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Confessions of an Unaffiliated Jew

Study: A million U.S. Jews seek Jewish life outside of shul

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Great Synagogue in Budapest, Hungary(Flickr)

I have a confession. Or rather a series of indulgent confessions. I don’t belong to a synagogue and I haven’t belonged to one since I stopped going to Hillel in college seven or eight years ago. What’s more is that I almost never go to synagogue. Not for Shabbat. And, in recent years, not even for High Holidays.

I don’t confess this defiantly. I’m embarrassed by it. In the days immediately following Yom Kippur, when the slate is supposed to be clean and my lengthy list of transgressions is supposed to be effaced, one of my inaugural sins of the new year is fibbing about what I did over the holidays. I’ll say I went to visit family when I didn’t. If I can’t use the excuse, I’ll flat out lie.

I don’t know exactly why I do this. But I do know inexactly. It’s inchoate and hard to explain. If you indulge me a little (or, at this point, a lot), I’ll try to get there. I’ll start by naming a few of my most meaningful Jewish experiences as an adult: buying a pre-wrapped matzah sandwich at the old Jerusalem bus station during Pesach. Going to Shabbat dinner at a friend’s apartment in Tel Aviv and talking about the weekly parsha over whiskey. Leading a Birthright trip. Uttering Gut Shabbas to another Jew on the streets of Brooklyn. Throwing bread into the Hudson during an ersatz tashlich on the Westside Highway. Listening to my mother’s stories. Singing Hatikvah with a group of strangers at a protest in Berlin. Attending a cousin’s made-from-scratch seder. Visiting Yad Vashem in an IDF uniform during Marva.

All this navel-gazing comes to mind because of a study released yesterday by the Workmen’s Circle/Arbeter Ring, which explained that one in six American Jews–a cool one million–“are actively seeking Jewish expression and engagement outside of synagogue life.” The study led by Steven M. Cohen and Samuel J. Abrams labeled these Jews as “The Unaffiliated.”

The choice of the term, “Unaffiliated,” reflects the importance that Jews attach to formal belonging. Whereas certain religious systems place a premium upon faith – hence, terms referencing belief or the lack thereof – Jews emphasize communal ties, with belief and even behavior of secondary importance.

For Jews and especially those highly involved in organized Jewish communal life, “The Unaffiliated” is less a term of opprobrium than one signaling a social problem. “The Unaffiliated” connotes those who are lost – temporarily or possibly permanently – to the Jewish community, if not the Jewish people. Concern about intermarriage, ineffective Jewish education, and unattractive options for Jewish involvement have fueled the perception of large and rising numbers of Unaffiliated Jews, as well as increasing investment in “reaching” them.

But here are some of the traits of Unaffiliated Jews, as per the study’s findings:

As many as 40 percent of the respondents were under the age of 35, nearly three in five fasted on Yom Kippur (approximately three in four of those congregationally affiliated do so) and 46 percent “at least sometimes” have a Friday night Shabbat meal with family and friends. Also, 56 percent said they were “very attached to Israel,” which is larger than any other non-Orthodox group.

It’s likely I perked up at this study because I’d finally been named something. The description fit me. Under 35. Fasts on Yom Kippur. Semi-frequent participant in Shabbat dinners. Very attached to Israel. Check. Check. Check. Check. I wasn’t a denomination or a lost soul (although I trust some commenters will eagerly correct that assertion). Most of all, I wasn’t a bad Jew.

That is the bind of an unaffiliated American Jew. 20% of Israeli Jews are self-declared atheists (which is fine by me, I suppose), but because I am not committed to a community here, I instinctively feel a deficit. I genuinely envy my friends and family who are comfortable in their congregations, even if, for reasons I can’t really explain, I’ve not really felt at home at a synagogue since I was a kid. It doesn’t matter that I’ve spent nearly a tenth of my life in Israel or that I work for the greatest Jewish magazine in the world (wink, wink), I would rather lie than say I didn’t go to shul on Rosh Hashanah. I don’t want anyone to think I was skipping out. I wasn’t.


