Come Together

Jewish Light Editorial

Mergers, consolidations and collaborations have taken center stage in the local Jewish community over the past several years (see related story on Page 1).

At the merger level, we’ve seen two Conservative synagogues come together to form a new entity, Reform and Conservative day schools combine; and most recently, two large Reform congregations (Shaare Emeth and Temple Israel) announced plans to pursue a consolidation of some kind.

This list is hardly exclusive, as a variety of groups have looked critically at how various forms of collaboration can further their strategic goals. With resources so precious, it’s no wonder that partnership has started to trump competition as the preferred model de jour.

What does all this mean for the community in the long run? It’s very hard to say. In some ways, St. Louis Judaism is very much like the world around it, and in others, it’s quite different.

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The Jewish community shares the same travails that are plaguing other religious denominations. Studies published by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life show that organized religion is facing a general decline, with most groups facing a decline to some degree.

The October 2012 study stated a conclusion that many of us may sense from personal experience but which is clearly validated by the numbers, namely, that affiliation with religious institutions is declining overall: “In the last five years alone, the unaffiliated have increased from just over 15 percent to just under 20 percent of all U.S. adults.”

This trend may be more consistent with an antagonism toward institutions than devotion, as almost 70 percent of the estimated 44 million unaffiliated adults in the nation believe in God. One inference in this direction is that according to Pew, 88 percent of those considered unaffiliated are not looking for a religion that is “right for them.”

When the organized Jewish community devotes significant attention and resources to attract younger adults to a synagogue or other connection to Jewish life, it is another echo of the overall picture. Says Pew: “Among the youngest Millennials (those ages 18-22, who were minors in 2007 and thus not eligible to be interviewed in Pew Research Center surveys conducted that year), fully one-third (34 percent) are religiously unaffiliated, compared with about one-in-10 members of the Silent Generation (9 percent) and one-in-20 members of the World War II-era Greatest Generation (5 percent).”

It is against this backdrop that Jewish institutions must face realities about religious affiliation, and it is not a pretty picture. Fewer bodies and fewer funds to fuel the same number of agencies, institutions and synagogues presents a recipe for failure. Thus, there’s a need for aggressive analysis and extremely tough decisions about the survival of traditional groups, programs and projects.

A strength of the St. Louis Jewish community over the last three years has been to come to grips with many of the issues associated with the overall and Jewish trends. While mergers and other combinations can result in painful decisions about historic cultures and family ties, the alternative reality — failure, dissolution and nonexistence — is often far more damaging to those involved.

We’ve come a long way in a short period of time, and by no means are we done. Every organization owes it to its leaders, constituents and supporters to fairly assess its place in the community, what it offers spiritually, culturally and connectively, with a brutally honest assessment to shape the way for future success, either in present form or otherwise.

This responsibility must be shared by all groups in the community — synagogues, schools, the Jewish Federation and its constituent agencies (including us, of course) and others — as we together determine how Judaism can prosper and grow in St. Louis.

The future can be promising under a variety of circumstances. According to a study by the UJA-Federation of New York, the Big Apple’s Jewish population has grown recently, in part due to the increase in Hasidic and other Orthodox populations. And in Cleveland, a major demographic study completed last year surprisingly showed that the community’s Jewish population was overall about the same size as it was at the time of the last study in 1996. Increase in the Orthodox population there was estimated during the period at about 2,200, so there were also many other factors associated with the stability.

We congratulate those in St. Louis Jewish institutions who have led the way to challenge traditional norms and encourage fresh views on how our community should be shaped going forward. There will be continued mourning as we ache for what once was, but only by passing through some of those hurdles can we face the challenges of the future. We urge relentless and courageous vision and action to engage the dialogue essential to pursuing our future Jewish dreams.