Profile of an "Unaffiliated" Jew
When Jewish organizations talk about “unaffiliated Jews” in their 20s and 30s, who do not belong to synagogues, they often equate this lack of affiliation with being secular, Jewishly uneducated, and finding Judaism to be irrelevant. Indeed, the Jewish population surveys may show a high correlation between these traits, so this stereotype may be well-founded. However, the ensuing discussions generally hold the underlying assumption that if these people had more Jewish education and a stronger Jewish identity, they would become “affiliated” with the organized Jewish community. It is my hope that this article will challenge that assumption.
I am 25 and live on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, a center of Jewish activity. I study Talmud with a friend one night a week in my living room. On Shabbat I don’t do any work or spend money. Typically, I will go to Friday and Saturday services at one of the new independent minyanim that meet once or twice a month, or pray with a group of people in someone’s apartment, then share a Shabbat meal in that apartment. I spend every Rosh Hashanah and Pesach with my family in Chicago. My Jewish values are a driving force behind my career as a teacher, my political activism, my lifestyle choices that reduce environmental impact, and my ethical decision-making process. Oh, and I don’t belong to a synagogue, nor do most of the young adults crowded into those apartments on Friday nights.
My two most important formative Jewish influences during childhood were my actively Jewish immediate and extended family, and my many summers at the Reform movement’s Olin-Sang-Ruby Union Institute (OSRUI) camp. OSRUI does a phenomenal job providing Jewish education and conveying excitement about Judaism to children and adolescents, but the organized system of which it is a part provides nowhere for graduates to go afterwards. The Jewish programming at OSRUI is developmentally appropriate at each age, so we progressed from 9-year-old Judaism to 10-year-old Judaism to 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, … and back to 9-year-old Judaism. At that point we were camp counselors, so we were responsible around the clock for creating experiences for others, rather than having our own experiences. Of course, being a counselor was itself a valuable experience, and a camp focused on a particular age range cannot be expected to provide for people of every age. But the general expectation was that Jewish education and development ended at age 17. After that, we were on our own, even though we were far from being independent adults.
I was fortunate to have the opportunity to continue my Jewish education in college, both through academic courses (outside my major of physics) and through involvement in the pluralistic and intellectual community of Harvard Hillel. As graduation approached, I would fret about how this vibrant Jewish community would be ending soon, and there would be nothing for me in the Jewish world. People from my educated Reform background had three options after college: 1) Go to rabbinical school or become some other sort of Jewish professional. This was the option that the movement strongly encouraged. Any time I evinced any sort of Jewish interest, the response would be “Have you thought about becoming a rabbi?”. 2) Be uninvolved with anything Jewish for a decade or so, until it is time to send the children to Hebrew school, then return to the Jewish community as a parent. This is, of course, the most common. 3) Become Orthodox. This was always out of the question for me, but I have seen so many successful products of the Reform and Conservative movements go this route, not because they embraced the principles of Orthodoxy (at least initially), but because it was the only way they could find the active Jewish community that they wanted.
We could not simply join a synagogue in our 20s, because there is no place in most of these communities for educated lay adults. Though many synagogues have “adult education” programs, they tend to be remedial, targeted to people who are new to Jewish learning. Once a person’s Jewish education has reached a certain point (and that point is far from being a scholar), his/her only established role is to transmit it to others, whether as a camp counselor, a rabbi, or a parent. The system does not know what to do with young Jews who work in the secular world and do not have families, and consequently tries to nudge them toward one of the roles that are better understood. Perhaps this is why so much of the organized Jewish community’s programming for 20somethings strives to get us either to consider a Jewish career or to meet each other, marry, and presumably have Jewish children and send them to Hebrew school.
I believe that both of these emphases send dangerous messages. The emphasis on marriage and children tells us that we are only valuable as a means to an end, and not as individual human beings with dignity. The emphasis on becoming a Jewish professional furthers the perception that the way to live a fully Jewish life is to do it full-time, and thus those of us with secular professions are expected to be less Jewish and to depend on the professionals to make Judaism happen for us. To the extent that this recruiting is successful, it widens the gap between the educated professionals and the less-educated laity because it removes the most educated laypeople from the pool.
For years, these three options were the only choices after college, until my generation (echoing the havurot of the 1970s, often unknowingly) chose a fourth option: If the organized liberal Jewish community wasn’t going to create a Jewish niche for us, we would create it for ourselves. After a year in Jerusalem working in the high-tech industry and coming up with creative answers to the incessant question, “Where are you learning?” (Answer: “On the bus to work”), I moved to New York and discovered a number of fledgling independent minyanim with a core population in their 20s and 30s. These minyanim, which have sprouted up in a number of large cities, are independent of the major movements, have no rabbis or staff, no “membership,” and no buildings. They meet in rented church basements, in apartments, in parks, on rooftops, and even in synagogues. (Some synagogues have welcomed the independent minyanim into their buildings, while others have responded with a flat no.) They are led entirely by volunteers.
