Last week I posted some initial thoughts on the Spiritual Communities Study survey results, and then ZT posted a second round. Since then, they’ve made some revisions to the report, incorporating suggestions from us and other bloggers, so the squeaky wheel has gotten the grease. As crazy as it sounds, I’m now posting a third round of commentary on the survey.
As Desh has pointed out, these results should silence those who claim that independent minyan participants are motivated by selfishness and narcissism, in contrast with conventional synagogues and their participants who are committed to the broader community. In addition to the data that Desh cites, the results show that independent minyan participants have higher “yes” rates than synagogue members on the questions “I have a strong sense of belonging to the Jewish people” and “I have a special responsibility to take care of Jews in need around the world”. (The report didn’t list the results for the question “I have a Jewish responsibility to care for people in trouble (as with Darfur or Katrina)”, which would also be interesting to see.) Moreover, though there are no comparable numbers for synagogue members, the survey also shows that 95% of independent minyan participants have been invited to a Shabbat meal by someone in their community in the last year, and 86% have invited others. These results come within a few days of another study showing that people are leaving conventional congregations because this sense of community is missing. (Of course, this isn’t true of all synagogues. Kol hakavod to any community of whatever structure whose participants are committed to each other and to the larger world.)
Next, another word on the Reform stuff. I’m particularly interested in this, as someone who definitely marked “Reform” for the first question (in which denomination were you raised?) and probably was among the 3% who marked “Reform” for the second question (what do you consider yourself now?) but I’m not certain. I’m not connected to any Reform-affiliated institutions, but I still think of myself as a Reform expat; the synagogue I don’t go to is Reform. But the fact that I’m not certain highlights the fact that the answer to this second question doesn’t necessarily have any direct real-world manifestations (i.e. affiliations, behaviors, etc.) and is all in the respondent’s head (and might not be in the respondent’s head very often except when s/he is answering surveys like this). But the results are still very interesting and worthy of study. Pardon me if, in the next few paragraphs, I blur the lines between Reform Judaism (which can mean a number of things - ideology, aesthetics, etc.) and the Reform movement (a set of institutions), which I generally try to avoid, but this blurring is an essential aspect of the topic at hand (Reform self-identification). The same, of course, is true about Conservative Judaism (again, defined in a number of ways) and the Conservative movement. (This latter blurring leads at times to serious logical inconsistencies. The report (p. 4-5) says that Conservative leaders claim that independent minyanim are “Conservative congregations flying a Liberian flag”, presumably basing this claim on traits of the minyanim that they would identify as “Conservative”, and/or the fact that participants in the minyanim grew up in the Conservative movement. But the same Conservative leaders would claim that Conservative central institutions, such as the CJLS, have the authority to determine policies and halacha that Conservative congregations should aspire to. Does this include “Conservative congregations flying a Liberian flag”? If so, then they seem to be making the absurd claim that the CJLS (etc.) automatically has plenary jurisdiction over any Jewish community that davens in Hebrew without a mechitza (or whatever criteria they’re using) or has Ramah alumni among its participants, regardless of whether that community ever consented to this.)
In my last post, I wrote about people who grew up in a particular denomination and still consider themselves to be carrying out that denomination’s values even when they’re not affiliated with it or with something with superficial similarities to it. I admit that this is somewhat of an elite position that doesn’t necessarily reflect most people’s experiences. Would I still identify myself as “Reform” (based on background and ideology, but not institutional affiliation or aesthetics) if I weren’t a fifth-generation Reform Jew, a third-generation NFTY alum, and generally descended from Reform nobility? Less clear. Denominational self-identification (which, again, only really comes up for this crowd when we’re taking surveys) is based on a combination of many factors.
The numbers from the survey (p. 16) appear to suggest that the majority of people raised Reform now identify as something else (presumably “Other Jewish”, which has the largest gain), while the majority of people raised Conservative still identify as Conservative. But all we know is the numbers - we don’t know whether the people who identify as Conservative are the same people who were raised Conservative. However, this information is available in the raw data, so in the next report, I’d be interested in seeing these results further broken down — what percent of people raised x now identify as y, etc. In the absence of this additional information, I’m going to propose a hypothesis that might be confirmed or refuted when we see that data: perhaps there is a shift from Reform to Conservative, and from Conservative to Other Jewish.
