Last week’s Machshavot message got quite a lot of interest. I dealt with the Jewish News last week – this week I will turn to the JC.
The headline blaring from the newspaper tells us: Collapse in ‘Orthodox Middle’ Shul numbers. The gist of the article is that over the last 25 years we have seen a substantial decline in shul membership from 100,000 households in 1990 to just under 80,000 today. The biggest ‘loser’ has been Centrist Orthodoxy – from 66,201 households to just 41, 990 – a drop of 37%.
The obvious winners are the ‘strictly’ Orthodox who have increased 139% since 1990 from 4480 households to 10712 today, from 4% to 14% of the community. Masorti have also grown 114% in the same time from 1226 to 2620 but they still make up a small minority of the community. They now stand at 3% up from 1%.
Am I suggesting therefore, that the solution is strict orthodoxy? It is a solution, but no, I am suggesting a renaissance of Centrist Orthodoxy.
To start with, it is not accurate to compare the two orthodoxies. Those in the strictly orthodox camp are religiously orthodox – they believe, they practice, they observe. Those in the centrist orthodox camp – on the whole don’t really believe, or practice or observe, so are we that surprised by the results?
This takes me back to university in 1991 – Fresher’s fair. (I am told nothing has changed to what I experienced back then in the ensuing 25 years.)
Christian society – the table was staffed by two religious Christians, posters up of prayer meetings, text of the bible to take away and pictures of JC – not the newspaper!
Across to Islam society – Ramadan posters, times of the 5 prayer services, staffed by frum Muslims (you know what I mean).
Then there was Jsoc. You got a Jsoc mug, advertising the Jsoc ball and the fresher’s disco. Staffed by non-religious Jews.
You may be appalled but there is something positive in this. You see the beauty of it all is that Jsoc or Judaism for that matter is not a religion in the way that Christianity or Islam is, it is a way of life, aspects of culture, heritage and social. If Jsoc had bearded rabbis behind the stall and times of davening and shiurim – only the religious would join – and they only make up a small minority.
However, I believe it is failing. In the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s – tradition was enough, enough to keep people marrying in, attending shul, having Jewish kids.
However, in the last twenty years or so, the next generation down, it isn’t, it hasn’t been enough- there needs to be more.
I remember a few years ago I was invited to a reception at the House of Lords with the former Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks who had just become a Lord. He spoke powerfully to a room of Jews and non-Jews and then at the end of the speech, with the sun starting to set we davened mincha.
As we finished davening I realised, look at what we have achieved in this country. The Chief Rabbi is a Lord; Jews have positions in government and all sections of society. We can do what we like – but is our passion and drive for status and acceptance matched by our passion and drive for Judaism and a relationship with God. That is the challenge of Modern Orthodoxy and of our communities as a whole.
However, does this mean that to those who drive to shul or eat non-kosher or keep very little we ridicule, drive away or look down on, no and a hundred times no.
You drive to shul and park round the corner – Shabbat shalom.
You are having a non-offensive simcha – we welcome you to our community.
You keep very little and it is your yahrzeit – please have an Aliyah.
We do not condemn – we educate.
We do not ridicule – we inspire.
However, we do have an ideology that we are working towards – to inspire people to become more knowledgeable, observant and proud modern Jews. The bracha that we have is that the 45,000 households and their children still belong to an Orthodox community, which is where the work must begin.
This Shabbat in Israel, it is beginning. Mizrachi has launched Shalhevet, an 18-day programme taking people who have not been to Yeshiva and Sem to have an experience of our ideology. Yeshivat HaKotel and Midreshet HaRova are inspiring our young people to see the beauty and relevance of our ideology. I look forward to joining them next Shabbat.
We the centrist Orthodox have an awesome obligation in the 21st century. Today’s data is no surprise and it must motivate us to continue our work to make the Torah speak to today’s generation.
Our work will determine how the data looks in twenty years’ time.
Rabbi Andrew Shaw