to Jewish education and Jewish observances in his personal life would involve a reversal of attitudes hereto-fore held, something much more fundamental than the mere proclamation of slogans by headquarters. Here the question arises whether such a reversal is conceivable without some form of theological commitment, which the Reform organizations have avoided.” The author adds that in Reform Judaism, “exercises of piety find a relatively small place in the program of its institutions. For some, freedom from such commitment is one of the attractions of Reform,”

Prof. Temkin cautions that these problems and these concerns do not indicate a fatalistic future for Reform Judaism or for religion in general. “The American synagogue is not doomed, though it may have to endure a shaking out….As the Union of American Hebrew Congregations reaches its centenary, it has lost a vision of it-self as pioneer, together with the exhilaration of recent success. On the other hand, neither is it overwhelmed by despair. It is simply shadowed by the disenchantment that hangs over much of American life.”

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