American Jewry’s Comfort Level: Interview with Chaim Waxman – Changing Denominational Patterns in the United States

In the mid-twentieth century, Marshall Sklare, the “dean of American Jewish sociology,” declared regarding Orthodoxy that “the history of their movement in this country can be written in terms of a case study of institutional decay.”1 Indeed, it was not only institutional decline that plagued the Orthodox. The available evidence suggested that they were decreasing in numbers as well. For at least a decade thereafter, it appeared that they would continue to do so.

The mid-twentieth century was the heyday of Conservative Judaism, and almost all predictions were for its continued dominance. However, the picture has shifted dramatically since, and many of the changes reflect broader changes in American religious patterns.

To many in the mid-twentieth century, the United States appeared to be a highly secular society in which organized religion had poor prospects. In the mid- 1960s, theologian Harvey Cox’s ideas in The Secular City2 were widely discussed, a group of “radical” theologians were proclaiming the “death of God,”3 and there followed a variety of articles on that topic in the news media, including the New York Times and Time magazine.

In 1967, sociologist Peter Berger published his highly influential work The Sacred Canopy, in which he saw public, nonreligious education and the growth of science as pointing to the secularization of society. Furthermore, major survey research appeared to confirm the secularization of America’s public sphere. For example, a series of Gallup polls indicated that Americans viewed religion’s influence on their society to be waning. From 1957 to 1968 the number of Americans who saw religion’s influence on the rise decreased from 69 percent to 18 percent, whereas the rate of those who saw religion as a declining force went from 14 percent to 67 percent, an almost total reversal.

The secularization was perceived to be so powerful that Berger predicted: “By the 21st century, religious believers are likely to be found only in small sects, huddled together to resist a worldwide secular culture.”4 By the mid- 1970s, however, what Berger had earlier portrayed as but “a rumor of angels”5 had developed into a full-blown societal development involving a “new religious consciousness.”6 Indeed, the country was undergoing what Robert Wuthnow called “the restructuring of American religion.”7 American religious patterns witnessed a marked decline in liberal Protestantism and a growth in Evangelicalism. At the end of February 2000, a cover story in the Sunday New York Times Magazine featured a religiously conservative Christian family who, together with other Evangelical and fundamentalist Christians, “make up about 25 percent of the American population.”8

Jewish Denominational Trends

As far as Jewish denominational trends are concerned, the rate of American Jews whoseaffiliationis Orthodoxrosefrom 6 percentin 1990 to 10 percentin 2001.9 The rate of American Jews who are synagogue members has not changed dramatically since 1990; in 2001, this figure stood at 44 percent. However, the denominational percentages of the synagogue memberships have changed significantly. From 1990 to 2001, the proportion of Conservative memberships declined from 51 percent10 to 33.1 percent, while Orthodox and Reform increased from 10 percent to 20.8 percent, and from 35 percent to 38.5 percent, respectively.11

Declining Conservative Numbers

Conservative Judaism has experienced a significant decline in recent years. By 2001, only 26.5 percent of America’s Jews identified as Conservative. Demographic decline had been occurring for two generations, primarily as a result of intermarriage. Many who were raised as Conservative are now unaffiliated or affiliate with Reform.

Some observers argue that the Conservative movement suffers from leadership malaise as well as the lack of a clearly formulated and compelling ideology. Alternatively, it has been claimed that Conservative Judaism is experiencing a winnowing, similar to that of Orthodoxy in the first half of the twentieth century, with younger Conservative Jews more committed than their elders. Formal education has experienced something of a renaissance, becoming more intensive. There are now sixty-six Conservative Solomon Schechter lower schools and eight high schools in the United States, as well as a Conservative yeshiva in Jerusalem offering a variety of intensive study programs for young adults. Other evidence, however, suggests less encouraging developments.

