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Can We Talk?: Jews and Affiliation

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Posted: Wednesday, October 23, 2013 12:24 pm

Alberto Friedmann sometimes lights candles on Shabbat. He once competed in the Maccabi games. He was confirmed and became a bar mitzvah as a youngster. Today, he still celebrates many of the holidays and even taught his stepchildren the dreidel game. 

His Judaism is important to him.

“It’s a large part of how I became who I am,” said the 45-year-old. “It is a central aspect to me as I am now.”

However, Friedmann does not belong to a congregation and has little or no connection to the organized Jewish community. Part of that is a function of distance. He lives in Highland, Ill., nearly an hour’s drive from a Missouri synagogue. But more to the point, he’s still looking for the right fit.

Apparently, he’s not alone in that pursuit. According to “A Portrait of Jewish Americans,” a national study released this month by the Pew Research Center in Washington D.C., less than a quarter of the nearly 3,500 Jews surveyed attended a house of worship monthly or more, and just over a tenth did so every week. Yet seven of 10 Jews surveyed participated in a seder last year, more than half fasted on Yom Kippur and four-fifths said being Jewish was “very” or “somewhat important” to them.

The data point to an emerging dichotomy in the American Jewish world. Judaism is playing a major part in the lives of many Jews even though many Jews are not playing a major part in the organized Jewish community. On a more practical level, it also represents a conundrum with stark consequences for communal institutions dependent on dues, contributions and participation from a shrinking group of involved congregants, donors and volunteers.

For his part, Friedmann says his warm relationship with his first rabbi during his childhood years may play a role in his inability to find a spiritual home today.

“I think every time I go somewhere and look at a potential synagogue, I just have a hard time and keep measuring it against that ideal,” he said.

‘If we don’t, we won’t’

To judge by today’s numbers, Judaic communal institutions might also feel that the days of Friedmann’s youth represented a better ideal.

“The formal affiliation rate with Jewish agencies and organizations clearly is declining but it is not so clear that folks are totally disassociating from Jewish life,” said Lane Steinger, rabbi at the Shir Hadash Reconstructionist Community. “A key finding was that most Jewish folks are proud of their Jewishness. That doesn’t seem to be translating though into formal membership in Jewish organizations or congregations.”

Steinger feels the phenomenon may represent an increasing disaffection toward institutions within American society generally as well as a growing secularization of Jews. Nowadays, they define themselves more through their culture or ethnicity rather than their faith.

Moreover, there is less need for Jewish institutions as cornerstones of life. No longer are Jews today composed of immigrants tormented by exclusion and discrimination as was the case in the early 20th Century.

“Similarly, when Jews moved to the suburbs following WWII and especially in the ’50s and early ’60s, they needed organizations and congregations to legitimate their presence on these new frontiers,” Steinger said. “We don’t have any of that anymore. The classic kind of growth that was spurred by these social forces doesn’t take place because the social forces aren’t there anymore.”

Steinger doesn’t necessarily see the Pew findings in a negative light, noting that compared to institutions like Jewish hospitals or homes for the aged, congregations are not faring that badly. The results merely reflect another set of challenges to which Jewish organizations must adapt. He feels that the longtime picture of the synagogue as a provider of early childhood education, pastoral care or a location for social events, may be resulting in a slow bleed of members who identify more with a service than with the organization.

“If that’s how people think of a congregation, then it is not a surprise that if they feel they don’t need the service, they don’t feel they need to support the entirety of the organization,” he said. “They’ll engage with what they feel they need.”

He believes that visionaries in the community should step forward and point the way.

“The bottom line question is ‘where is the leadership that can articulate the vision based in Jewish values as the goal toward which we need to be moving?’” he said.

At Central Reform Congregation in the city’s Central West End, Rabbi Susan Talve said that present trends simply reflect the reality that there is more than one way to be Jewish. She feels that too many barriers are put up to organized Jewish life and thinks Jews need to rethink what affiliation means.

“Do we look at ourselves more as a Jewish community that shares resources rather than as silos with separate congregations?” she asked. “How do we work more together recognizing when one of us is stronger, all of us are stronger?”

Meanwhile, congregations fight an age-old battle to stay meaningful.

