Contemporary American Judaism: Transformation and Renewal by Reform Rabbi Dana Evan Kaplan

We talk by phone Tuesday, June 2. (Previous interviews with Rabbi Kaplan here.)

Luke: "You have a note in the beginning that some of your language in this book is a bit sharp."

Dana: "I’m trying to make certain points. I don’t know how others will read it… Particularly in chapter six, radical responses to the suburban experience, I’m saying that for many young Jews in particular, the way they experienced suburban Judaism was not positive. They saw their parents as interested in material success and superficial appearances rather than actual emotional and intellectual content and they rebelled against this."

Luke: "Does your book break new ground?"

Dana: "It’s not intended to…"

We talk about Rabbi Norman Lamm, former chancellor of Yeshiva University.

Dana: "I was bar mitzvahed by Norman Lamm. I was raised in a Reform household, but when I turned 12 and we were planning a bar mitzvah, my parents started taking me regularly to Temple Rodef Shalom on the Upper West Side where they were planning to have the bar mitzvah, but they used an organ, and I just reacted very emotionally negative to that organ, and I said I didn’t want to be bar mitvahed there. Right up the street was the Jewish Center where I had been going periodically as well, so we signed up there as members, or maybe we had already been joint members, I said I wanted to have my bar mitzvah there. My parents said fine. Rabbi Lamm as well as Rabbi Leo Young led the services at my bar mitzvah."

"I used to love to go to Saturday morning services there to hear Rabbi Lamm’s sermons. He spoke a lot about Israel and the politics of Israel in the Middle East."

Luke: "I was struck by the vehement way that the non-Orthodox leaders responded [to Rabbi Lamm saying we will soon be saying kaddish on Reform and Conservative Judaism]. They obviously care very much how this one Orthodox leader regards the viability of their movement."

Dana: "It seems that in general there are less polemics going back and forth in the last ten years then there were before. Both sides, particularly the Orthodox, have given up on the other side."

Luke: "It strikes me that winners don’t call for dialogue."

Dana: "The non-Orthodox are going through a trying period."

Luke: "Men seem to be dropping out of non-Orthodox Judaism, particularly Reform Judaism."

"The Orthodox have a lot of confidence that they are building on what they have."

Dana: "It’s a very serious problem. It makes a lot of sense. As you develop a new set of values, you have foreseen and unforeseen consequences… Men feel increasingly marginalized and alienated. You have a situation of the femininization of American religion… In my day at Hebrew Union College (the Reform seminary), I had heard a rumor that the admissions office was deliberately trying to keep the percentage of entering students male-female ratio at 50/50. And if they didn’t, it would quickly go to 65-70% women. I have heard that now it is. I wonder if that is true in the Reconstructionist and Conservative movements as well. I heard that in the cantorial school at Hebrew Union College, it is overwhelmingly women. It’s a big problem. It’s a problem with services. It’s a problem with boards. It’s a problem with participation across the board.

"Part of the reason for this is that men may have been participating in certain congregational activities, not because of a certain innate interest in Judaism, but because it was a way to show their social status. If you donated liberally, you could then be on the board. If you were on the board, you could then you were a macher and that gave you increasing social status in the community. Once a few women have been presidents, men may not see being a board member or even president giving them that social status and it may not be a way for them to assert their masculinity. And so it becomes of less interest.

"So, this is one of the huge challenges that face the non-Orthodox communities over the coming decades. A failure to figure out a successful strategy will come with serious consequences."

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About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see Amazon.com). My work has been followed by the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (Alexander90210.com).
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