In this age of free-market religious choice and surging assimilation, the organized Jewish community has had legitimate cause for concern: The number of people who identify and marry as Jews and are raising their children as engaged Jews is shrinking.
A new survey of Reconstructionist Jews, however, finds that Judaism’s youngest and smallest mainstream movement has positive news to convey: “Voluntaristic Judaism works,” according to Rabbi Mordechai Liebling, executive director of the Jewish Reconstructionist Federation, which commissioned the study.
“We encourage an adult, thinking Judaism,” he said during a recent interview here. “And exposing people to a rich meaningful Jewish life and allowing them to bring their full cognitive faculties to bear leads them to choose to be more observant and want to learn more.
“Assimilation is a two-way street. Some people move further away but some people move closer” to Judaism, said Liebling, who described himself as “buoyed” by the findings.
The Reconstructionist movement is one with its doors flung wide open to embrace a broad range of people: the intermarried and their children, women, and gay and lesbian Jews.
It has broken with what have long been normative Jewish practices and was the first to introduce changes that have subsequently proven to be among the most significant modifications made by the Reform and Conservative movements.
The 1996 survey of 1,324 Reconstructionist-affiliated households found that respondents cited the movement’s inclusive approach to Jewish life as the main reason they had joined their congregations. Among the major findings:
Seventy-one percent of respondents said a sense of warmth at services and other congregational events was very important to their decision to join a Reconstructionist congregation.
Sixty-five percent said it was very important to them to be part of a congregation committed to being as inclusive as possible.
Sixty-five percent said it was very important to be part of a congregation committed to egalitarianism.
Fifty-four percent said they joined because the congregation was committed to ongoing study and learning.
Thirty-four percent of respondents said that they keep kosher, compared to 24 percent of Conservative Jews, according to a recent Conservative movement study.
A plurality — 31 percent — said that they knew “hardly anything” about Reconstructionism when they joined the movement. Just 13 percent said that they knew a lot.
In 41 percent of responding households, at least one adult has earned a Ph.D., medical or law degree.
Fifty-two percent of respondents were raised in Conservative homes.
The Reconstructionist movement’s impact on Jewish life has always been larger than its size, Liebling said.
“We are to the Jews what Jews are to Christian America in terms of our size relative to our influence.”
Ninety congregations and havurot are affiliated with the movement and together, they have between 40,000 and 50,000 members.
About 20 of the congregations are havurot, smaller prayer and study groups in which there is less likely to be a rabbi leading the community. The rest are synagogues.
The first Reconstructionist synagogue, the Society for the Advancement of Judaism, was founded by Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan in the early 1920s. In 1986 there were 52 Reconstructionist congregations.
Kaplan defined Judaism as an evolving civilization. He put great emphasis on egalitarianism, education, Jewish arts and culture, and decision making by consensus rather than by directive.
Reconstructionism regards Jewish law, or halachah, as something to inform policy rather than to dictate it.
In 1922, Kaplan was the first to introduce the Bat Mitzvah, the girls’ coming of age ceremony. He began counting women in a minyan in the late 1920s, according to Liebling. The Reform movement followed years later. Much later, the Conservative movement, in the 1980s, put egalitarianism into practice.
In the late 1960s, when Reconstructionism was developing as a full-fledged synagogue movement, it adopted a policy of patrilineal descent, or defining as Jewish the child of a Jewish mother or a Jewish father, as long as the child is raised Jewish. The Reform movement adopted the same policy in the early 1980s, while the Conservative movement opposes it.
The Reconstructionist movement was also the first to adopt a policy of ordaining openly gay and lesbian Jews, which it did in the mid-1980s.
The new study found that Reconstructionist couples in which one partner is not Jewish are more committed to giving their child a Jewish education — nearly 75 percent — than inmarried or conversionary couples.
Sixty-nine percent of couples where both partners were born Jewish have their kids in Reconstructionist schools, as do 62 percent of couples where one partner converted to Judaism.
Other findings related to intermarriage include:
One-third of responding couples had one partner not born Jewish.
Fifty-two percent of the responding couples under age 40 involve a partner not born as a Jew, a figure which mirrors the general findings of the 1990 National Jewish Population Study.
In couples where one partner was born Jewish and the other was not, about 40 percent of the non-Jews have converted to Judaism.
In the American Jewish population in general, this is true in only 12 percent of the cases.
“Intermarried members feel very welcome in our congregations and the fact that we don’t discriminate against their children has led to them wanting to be engaged with Jewish life,” said Liebling.
“Our policies are absolutely vindicated in that a very high percentage of these folks are raising their children Jewishly.”
The movement is struggling, however — as is the Reform movement — with the role of non-Jews in the ritual and policy-making life of the congregation, Liebling said. He said the movement is preparing a position paper on the topic that will be circulated to its member synagogues for discussion this winter.
Though the movement is currently expanding the education it provides to its member families — it now has 22 supplementary schools connected with its congregations, compared to nine just five years ago — one of the areas in which survey respondents indicated dissatisfaction was in the educational opportunity offered to post-Bar and Bat Mitzvah teens.
Social action was also low on the respondents’ list of reasons for wanting to be part of the Reconstructionist movement, something which concerned Liebling.
“That says to me that our congregations aren’t doing enough in realm of `tikkun olam’ to attract people for that reason,” Liebling said, using the Hebrew phrase for repairing the world.
“It’s an unhealthy trend that Jews are not seeing synagogues as a place from which to improve the world,” he said.
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.