Conservative Tensions and Struggles

Over the past ten years the Conservative movement has lost two hundred congregations. Twenty-five years ago, the issue  in  Conservative  Judaism was how the rabbi and the synagogue should deal with the Jewish spouses in intermarriages—whether they should be entitled to membership, be called up to read from the Torah, and so on. Today, the issue is the role of the non-Jewish spouse in the Conservative synagogue, as increasing numbers of these synagogues become highly welcoming of them.

Today, the overwhelming majority of young Conservative Jews believe that intermarriage is acceptable, though the children should be raised Jewishly. A group of Conservative rabbis on the West Coast authored a small book, A Place in the Tent,12 that takes a more liberal approach toward outreach to the intermarried than is the official stance of the movement’s Rabbinical Assembly. The group coined a term to describe non-Jewish partners of Jewish congregants, k’rov Yisrael (close to the Jews), a much more inclusive and positive term than “non-Jew.” As one group member put it, “there’s tremendous power in acknowledging someone’s humanity and existence, and giving them a place within the structure.”

Increasingly, the Conservative Federation of Jewish Men’s Clubs are inviting non-Jews to serve on their boards. In 2005, the movement’s United Synagogue Youth organization changed its stance of opposition to keruv (outreach).

The modernizing of Conservative Judaism is apparent in other developments, including growing ambivalence about ordination of gays and lesbians and regarding same-sex marriages. In contrast to previous statements that simply reaffirmed the traditional rejection of homosexuality, the United Synagogue—the synagogue organization of Conservative Judaism—and the Rabbinical Assembly have called for civil rights for gays and lesbians.

The increasing religious modernism of Conservative Judaism was evident in the 2001 publication of an authorized Torah translation and commentary, Etz Hayim, which included essays explicitly questioning, if not rejecting, the historicity of various biblically recorded events. Although the movement has always permitted a less than literal interpretation of Scripture, it had also not explicitly rejected the historicity of many of its recorded events.

Traditional Judaism

A group of rabbis, some of whom taught at the Conservative movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary, and laypeople who opposed changes spearheaded a new group, the Union for Traditional Conservative Judaism (UTCJ), which initially was to be a “loyal opposition” within the movement. Subsequently, it viewed Conservative Judaism as deviating further from tradition. UTCJ objected to— among other issues—some of the textual revisions in the new Conservative prayer book, Sim Shalom, as well as the Conservative alliance with Reform in a struggle to have Israel accept non-halachic (according to Jewish law) conversions. UTCJ argued that Conservative Judaism was initiating reforms that even conflicted with its own halachic authorities.

Consequently, the group formally broke with Conservative Judaism and was renamed the Union for Traditional Judaism (UTJ). Its membership comes primarily from the Conservative Right and the Orthodox Left, and seeks to deemphasize denominational labels. It has established a rabbinical seminary, the Institute of Traditional Judaism (Metivta), and a rabbinical organization, Morashah (Moetzet Rabbanim Shomrei Hahalachah), but is as yet a small movement whose development remains to be seen. It has, however, sapped much of the strength of Conservative Judaism’s right wing; at the same time, developments in Reform Judaism have attracted increasing numbers of its left wing.

Reform Judaism

Like Conservative Judaism, Reform lacks a coherent ideology, but it has not experienced the same consequences. The movement’s numbers have grown fivefold since 1937. The National Jewish Population Survey figures show that 35 percent of America’s Jews identified with Reform in 2001.

The patterns of Reform Judaism resemble the broader patterns of religion in American society. Whereas classical Reform all but excised spirituality from Judaism, contemporary Reform has vigorously restored it. It has also reintroduced Hebrew into its most recent official prayer book, Gates of Prayer, and has reemphasized the notion of mitzvot (commandments) and the bar and bat mitzvah (coming of age) ceremonies, as well as a wide range of traditional rituals earlier defined as antithetical to modern sensibilities.

Whereas both the observance of dietary laws and the wearing of kippot (skullcaps) and tallitot (prayer shawls) were once perceived as retrograde, today they are viewed positively by Reform rabbis and congregants.13 Compared to the early twentieth century, there has also been a revolution in Reform’s position on Zionism and Israel.

