Tuesday, April 24th | 9 Iyyar 5778


Be in the know!

Get our exclusive daily news briefing.

June 12, 2017 10:50 am

Who Loses When Synagogues Join the Resistance?

avatar by Jonathan S. Tobin / JNS.org

Email a copy of "Who Loses When Synagogues Join the Resistance?" to a friend

President Donald Trump. Photo: YouTube screenshot.

JNS.org – For many years, every population study has shown that the American synagogue is in trouble. The demographic collapse of non-Orthodox Jewry has affected every aspect of US Jewry, but none more so than the Reform and Conservative movements. While the bar and bat mitzvah business has kept many such institutions afloat, the notion that joining a synagogue is normative behavior is fading.

An aging and increasingly assimilated Jewish population has shown decreasing interest in the traditional synagogue paradigm, and the result has been empty buildings and shrinking membership lists. While many talk about the need to reinvent Jewish life to better serve the needs of 21st-century Americans, with few exceptions the response of the Reform and Conservative movements to the crisis highlighted by the 2013 Pew survey on American Jewry has been a head-in-the-sand approach that would embarrass an ostrich.

But there is apparently one piece of good news for synagogues, and his name is Donald Trump. As Haaretz reported, the Trump presidency has produced a surge in attendance and membership at those synagogues, where a social justice agenda rules and rabbis are outspoken critics of the president. This “Trump bump” is the result of disheartened liberals looking for a place to vent their angst about the administration as well as an outlet for activism.

Whether it is “sanctuary synagogues” that have thrown open their doors to illegal immigrants or merely shuls whose Shabbat services are spiced up with anti-Trump sermons, the sense that politics is, at least in this case, mixing nicely with religion is clear. This sense of purpose and shared values among liberals seeking affirmation for their feelings of disgust about Trump is attractive to millennials who normally have little interest in religion, let alone organized Jewish life.

If that gives some synagogues a new lease on life, that’s fine. But there are two clear downsides to the Trump bump that ought to trouble everyone.

One is that the same liberal movements that long decried the evils of mixing politics and faith, when it was evangelical Christians who were infusing their churches with partisanship, are now exposed as hypocrites. One can make reasonable arguments that some elements of Jewish law buttress modern political liberalism, and there may have always been some truth to the old quip about Reform Judaism consisting of the Democratic Party platform with holidays thrown in. But once synagogues are dedicated to making religion serve partisan ends, it is always faith that gets the short end of the stick.

While Torah and Jewish peoplehood are eternal concepts, the anti-Trump resistance will come and go no matter who ultimately wins in the struggle between the president and his critics. Millennials searching for meaning may find a momentary haven in “sanctuary synagogues,” but like previous attempts to sell Jewish institutions to secular audiences, the idea that one can be a “green” Jew or one rooted in any other trendy topic is not one that is likely to survive in the long run.

Yet an even more serious drawback to infusing partisanship into Jewish life is that rather than draw Jews together, this is something that will only push us further apart. It is bad enough that in our bifurcated society driven by social media, we can delete and defriend anyone whose views don’t conform to our pre-existing beliefs and prejudices. Once synagogues take the leap into open political activity — and the Trump bump means the line between apolitical social justice and the partisan resistance is being erased by some liberal rabbis — they are, in effect, declaring those who don’t agree with these views persona non grata in the sanctuary.

In addition, the shift of liberals into anti-Trump mode will only widen the already yawning chasm between Reform and Conservative Jews and the fast-growing number of their Orthodox coreligionists. The Orthodox are not only more likely to be political conservatives and thus more inclined to back Trump. For them, Trump’s greater sympathy for Israel has far more appeal than any stance on social justice.

The most important thing synagogues and other social institutions can do at a time of increased polarization would be to make themselves places where political divisions are de-emphasized, not exacerbated. Preaching politics from the pulpit will do just the opposite and ultimately will turn off far more than it will attract.

At best, the Trump bump is a temporary shot in the arm for liberal synagogues that will fade. At worst, it is a sign of growing division that sensible Jews should deplore no matter where they stand on Trump or any other political issue.

Jonathan S. Tobin is opinion editor of JNS.org and a contributing writer for National Review. Follow him on Twitter: @jonathans_tobin.

The opinions presented by Algemeiner bloggers are solely theirs and do not represent those of The Algemeiner, its publishers or editors. If you would like to share your views with a blog post on The Algemeiner, please be in touch through our Contact page.

Share this Story: Share On Facebook Share On Twitter Email This Article

Let your voice be heard!

Join the Algemeiner
  • NewYorkBaby80

    Well some Jews still go to daily services. But you are correct it is diminishing and is non-existent for most young American Jews who think it is only for the most observant.

  • NewYorkBaby80

    Most American Jews know so little about their religion. For a majority, on Jewish New Year they wish each other a sweet year and probably a major of Jews still abstain from food on the day of Atonement. Passover might mean a special dinner but most probably do not refrain from eating some type of food that is forbidden on the holiday due to its being leavened. Chanukah might mean candles and Purim may mean eating special foods. But many American and most western Jews are not familiar with the intricacies and the meaning of their religion. It now shows in their offspring. Although many Jews have been raised in Jewish communities as children their affiliation to their people and their religion is on the wane. One could simply ask themselves how could this happen. Well, it is obvious they do not have the built in software to retain a Jewish identity. No intensive Jewish education was provided that could have built a resilient identity. Now adult Jews struggle with this as they raise children, they join a synagogue but it becomes rather a culturally thing to do. And so their children assimilate to American culture to a greater degree and mostly choose spouses that are not even of their faith and jokingly with tragic overtones celebrate Christmas and Chanukah as a cultural theme. All is not loss. Common sense prevails and once the dynamics are understood things can and will change but for a large majority of the Jewish population it will enter oblivion. There is the history of the Holocaust to contend with and no doubt it has had an effect on Jews wanting to be Jews. It is scary when the Holocaust is confronted . There are Orthodox Jews who balance out a bit of the loss. There are young Jews who return to their religion and there are Jews who move to Israel. All will not be lost. There is a solution to this problem, intensive Jewish education and a commitment by Jewish families to follow tradition.

  • Lia

    Well-argued, Sir! Am Yisroel Chai!