A possible mechanism for these shifts: Suppose Reuven grew up in a Reform congregation, and Chana grew up in a Conservative congregation, and now they both participate in a (let’s say) “traditional egalitarian” independent minyan and like it better than what they grew up with. Reuven says “Huh. I like this minyan, with its all-Hebrew prayers, better than my family’s congregation, with its English responsive readings. I guess that means I’m Conservative.” Chana says “No way. I know the Conservative movement, and it doesn’t look anything like this. You can call me ‘Other Jewish’.”
(Reuven and Chana don’t represent everyone. There are certainly people who are Reform->Other Jewish, and for the numbers to make sense, there must still be some Conservative->Conservative. But perhaps they represent some people.)
One more question to consider: So why is it in the first place that plenty of independent minyanim are mistaken for Conservative, while there are few to no independent minyanim (of the type studied in this survey) accused of being “Reform congregations flying a Liberian flag”? I’ve already said that lots of independent minyanim represent Reform ideals of informed autonomy, but why aren’t there more independent minyanim that display superficial traits commonly associated with “Reform” (in the same superficial way that Hebrew+egalitarian = “Conservative”, and thus Kol Haneshama “isn’t really Reform”)? (Or why is it that, as the report says on p. 18, “few emergent communities take a Reform-style approach”, except that I would limit “Reform-style” to these aesthetic elements.) Some might chalk this up to “increased interest in tradition”, whatever that means. I disagree. While this may be true of some minyanim, there are others whose participants and general communal outlooks are “progressive” on a number of axes, and still pray in a way that would be somewhat alien to the typical person coming from an exclusively Reform-affiliated background — generally involving an unchanging macroscopic liturgical structure, and prayers all in Hebrew. I think it has more to do with the participatory havurah ethic that characterizes many independent minyanim. The prayer leader is seen as truly a sheliach tzibbur (representative of the community), rather than as a top-down leader. Any of these “Reform” elements that are missing from independent minyanim — and I’m not talking about musical instruments or “Reform” melodies, which are used in some independent minyanim, but I’m talking about English readings and explanations of the prayers and changes in macroscopic liturgy from week to week — require top-down leadership in order to be implemented. Participants can’t simply daven on their own, since there’s no way to know what’s coming next until the leader says so. Thus, the use of a style sometimes characterized as “traditional” isn’t always motivated by “traditional” concerns, but may be motivated by a desire to maximize individual freedom and participation.
Yes, there are also Conservative congregations with heavy-handed top-down prayer leadership, with which independent minyan prayer has little in common. But there are also counterexamples in the Conservative movement, in Ramah and USY, which may be very different stylistically from most independent minyanim, but perhaps have a similar approach to the role of the sheliach tzibbur — similar enough that people aren’t as quick to characterize independent minyan prayer as “not Conservative” the way they characterize it as “not Reform”. Services at URJ camps and NFTY, though different from the typical Reform congregation, still require some degree of top-down leadership, even if it’s coming from a songleader or RCVP rather than a rabbi or cantor.
If the Reform movement is at all concerned about the fact that so many people who grew up in it are ceasing to identify as Reform, then as I’ve said before, the solution is to expand the horizons of what Reform prayer and Reform communities look like, and to create a vision of what a Reform community would look like if its participants were not dependent on top-down leadership.
So what about the “rabbi-led emergent communities”, which do have a rabbi, and tend to have more top-down prayer leadership? In those communities, it’s more likely that the style of prayer might be superficially recognizable as “Reform”. And indeed, more rabbi-led emergent participants (7%) identify as Reform than independent minyan participants (3%). But why is it still only 7%? This is in part because the communities happen to have other leanings — e.g., Kehilat Romemu (NYC) identifies itself with Jewish Renewal (”Other Jewish”), Kol Tsedek (Philly) is affiliated Reconstructionist (also “Other Jewish”), and Ikar (Los Angeles) is unaffilated but led by a Conservative-ordained rabbi. As the report says, “Most emergent community leaders see formal denominationalism as a barrier to entry and as connoting the types of congregations from which they seek to differentiate themselves.” (p. 17)
One more thing: for the record, I think it's dumb that denominational self-identification (for individuals and communities) is so tied to prayer, at the expense of all the other aspects of Judaism. (This is even more true of the border, or "mechitza" if you will, between Conservative and Orthodox identification.) But that's the way it is.