Reform Judaism has also reversed its attitudes toward Jewish education, and has established a number of Reform day schools. Indeed, today, Hebrew Union College in New York even has a kollel (institute for advanced study). The Responsa Committee of the Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR), the Reform rabbinic organization, has become much more rooted in traditional Jewish sources. To some, contemporary Reform sounds at times little different from Orthodoxy, but that is hardly the case. The essential difference remains that, for Orthodoxy, religious observances are viewed as mitzvot in the literal sense commandments of a Higher Authority. For Reform, such observances do not have the binding character of halachah, but are symbolic acts that derive from and appeal to personalism and voluntarism, a search for self-meaning.

The CCAR Responsa Committee, unlike parallel bodies in Conservative and Orthodoxy movements, is solely an advisory committee, and its “responsa provide guidance, notgovernance.”14 Thereis, therefore, noinconsistencybetween Reform’s adaptation of traditional rituals and its simultaneously sanctioning behavior that is taboo in the tradition, such as intermarriage and same-sex partnerships, which in 2000 the CCAR declared as “worthy of affirmation through appropriate Jewish ritual.”15 Thus, despite Reform’s “traditionalist” manifestations, the rift between it and the traditional Jewish community remains wide.

Until recently, “triumphalism,” the prediction by one denomination of the demise of another, was limited to the Conservative and Orthodox trends. Reform has now entered the fray and, in an article in a CCAR publication, the organization’s executive vice-president predicted that the Conservative and Reconstructionist movements’ congregational and rabbinical organizations will soon either join the Union for Reform Judaism or disappear.16 The claim exacerbated relations between the Reform and Conservative movements. Ironically, it may also spark a reaction that could slow or even halt the Conservative decline.

Orthodox Judaism

Not long ago, the Orthodox were known for having the highest proportion of elderly. In 2001, they had the highest proportion of young children. Thirty-nine percent of the Orthodox population are children; only 12 percent are elderly. The corresponding figures in the total American Jewish population are 20 percent and 19 percent. As noted earlier, among those American Jewish households who belong to a synagogue, 21 percent are Orthodox.

Two important societal developments of the late 1970s and 1980s affected the character of American Orthodoxy. The “turn to the Right” that occurred in Orthodoxy reflected, in large measure, a broader trend and rise of fundamentalism in the United States. Moreover, “on the international religious scene, it is conservative or orthodox or traditionalist movements that are on the  rise almost everywhere.”17 The forces of moderation have widely been replaced by fundamentalism, and it has become fashionable to reject the culture—although not the technology—of modernity in favor of “strong religion.”18 It should, therefore, be no surprise that American Orthodoxy moved to the Right.

With these developments, the haredim (ultra-Orthodox) have apparently gained self-confidence that manifests itself in greater assertiveness. For example, whereas at mid-century religious outreach was the province of the modern Orthodox, with the haredim being somewhat suspicious of ba’alei teshuva (the newly religious), by the end of the century the haredim were heavily engaged in religious outreach. Some of the frameworks include the National Jewish Outreach Program (NJOP), the Association for Jewish Outreach Programs (AJOP), with hundreds of Orthodox outreach affiliates, and the Orthodox Union’s National Conference of Synagogue Youth (NCSY). Many of these were initially Modern Orthodox but are today staffed by haredim.

While Orthodox or traditional Jews have more than one identity, their identity as Jews is paramount. This is not true of the other 90 percent of Jews in America. This is demonstrable by the language they use to describe themselves as a group. Until the 1970s and 1980s, fiction and sociological literature referred to Jews living in America as American Jews. The last twenty years has seen a shift toward the appellation Jewish Americans, showing the primacy of the identity as American, even though the modifier “Jewish” is important for most. It appears that today the movement toward assimilation has passed its low point, and the return to a more intensive Jewish lifestyle, as a function of identification, is palpable and normative, even among a substantial portion of the intermarried.

