The current American form of Judaism developed as a reaction to the mass immigration of Jews into a free society and the headlong drive to acclimate and acculturate to the societal norms of the time. In order to prevent the masses of Jews from abandoning Judaism in the process of adjustment to a new land, a new emphasis was placed on the institution in Judaism. This emphasis reflected the prevailing religious norms of the society, namely those of Christianity, which is church-centered.
The practical result was that the synagogue, and membership in these institutions, became the distorted focus of Jewish religious life. It no longer mattered if one lacked in Jewish observance or Torah learning. So long as one was a dues-paying member of the synagogue or temple and attended regularly, or even just occasionally, one fulfilled the obligation necessary to be a good Jew. One could even become a prominent and respected member of the community in this way — particularly, if one contributed generously to the institution he or she belonged to, or contributed to the local federation and Israel.
I believe that it is this synagogue-focused paradigm that young people are rejecting — and I don’t blame them. Though it is true that the accumulated impact of close to a century of this misconception has left its mark, I believe that this is reversible.
The Jewish community needs to pivot from this current prevailing model to a more authentic one that emphasizes the personal observance of mitzvot and engagement in religious life. Whether it is the realm of “between man to man or man to God” they are both ultimately about man’s relationship with God. Without this core, nothing can be sustained for long.
Rabbi Shmuel Kaplan, “A Rabbi Sees Silver Lining In Study’s Finding’s”, The Jewish Week (1 November 2013), 26.