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Recessionary Judaism

Is the economy affecting religious participation?

Marc Tracy
July 09, 2010

Via Shmuel Rosner, a new Newsweek article argues that the recession could be threatening Jewish participation in religious life, because—all inevitable kidding aside—being a religious Jew is expensive. Columnist Lisa Miller analogizes a Jack Wertheimer piece earlier this year in Commentary, which sounded the alarm on the rising costs and declining incomes of Orthodox Jews (who are more likely to be poor), to Peter Beinart’s essay in terms of their respective shockwaves. (Last month, staff writer Marissa Brostoff reported on how tightened budgets had led to unprecedented sharing of funds among the Jewish denominations.)

Wertheimer’s point is that poor Orthodox Jews are going to be increasingly reliant on outside philanthropy, which in turn may be increasingly scarce. But Miller proposes an alternative:

In 2008, 2.7 million Americans called themselves religiously Jewish, down from 3.1 million in 1990. Wouldn’t the central challenge of American Jewry be to encourage the broadest range of people (including the intermarried, like me) to identify as Jewish and to raise Jewish kids? Costly barriers to entry need to be taken away, or, at least, reimagined. “We have this very bizarre pay-to-play philosophy,” says Jay Sanderson, president of the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles. Christian churches, Sanderson points out, begin with an invitation to prayer; they ask for money later. “The Jewish community’s first instinct is ‘give us money,’ instead of ‘come in.’”

Those black-clad Chabad volunteers who have no doubt approached you—first asking, always, “Are you Jewish?” (since Jews don’t proselytize outside the faith)—and then invited you to come to Shabbat dinner at the local house, without asking you for money? According to Miller, they represent the future of Jewish growth, if there is a future of Jewish growth.

Marc Tracy is a staff writer at The New Republic, and was previously a staff writer at Tablet. He tweets @marcatracy.