Modern Orthodoxy Turning Inward

Ironically, the Modern Orthodox who pioneered religious outreach have turned inward and, institutionally, are hardly engaged in such activity. For the most part, the Modern Orthodox have become defensive and are much more likely to engage in intellectual discussions among themselves, rather than actively reaching out beyond their borders. Likewise, as Adam Ferziger has demonstrated,19 the Modern Orthodox rabbinical seminaries have turned more inward and emphasize halachic expertise, whereas the more right-wing institutions have programs that train rabbis in outreach. Even in NCSY, which is a branch of the Orthodox Union, much of the leadership has a strong haredi influence.20

On the other hand, there have been some significant recent developments in Modern Orthodoxy that suggest a significant base of those who are committed to working with the larger Jewish community as well as with the larger society. Most notably, Yeshivat Chovevei Torah (YCT), founded in 1999 with an explicit ideology of openness, continues to grow despite the fact that its ordainees are not accepted as members in the major Orthodox rabbinic organization, the Rabbinical Council of America. Some of YCT’s ordainees have found pulpits in Orthodox synagogues, and many others have gone into positions in other institutions such as Hillel, Jewish schools, and other Jewish communal settings.

Although it might have been expected that the Modern Orthodox, like those of the larger American society, would be less likely to be affiliated and actively involved with communal organizations,21 evidence indicates that they are highly engaged communally. Thus, in their study of young Jewish adults, Jacob Ukeles and associates found young Orthodox Jews to have the strongest degree of Jewish connections,22 and the director of the American Jewish Committee’s Department of Contemporary Jewish Life predicted that “younger Orthodox  adults  are likely to play increasingly important roles in organized Jewish life given their commitments, numbers, and fertility patterns.”23

The Ultra-Orthodox

The ultra-Orthodox, on the other hand, have moved precisely in the direction of outward involvement. Agudath Israel, for example, became very active in the public sphere during the latter half of the twentieth century. It maintains a fulltime office in Washington, DC, as well as others across the United States, and actively lobbies all branches of federal, state, and local government on issues that it views as of Jewish interest. Its public relations specialist frequently publishes columns in Jewish newspapers across the country and internationally, expressing the Aguda perspective on broad issues of importance to Jews.

Indications are that the haredim are increasingly attached to the larger society, and view living their lifestyle as a right rather than something that sets them apart from it. One possible indication of this is the widespread display of American flags at homes and businesses in heavily Orthodox neighborhoods following the 9/11 attack. The fact that the national office of Agudath Israel sent strongly-worded letters imploring its members to contribute to the fund for families of firefighters and police victims of the disaster also seems to indicate a deep sense of identification with the tragedy as Americans, and of being an integral part of the society.

Food, Publishing, Voting

The coming of age of Orthodoxy in American society manifested itself in additional developments during the second half of the past century. One was the growth of the kosher food industry. Previously, it was difficult to be an observant Jew, especially with regard to the dietary requirements. Because of a combination of cultural and structural factors, this is no longer the case.

The general trend of both spouses in the family working outside the home precipitated a growing need for readymade foods and, for observant Jews, kosher readymade foods. Increasing numbers of food products that are sold in supermarkets and grocery stores around the country are kosher. Clearly, most of those partaking of kosher food today are not Orthodox or even Jewish. The emergence of this industry is evidence, among other things, of the socioeconomic mobility of American Orthodox Jews.

Orthodox Publishing

Another industry that has developed dramatically is that of English-language Orthodox publishing. The largest in this field are Rabbis Nosson Scherman’s and Meir Zlotowitz’s ArtScroll and Mesorah, which publish a wide array of translations, including the very popular ArtScroll Siddur (prayer book).

Critics have argued that ArtScroll censors its books to present only haredi perspectives. However, most observers agree that ArtScroll has revolutionized Jewish learning in America and raised its level to unprecedented heights by bringing many sacred texts to the attention of the general public. In addition, it has played a key role in the popularization of daily Talmud study through publication of an English-language translation of the Talmud.

