The Effect of Hebrew on Worship Satisfaction & Congregational Membership

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by Cynthia L. Conley, PhD., MSW; Rabbi Dr. Nadia Siritsky, MSSW, BCC; Rabbi Devon A. Lerner, DD, MSW

“In the Historic spirit of Reform Judaism, we are committed to a meaningful, participatory liturgy that appeals to both mind and heart — a primarily English language Service (or in the vernacular of the community)  — enriched by the timeless elements of Hebrew texts…”

(Excerpt from “The Principles of the Society for Classical Reform Judaism,”  on our website at


The value of conducting services primarily in English is debated within the American Reform Movement, without much objective data to inform the conversation. In 2015, Dr. Cynthia Conley, Assistant Professor, Spalding University, School of Social Work, approached the Society, offering to conduct a survey to study the impact of the amount of Hebrew in Reform Jewish worship services on attendance and spiritual satisfaction. The Society gladly gave its verbal support for this study that could inform our advocacy efforts. Dr. Conley  designed the Interfaith Family and Jewish Life Survey and analyzed the results. The Society helped promote participation in the survey.

The results of the Interfaith Family and Jewish Life Survey have provided us with important data about who is likely to join a congregation and find meaning and purpose in worship experiences. The findings are particularly timely as many congregations are struggling to attract new members.

Over 230 individuals responded to the  survey with approximately 80% indicating that they were members of Reform congregations in the United States; 37% identified as a member of an interfaith couple. Seventy-one percent of congregants reported that they have a poor reading knowledge of Hebrew and 89% reported a poor understanding of Hebrew. In sum, only 11% can read and understand Hebrew.

A 2013 Pew Research study, A Portrait of Jewish Americans, concluded that:“Only 13% of Jews in America understand Hebrew, so the majority of them may be unintentionally excluded during worship services. Non-Jewish significant others who attend worship services are also unintentionally excluded from worship.”  

Since a large majority of Jews cannot read or understand Hebrew, the amount of Hebrew in a worship service will have a significant impact on those who attend.  This is a true for Jews and for interfaith families and individuals from different faith backgrounds who are spiritually drawn to Reform Judaism.  Those with little or no Hebrew language skills will find it more difficult to experience the beauty and power of the prayers and worship experience.

This is not, however, a reason to exclude Hebrew from services.  Hebrew is our sacred language.  Our key Hebrew prayers, recited and beloved by Jews around the world for centuries, are important parts of Jewish life and worship.  The sound of Hebrew spiritually connects us to our ancestors and heritage. Yet, the meaning of the words spoken in the vernacular and addressing matters of mind and heart, are essential for a spiritually meaningful experience. How much Hebrew we include can significantly impact who attends services and who joins a Reform congregation.  Here are two key findings of the Interfaith Family and Jewish Life survey.

Two Key Findings

1) Both members of congregations and prospective members said they are more likely to attend services and become engaged in the congregation when the worship services are language accessible. Non-members who do not understand Hebrew reported that their minds strayed when Hebrew was read. They also indicated that they would attend services more frequently if additional English was included in the service.

2) Interfaith families also indicated they are more likely to join a congregation when they feel unconditionally welcomed, when worship services are language accessible, and when the congregation’s policies support the full participation of interfaith families in the life of the congregation. This includes reading from the bimah during their child’s baby naming and Bar or Bat Mitzvah service.

Many interfaith families belong to or are considering joining a Reform congregation. Addressing language accessibility in Reform worship services is important as the number of interfaith families in America continues to grow. The initial findings of the Interfaith Family and Jewish Life Survey are encouraging and we look forward to conducting an expanded study to gain additional data that will allow Reform congregations to more effectively respond to the needs of all those who seek Jewish expressions of their spiritual quests. We anticipate that our initial survey and the data from an expanded survey will help us develop resources that can support congregations in meeting these needs. We look forward to sharing our findings with the broader Reform Jewish community.

Read the complete survey report on our website at:


A Portrait of Jewish Americans  2013 Pew Research Center
a.Only 13% of Jews in America understand Hebrew, so “the majority of them may be  unintentionally excluded during worship services.”                                                                                                                                                                                                                        b. Non-Jewish significant others who attend worship services are also unintentionally excluded from them.

Recent Studies on the Growing Number of  Interfaith Families in the U.S.

Religious Landscape Study: 2014 Pew Research Center  

One in six Jews in the United States are Jews by Choice, who converted to Judaism from another religion.

A Portrait of Jewish Americans  2013 Pew Research Center

a. Thirty-five percent of Jews are married or partnered to someone of a different faith or of no religious orientation.

b.  Fifty-eight percent of Jews who have married since 2000 are in interfaith marriages