“Certainly, the synagogue has to reinvent itself but we always have to reinvent ourselves because with every generation, there’s another challenge,” she said. “If we continue to be relevant to people’s lives and offer opportunities for meaning and relationships then we will remain central to the identity of the Jewish community.”

“If we don’t,” she added, “we won’t.” 

‘I haven’t been asked’

Talve has certainly impressed Joan Lipkin. The producing artistic director for That Uppity Theatre Company even once based a character on the rabbi in a play she wrote. Lipkin also does periodically attend services at CRC. 

“I feel a tremendous need to go to temple sometimes,” she said. “I feel a deep sense of warmth and connection with my history when I am there.”

But she said she doesn’t feel the need to be there as frequently as some others might and she isn’t a member. Lipkin, who was confirmed and attended religious school as a child, in chicago said she finds great value in the traditions of her faith, from the quiet reflection of Shabbat to the concept of atonement during Yom Kippur to the practice of sitting shiva for the deceased. She also feels attracted to its focus on education and social justice.

“There are many things I really love about Judaism,” she said. “There is no question that I am intrinsically Jewish. My values are Jewish. Things about my behavior, my focus is Jewish but I don’t tend to be somebody who goes to an organized setting on a regular basis.”

She has also found comfort in other traditions like Buddhism. Even her vocation helps fulfill her spiritually.

“I believe very deeply in community but a lot of my need for community is met through what I do through my work,” she said. “At its best, creating original performance with people who are often marginalized is deeply spiritual, challenging and satisfying. I often feel very connected to the flow of life.”

She believes that sometimes religion is perceived as judgmental. Moreover, she thinks that the more people are welcomed, the more they will become involved. That’s particularly true of marginalized groups like people of color or the lesbian/gay/transgender community.

“People will go to temple and organized events that have a religious affiliation if they have a need for that kind of community and if they are truly included,” she said. “The impetus is on our religious leaders and congregations to reach out and to say not only are you welcome but your participation and presence would enrich our community. It’s not just the rabbis that need to reach out. It’s the individual members of the congregation.”

Still, it can be hard for her to say what might move her to participate more in organized Jewish communal life.

“But I also haven’t been asked,” she said. “That’s a perfect example. Nobody has asked me.”

Relational Judaism

Part of that outreach effort may lie in work being done at Jewish community centers. Rabbi Brad Horwitz, director of the Helene Mirowitz Center of Jewish Community Life at the local JCC, said that his organization sometimes acts as a portal that leads individuals into a Judaic communal framework, perhaps even as a first step to introducing them to a synagogue.

“Maybe we’ll do some programming here at the JCC that involves area congregational rabbis so that people learn about them and form that relationship,” he said. “It’s not either/or. It’s ‘how do we work together to engage these people?’”

Horwitz notes that programming still plays a role in that process but the JCC has really begun to rethink its model of engagement. It’s not about putting on an event and hoping people will be interested but rather finding out what people are interested in before putting on the event.

“We’re not starting with the program,” he said. “We’re starting with the individuals and how we can serve their needs.”

Dr. Ron Wolfson, co-president of Synagogue 3000, a group that aims to reenergize congregational life, said that Judaic organizations find themselves in a bind.

“The playing field is different today,” he said. “It used to be that Jewish communal institutions were the only place you could go to get Jewish information, to celebrate lifecycle events and to be in a community of friends. Today, all of those things are available in other contexts. The Jewish institutions are not the only place for people to be Jewish.”

Part of this is due to the rise of the Internet. But the explosive growth of options everywhere in American life from charitable giving to fitness centers also plays a role. Federations, Jewish community centers and synagogues are often based on a 20th-century blueprint centered on events or services.

“It was transactional,” he said. “The previous model is that I’m going to pay you money and dues and you are going to give me a health club or a preschool for my kids or a rabbi on call or some programming. If I don’t need you anymore, I’ll drop out or I won’t come around much.”

Like Steinger, Wolfson, a St. Louisan now based in Los Angeles, views the Pew results as more of a challenge than a problem. His book on “relational Judaism” discusses replacing the programmatic focus of Jewish organizational life with one based on building longstanding connections between people and their culture, rather than institutions. 