One manifestation of this phenomenon was a series of major celebrations, comprised of more than twenty-five thousand Jews who completed the entire Talmud by studying a page each day for approximately seven and a half years. By the close of the century, being Orthodox not only appeared acceptable but almost the “in” way to be Jewish. As suggested, this dramatic turn was precipitated by a variety of internal Jewish as well as broader societal developments.

American Orthodox Jews have typically voted more conservatively than mainstream American Jewry, but they have not played a prominent role in conservative politics. This now appears to be changing. That Orthodoxy is now “kosher” in America was obvious at the 2004 Republican National Convention, where kippot of both the haredi and modern varieties were evident all over. Rebbetzin Esther Jungreis gave the benediction on the second night, and an Orthodox woman read Psalms in Hebrew and requested a minute of silence for recent victims of terror.

The “Cost of Jewish Living” and Its Impact

This author has argued that the 1990 National Jewish Population Survey (NJPS) data indicate that Orthodox families have lower annual incomes than Conservative and Reform families. Therefore, the “cost of Jewish living,” while affecting all the denominations, is higher for the Orthodox, who send their children to private day schools, as well as contribute to a variety of other Jewish communal institutions. There is, thus, ample evidence that the Orthodox are disproportionately affected by what has been called “the high cost of Jewish living.”24

The lower income of the Orthodox continued to be evident in the 2000–2001 NJPS. For example, of those identifying as Orthodox, 80 percent had incomes of less than $100,000, compared to 77 percent for Conservative and 73 percent for Reform. Five percent of those who identified as Conservative had incomes of $300,000 or more, compared to 3 percent for Reform and only 1 percent for Orthodox. It must furthermore be taken into account that the Orthodox have larger families.

The Orthodox community encompasses a range of values and lifestyles from ultra-Orthodox to Modern Orthodox. At the most religious end of this spectrum are a significant sector who live in poverty but continue to uphold their beliefs and practices. The potency of the community and its institutions serves to support these values and practices. Thus the economic hardships of the most impoverished are often mitigated, to a degree, by the readiness of community members and institutions to help. Giving tzedakah (charity) is a hallmark of the community and is seen as a requirement, a mitzvah in the sense of a commandment and not just an opportunity to “do good.”

Gerald Bubis assumes that the cost is not a barrier for the Orthodox community because their Jewishness is the most important aspect of their identity.25 However, he does not consider that cost may play a role in the fact that Orthodoxy has not grown as rapidly as one might have expected. It may also play a role in the haredization of American Orthodoxy because the haredi community is more tightly knit and has much greater provision for hesed (good works) of all kinds, for those who do not have the means.

Conclusion: The Decline of Overt Interdenominational Tension

The marked decline in overt interdenominational tension in recent years is viewed by many as a very positive development in American Judaism. It is believed to bespeak a new era of tolerance and even pluralism, which are viewed as signs of communal health.

Some, however, such as Jack Wertheimer, are not so sanguine. Wertheimer correctlyaversthat:“Despiteallthe positive rhetoric andcooperative programming, the religious leaders of the various movements speak very different languages and employ entirely different categories of religious discourse.”26

The question, however, is why this should matter. Does community require that everyone agree or even employ the same categories of religious discourse, or instead, that despite their differences they feel a sense of kinship and at least behave civilly toward each other? What is important is that the various factions view themselves as a common community and that, despite their ideological differences, they cooperate civilly with each other to the degree feasible.


