Empty pews — the decline of religion in America
Last week, I was on a panel discussing the “Future of Houses of Worship.” The session was sponsored by the Religious News Association, which is a professional organization for journalists at secular news organizations and for reporters who are at religious publications not owned by denominations.
Mark Eldson, author of “Gone for Good,” a book about how church property can be repurposed for greater societal good, said that more than 100,000 churches will be sold by 2030. That’s an astounding figure. The other speakers reported on their efforts to transform church property into affordable housing and other creative solutions consistent with their religious mission.
As a consultant for the Jewish Community Legacy Project, I considered our work.
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Founded about 15 years ago by David Sarnat, the former executive of the Atlanta Jewish Federation and my former boss, JCLP is the only Jewish organization to work exclusively with small congregations around the country. Its mission is to help congregations plan, whether for the short or the long term. If the congregation’s future is dim, we help it develop a legacy plan so that proceeds from the sale of a building or other assets can fund an endowment that can support cemeteries, a downsized congregation if feasible, or projects deemed by the congregation to be worthy of support. JCLP is completely independent and coordinates its work with the major Jewish religious denominations and Jewish Federations of North America. During its short history, JCLP has worked with more than 100 congregations and has fielded inquiries from more than a hundred more.
Dozens of renewal plans have been developed using input from leadership and members via surveys of membership and phone interviews. Regional cohorts have been developed throughout the United States bringing resources to small congregations that would be beyond their financial reach. When synagogues no longer are viable, JCLP has helped facilitate the transfer of close to 70 sifrei Torah to Hillels, fledgling congregations, and Jewish camps. In addition, more than $8,500,000 in congregational endowments have been invested in Jewish community foundations, insuring that the legacy of these congregations is maintained. More than 30 archives consisting of minutes, photographs, and other memorabilia have been transferred to the American Jewish Archives in Cincinnati or to local historical societies.
Then I addressed the elephant in the room, the significant erosion of the place religion plays in our society. The decline is staggering. The share of Americans belonging to churches dipped from around 70% in the 1940s through the ’90s to below 50% today. There is a surging population of so-called nones, who claim no religion at all. Affiliation with a religious denomination has cratered. “If nondenominational were a denomination, it would be the largest Protestant one,” Daniel Silliman wrote in Christianity Today.
If anything, these trends are even more pronounced within the Jewish community. According to the most recent Pew study of the Jewish population, a third of Jews between the ages of 30 and 49 don’t identify as Jewish in religious terms. This number increases to 40% for those between the ages of 18 and 29. Other studies have shown that the Jewish nones identify less with Israel and engage less with their Jewishness.
The Heritage Foundation and the Pew Research Center, among others, have demonstrated the important role religion plays in the social fabric of American society. Regular attendance at religious services is linked to healthy, stable family life, strong marriages, and well-behaved children. Religious practice leads to a reduction in domestic and substance abuse and addiction, better physical and mental health, longevity, and education attainment.
This is not surprising as synagogues promote community. In addition, religious people are more philanthropic, consistent with scripture’s teachings.
At a time when social mores are a moving target, religion serves as a ballast against the moral relativism so pervasive in our body politic. Religious people don’t necessarily follow Yogi Berra’s admonition that “if you come to a fork in the road, take it.” The moral absolutes that religion provides help us navigate the rigors of daily life.
What are some of the initiatives we can undertake to stem this tide?
We ought to recognize that a synagogue president faced with these daunting demographic challenges, aggravated by covid, needs peer support. It’s a lonely job. Learning from peers tackling the same issues, and receiving emotional support from them, is imperative to prevent burnout. Toward that end, JCLP has launched a presidents’ forum to address pressing issues while providing emotional support for more than 100 synagogue presidents.
The days of the edifice complex during the boom years of the last century largely are over. Greater decentralization and more flexible program spaces are preferred as demonstrated by Chabad’s success.
Membership dues structures should be evaluated to envelop a more consumerist mentality. Providing free or reduced membership as “loss leaders” or “pay what you can” should be considered while stewarding major donors to help pick up any gaps in operating income.
Developing a bequest program to insure the continuity of the synagogue is a must, particularly for long time members. Providing named endowments for programs and key clerical positions should be considered.
Making the programming relevant for contemporary issues, whether social justice, combatting antisemitism, the environment, promoting spiritualism and the like must be part of the synagogue’s toolkit. The synagogue should embrace the “one-stop shopping” model of meeting the congregants’ needs.
Be in constant touch with members and prospective members and elicit their input on a regular basis.
The Pew Study reported that three-quarters of American Jews feel that remembering the Holocaust is essential to being Jewish. While studying about the Holocaust, the worst catastrophe of our history, is essential, using it as the linchpin of Jewish identity is troubling. With the rise of antisemitism, this emphasis on Jewish victimhood rather than Jewish pride and the joy of Jewish living will have a counterproductive impact on young Jewish lives.
Communities must reach out to the hundreds of thousands of young adults whom we invested in Birthright Israel to be part of the solution rather than passive bystanders.
We are living in very troubling times, with looming geopolitical challenges. The support that our religious institutions play in providing safe harbors for its members while nourishing our social fabric should be part of our collective marketing approach with all religious groups.
America can still be a light unto the nations and the city on a hill, as our founders envisioned that it would be.
Max Kleinman of Fairfield was the CEO of the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest from 1995 to 2014. He is the president of the Fifth Commandment Foundation and consultant for the Jewish Community Legacy Project.