“There are debates going on in the community,” said Wolfson, author of “Relational Judaism: Using the Power of Relationships to Transform the Jewish Community.” “You have some sociologists who say that it is possible to continue as a people based on culture and ethnicity. Some, especially religious leaders, say that if you don’t have Judaism at the core as a religion that it is a house of cards and will all fall apart.”

What this means for Jewish peoplehood remains unclear. Nonetheless, Wolfson feels the synagogue can remain bedrock as long as it responds to challenges in an innovative way.

“Every meeting I go to everybody wants to talk about the Pew study,” he said. “I don’t. I’m interested not in talking but in doing what we need to do to engage the people in the Pew study who are not being engaged.”

The next generation

One of Synagogue 3000’s projects is doing just that. St. Louis was one of several pilot cities to premiere Next Dor, a vehicle for engaging young adult Jews in community life. The local effort involves a house, which hosts events and acts as a gathering place for young men and women. It is located next to the CRC campus.

“The population I deal with ranges from unaffiliated to affiliated but they rarely identify with a particular denomination,” said Ruth Schachter, executive director of Next Dor, “so they might say they are affiliated in terms of celebrating holidays or wanting to participate in Jewish life but they will really avoid labels most of the time at all costs.”

She said that younger Jews aren’t opposed to involvement in the larger Jewish community but don’t always know where their new millennial brand of “do-it-yourself” Judaism and search for individual meaning fits into the mix. Perhaps, she adds, more outreach designed to give them a stronger voice in the Jewish community could be paramount.

“They are searching for connections and when they find that personal way to connect to an organization they’ll stick with it,” she said.

Rabbi Hershey Novack of Chabad on Campus at Washington University said avoiding engagement isn’t the issue among the Jewish students he knows. It’s simply that they have many options for interaction with the Jewish community in a world of expanding choice.

“I actually believe more young people are connected now than they were 10 or 20 years ago but they are connecting in different ways,” he said. “[It’s in] much the same way that perhaps more people are watching the news today but fewer are watching NBC, CBS or ABC,” he said.

Novack said that outside the strict question of affiliation, the trends in everything from matzah consumption to Jewish education to seder participation have a positive slope. The important thing isn’t necessarily to boost membership numbers but rather to find ways to educate and inspire. He compares Judaism to a library.

“The question isn’t how to get more people to carry library cards,” he said. “The question needs to be, ‘How do we get more people to read books?’”

The Jewish journey

St. Louisan Stacy Shapiro, 29, recalls that it was during her time on campus at Indiana University that she drifted away from regular attendance at services. During her freshman year, she went to Hillel but after that she stopped. It’s a pattern she said she’s seen among many friends also.

Yet she still has faith in a higher power and still feels Jewish.

“As you get older you think of religion in a different way,” said the Parkway North graduate who works part-time at the Jewish Light. “I do believe in God and I do have my values but it doesn’t mean I have to be in a temple every Friday night or keep kosher.”

Moreover, the synagogue still has a pull on Shapiro, a one-time NFTY member who grew up at Congregation Shaare Emeth. Congregational life was vital to her mother who passed away from breast cancer in 2008.

“I thought about going to services on a Friday night because going to temple brings me closer to my mom,” she said. “It was very important to her to go to temple on the High Holidays. To her, it made her feel Jewish.”

Making people feel Jewish remains a challenge. At Bais Abraham, Rabbi Hyim Shafner said congregants really are looking for community. 

“But they need it to feel not exclusive,” said Shafner. “I don’t think that anyone wants anything clique-y or to feel that somebody else is sort of running the place or that people have their egos involved.”

He thinks synagogues should feel like a family where level of observance and other factors don’t act as a barrier.

In an age of increasing mergers, he also sees a decentralized model as an alternate possibility with smaller, more intimate gatherings. Orthodox synagogues like his are already somewhat limited in size since congregants must be within walking distance on Shabbat.

“Also in Orthodoxy, there is a sense that your synagogue is not your Judaism,” he said. “Your Judaism is with the individual. The synagogue helps to facilitate that.”

Of course, maintaining a building can be difficult with a smaller congregation but Shafner said it’s better to invest in community not construction. He notes that a popular new Christian church in his municipality of University City doesn’t even have an edifice and meets at a local theater. 

He said that if he were founding a synagogue today, he might follow a similar course.

“It’s not about a building,” he said. “It’s about guiding people on their Jewish journey.”

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