1. Marshall Sklare, Conservative Judaism: An American Religious Movement (Glencoe, IL: Free Press, 1955), 43. The augmented edition included an entire new chapter in which Sklare analyzed the dilemmas of Conservatism and contrasted its development to that of Orthodoxy, which “has transformed itself into a growing force in American Jewish life [and] reasserted its claim of being authentic interpretation of Judaism” (New York: Schocken, 1972), 264.
2. Harvey Cox, The Secular City (New York: Macmillan, 1965).
3. Thomas Altizer and William Hamilton, eds., Radical Theology and the Death of God
(Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1966).
4. “A Bleak Outlook Seen for Religion,” New York Times, 25 February 1968, 3.
5. Peter L. Berger, A Rumor of Angels: Modern Society and the Rediscovery of the Supernatural. (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1969).
6. Charles Glock and Robert Bellah, eds., The New Religious Consciousness (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1976).
7. Robert Wuthnow, The Restructuring of American Religion: Society and Faith since World War II (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1988).
8. Margaret Talbot, “A Mighty Fortress,” New York Times Magazine, 27 February 2000, 36.
9. UJC, “Orthodox Jews: A United Jewish Communities Presentation of Findings,” February 2004.
10. Bernard Lazerwitz, J. Alan Winter, Arnold Dashefsky, and Efraim Tabory, Jewish Choices: American Jewish Denominationalism (Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 1998), 40, Table 3.1.
11. It should be noted that denominational identification has declined overall in recent years. According to Barry Kosmin, the percentage of Americans who identify as Jews by ethnicity but claim no religion has risen dramatically in recent years, from around 20 percent in 1990 to about 37 percent in 2008 (Barry Kosmin, “The Changing Population Profile of American Jews 1990–2008,” paper presented at the 15th World Congress of Jewish Studies, Jerusalem, August 2009). For a discussion of the meaning of this rise, see Bruce A. Phillips, “Accounting for Jewish Secularism: Is a New Cultural Identity Emerging?” Contemporary Jewry, vol. 30, no. 1 (2010).
12. Tiferet Project (Rabbi Mark Bloom et al.), A Place in the Tent: Intermarriage and Conservative Judaism (Berkeley, CA.: EKS, 2004).
16. Debra Nussbaum Cohen, “Reform Leader Predicts Demise of Conservatives,” Jewish Week, 5 March 2004.
17. Peter L. Berger, ed., The Desecularization of the World: Resurgent Religion and World Politics (Washington, DC: Ethics and Public Policy Center and Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1999), 6.
18. Gabriel A. Almond, R. Scott Appleby, and Emmanuel Sivan, Strong Religion: The Rise of Fundamentalisms around the World (Chicago: University of Chicago Press), 2003.
19. Adam S. Ferziger, “Training American Orthodox Rabbis to Play a Role in Confronting Assimilation: Programs, Methodologies and Directions,” Research and Position Papers, Rappaport Center for Assimilation Research and Strengthening Jewish Vitality, Faculty of Jewish Studies, Bar-Ilan University, 2003.
20. On the haredi influence in NCSY, see Nathalie Friedman, Faithful Youth: A Study of the National Conference of Synagogue Youth (New York: National Conference of Synagogue Youth, 1998).
21. Political scientist Robert Putnam amassed considerable data indicating that Americans are increasingly less likely to join parent-teacher associations, unions, political parties, and other social groups. See Robert D. Putnam, Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2000).
22. Jacob B. Ukeles, Ron Miller, and Pearl Beck, “Young Jewish Adults in the United States Today: Harbingers of the American Jewish Community of Tomorrow?”American Jewish Committee, September 2006, 64–71.
23. Press Release, American Jewish Committee, “AJC Study: Young Jewish Adults to Reshape U.S. Jewry,” 1531911&ct=2356233.
24. Chaim I. Waxman, Jewish Baby Boomers: A Communal Perspective (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 2001), 35.
25. Gerald B. Bubis, “The Costs of Jewish Living: Revisiting Jewish Involvements and Barriers,” Contemporary Jewish Life Department, American Jewish Committee, 2005,
8. Quoted with permission.
26. Jack Wertheimer, All Quiet on the Religious Front: Jewish Unity, Denominationalism, and Postdenominationalism in the United States (New York: American Jewish Committee, 2005), 23.

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