August 28, 2008
The central issue in American-Jewish life right now is affiliation. Approximately half of America’s Jews are considered unaffiliated. That term refers not only to synagogue membership, but to membership in any Jewish communal organization.
This concern is compounded by the fact that members of Jewish organizations are aging and the young are not signing up in equal numbers.
The institutional establishment is worried about its survival.
Numerous programs are being generated across the communal spectrum to reach out to this massive unaffiliated population, made up overwhelmingly of young families and singles. While there are signs of rebirth — such as grassroots minyanim and increased observance among a core of young people — these emergent populations are simply too small numerically to reflect any real change in an overall diagnosis of American-Jewish institutional decline.
Don’t assume that someone who doesn’t ‘belong’ is not a serious Jew.
Even developments such as the growth of the independent minyanim are often ad-hoc and maintain few, if any, ties to historic Jewish organizations.
That’s the view from the “inside” — those who sit inside communal organizations and measure institutional growth. But what about the view from the “outside”? Before analyzing why affiliation is in decline, it’s worth asking how unaffiliated Jews see themselves. Only through a more rounded portrait, one that takes into account the real lives of human beings, can we begin to fully understand the American-Jewish present.
It is here that I have some good news to report. Many Jewish families of my generation (in our 30s) and singles ranging from my peers to much younger, while they may have absolutely no membership in a Jewish organization, still contentedly maintain active Jewish lives, both in terms of practice and self-perception. Though they may have been written off by demographers, many unaffiliated Jews simply don’t see themselves as being outside the Jewish fold.
I am referring here to literally hundreds of unaffiliated Jews and their families whom I know. In almost every single case, these are proud Jewish families managing their own Jewish identities in ways that don’t differ markedly from those deemed “affiliated.” I am speaking here of both the in-married and out-married.
For a variety of reasons, many younger people have not joined the organizations their parents were members of. Some of their reasons for not joining are legitimate; some are unfair. I would suggest, however, that beyond a sense of dissatisfaction with institutional religious and communal life, something deeper is going on in American life that has also reached the younger sector of the Jewish community.
We live in a more fragmented time than ever before. Between the breakdown of strong extended families and informal communal sanction, suburban and exurban sprawl, and the rise of technology, traditional organizational membership seems more and more a relic of the past. An individual or family unit creates its own micro-community today. It does not need to think in terms of large umbrella organizations in order to find a sense of communal belonging. Consider blogging or play groups as examples.
Judaism is perfectly situated to speak to this contemporary idea of micro-community. As a rabbi most concerned with the synagogue, I can easily argue that the synagogue is historically an informal place, where people learn and gather in unique clusters that meet their emotional, spiritual, and intellectual needs. Yet all of these groups are networked seamlessly into a larger communal commitment. That model is now enriched by technology and a social environment that encourages serious reflection in staking out one’s communal commitment.
Rather than bemoan the decline of affiliation and implement all sorts of new programs in an attempt to increase institutional membership, Jewish organizations need to think in new terms.
The first term is to assume that some of the technically unaffiliated may still be serious Jews.
The second term would be to concede that affiliation may not be a serious marker of Jewish identity. Seriousness about Torah, in all its manifestations, is a more Jewishly authentic assessment tool of commitment. How vibrant and passionate a Jewish life does any of us lead? As examples, how many of us consider Jewish values in the workplace or when thinking about public policy beyond Israel? These are ways of thinking that may indeed generate outreach programs — but successful programming begins with analysis.
Which leads to the final new term in the discourse on affiliation: Times have changed. Lack of membership in the “kehilla,” the traditional Jewish communal structure, no longer presupposes someone has opted out of the community. How can the kehilla meaningfully meet the needs of the bulk of American Jewry where they are today?
The wonder of Jewish tradition is its firm center and amazing malleability. Rather than institutionalizing demographic labels like “affiliated” and “unaffiliated,” let’s follow the Talmud’s approach to issues and explore the continuum of possibilities. Indeed, the fact that Jewish identity is so much in flux and is constantly being transformed shows that Torah remains alive and open to today.
Rabbi Dr. Abraham Unger is campus rabbi and assistant professor and director of urban programs in the Department of Government and Politics at Wagner College in Staten Island. He lives in Westfield.