In fall 2002, I had a conversation with a friend from OSRUI who was also living in New York, and we envisioned our ideal Shabbat service. We decided to jump on the bandwagon and start another independent minyan. (Each minyan meets only once or twice a month, so there was no issue of competing with the others; as long as we coordinated the dates, we were merely adding another star to the constellation.) We publicized the first service (held in the playroom of an apartment building) by word of mouth and email, and 67 people showed up. Since then, Kol Zimrah, as it was later named, has met one or two Friday nights a month, and has grown to over 400 people on our email list.
In creating Kol Zimrah, we combined the elements we liked best from the various communities that we have encountered. Our services adhere to the traditional structure of the liturgy, and are heavily musical, with acoustic guitar, percussion, and exuberant harmony. The music is a melange of Debbie Friedman, Shlomo Carlebach, traditional nusach, and tunes we wrote last week. The service is led by a different volunteer each time, and the leader sits among the rest of the worshippers. There is no official siddur; everyone is encouraged to bring his/her own. Services are often followed by a potluck Shabbat dinner and then more singing. Initially, we expected that Kol Zimrah would appeal to a very narrow segment of the Jewish population, since some people would not want a service that is entirely in Hebrew, while others would not be comfortable with musical instruments on Shabbat. Instead, Kol Zimrah has become a more diverse community than we could have imagined, with people from all backgrounds. This is apparent simply by looking at what people are wearing at services: someone in a suit will be next to someone in jeans, next to someone in a colorful hippie garment.
Though most Kol Zimrah regulars are in their 20s and 30s, we have also attracted a wider demographic, including high school students and older adults. Many see that Kol Zimrah participants are relatively homogeneous in age and conclude that we choose these independent communities over “multigenerational” synagogues because we are interested in socializing with our own age group. This is not the reason. We are attracted to the independent minyanim because we want to be active participants in our Jewish life rather than passive consumers. Why, then, have these minyanim particularly attracted single adults in their 20s and 30s? First of all, we are particularly alienated from synagogues because they are structured around the family (my family lives 800 miles away); the independent minyanim are structured such that unattached individuals can feel like full members of the community. Second, we are a transient group, living somewhere for a few years and moving on. Synagogues tend to have a more settled membership and an attachment to the way things have always been. People ask me “If you know what kind of Jewish community you want, why don’t you join a synagogue and change it instead of starting your own thing?” I respond “That will take at least 20 years, and I can’t wait that long.”
Thus, the question arises, if a multigenerational Jewish community were inclusive of educated laypeople, respectful of individuals with or without families, and open to experimentation, would it be a place for 20-and-30-something Jews like me? Yes. I have found this community one week a year through the National Havurah Committee (NHC), which has been holding an annual Summer Institute since 1979. Several hundred people, from babies to senior citizens and everyone in between, converge on a college campus for a week of Jewish learning, prayer, singing, and community. The NHC is based on the idea that every teacher is a student and every student is a teacher. Any participant can sign up to teach a workshop on any topic; I taught two at my first Institute. People of my parents’ generation address me as an equal, rather than with “I have a daughter your age.” Scholars at the top of their fields participate as civilians and go by their first names.
The NHC may represent the “alternative” Jewish community, with many of its participants involved in independent communities like the ones I have found in New York. However, multigenerational communities that include people in their 20s and 30s need not be restricted to that world. I recently participated in the first Limmud NY, an American adaptation of the popular Limmud conference in Britain.Limmud NY was organized by just one full-time staff member and a team of over 70 volunteers of all ages, including me and a number of my Kol Zimrah peers. I felt that this was a true collaboration between the “mainstream” and “alternative” Jewish communities.
The NHC Summer Institute and Limmud NY work as well as they do because they only happen once a year. It is easier for people who usually inhabit separate communities to come together into a shared space when it is only for a limited time. Is it possible to build real multigenerational Jewish communities (where people in their 20s and 30s feel equally enfranchised) during the rest of the year? This question remains to be answered.
If the organized Jewish community wants to become truly multigenerational in that way, it must ask some hard questions. It must ask not merely how to market the status quo, but how to change the status quo. It must ask where educated and interested laypeople will fit into the big picture. While it may be easier to focus on the majority of unaffiliated young Jews who are uneducated or uninterested and to write off educated interested unaffiliated Jews as a negligible minority, this approach is shortsighted. Once these Jewishly uneducated people become educated, the community needs to have a plan to deal with its own success, and find a niche (other than Jewish professional careers) where they will fit. This will require a large-scale transformation of the Jewish community. I look forward to that transformed community.