One in 6 unaffiliated U.S. Jews seeking Jewish expression, poll finds
[JTA]
Cultural Jews Release [Workmen's Circle/Arbeter Ring]

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It sounds like your most meaningful Jewish experiences have been in the context of a community. Try looking for a synagogue that is warm and welcoming to you. I identify as a Conservative/Masorti, egalitarian, Zionist Jew, but I attend a synagogue that leans Reconstructionist, plays musical instruments during Shabbat evening services, and is WAY to the left of me on Israel, but I have a community there that I enjoy praying with and having dinner with. Maybe you’ll find it in one of the independent minyanim, maybe you should take a class at a shul or attend a social event instead of going to the services. If you don’t find what you need anywhere, create it; I’m certain there are others who are facing the same thing and would benefit from such a community.

So, at my synagogue (a Reform shul in Chicago), there’s an amazing feeling of community and friendship. We do a lot inside the building, we do a lot outside the building. Some of our interaction is religion-based, some (much? most?) is social.

Some of us (me included) are “the usual suspects” who attend services every Friday night and/or Saturday morning. More of us, though, come less frequently. Some of us barely go to services outside the High Holy Days. And some of us aren’t members–can’t afford to be, don’t want to be, any number of reasons, and they’re all ok reasons.

And you know what? We get along as a community, with a lot of friendship, a lot of love, some normal friction. Our connections arose because of our “affiliation” with our synagogue. But our level and type of affiliation is so diverse throughout our congregation, we really connect they way you’re talking about–as Jews, not as some sort of mythical category of “synagogue Jews.”

Point being, you don’t need to feel like you have to fit into some pre-defined Jewish role to be actively Jewish. If you feel like you’re missing out on something shul-wise, go to one. Find a synagogue-going friend and tag along. You don’t need to become a member. You don’t need to go every week. You don’t need to know half of what’s going on up on the bimah or know the siddur by heart. (Do you really think everyone sitting in shul on Shabbat does? Not by a long shot.)

And if that’s a bridge too far for you, at least know that the core of the way you’re connecting with your fellow Jews *already* is the same way we connect in a synagogue community. We’re like that as Jews–we enjoy hanging with mispacha, and we feel warmed by things that remind us of our heritage. That doesn’t mean we all need to approach that heritage the same way.

Most of all, it’s a journey. Our Judaism and our approach to our tradition and our community changes throughout our lives. Your experience is completely normal seen in that regard–and completely Jewish. The fact that you feel your Yiddishkeit kicking around in your kishkes and are troubled about what to do about it–that’s about as Jewish as it gets.

And I’ll tell you something else. It’s a kind of non-autopilot Judaism that I know some regularly synagogue-going fellow Jews would love to experience. So, really, congratulations for being as actively, eyes-open Jewish as you may not appreciate you are already.

jcarpenter says:

Thoughtful and considerate responses, Bryan and Mike—mensches both you are. Peace to you (and you, Adam)

Beyond affiliation, missing the Nextbook events in Seattle, those gatherings were connective tissue for many of us.

David K. says:

Perhaps it would diminish your angst, Mr. Chandler, to know that the term “unaffilliated” is the globally-used and commonly-used term in demography (the study of populations and their characteristics) to describe someone of ANY religion who does not regularly attend religious services, or someone who believes in a deity but does not support religious institutions, or someone who declares themselves to be an ‘agnostic’ or an ‘atheist’ or any self-descriptor that does not acknowledge a deity or a religion. Cohen and Abram use the term ‘Unaffiliated’ as if it were particular to Jews, but it is not particular to us, nor is it pejorative.

Rabbi Moshe Pesach Geller says:

Forgive me, but in each one of these ‘kind of articles’ I never see any notion of obligation, responsibility to anything outside of self. Indeed, it seems clear that the American Jewish religion is overwhelmingly narcissistic. Kind of like America itself. Just saying.

One would think that Israel’s deserved status as a leper among nations would make it easier to disassociate oneself from the Jewish community. This article just shows how strong the denial is within the community. It was not a good thing to be a German during WWII. It is not a good thing to be a Jew now.

person63 says:

I am Unaffiliated, and don’t feel bad about it. I don’t lie about it. I know exactly why I don’t go. What interests me about Judaism is not going to be taught or discussed in a synagogue, so there is no reason to pay to attend when what I most want to know I can learn from books. Peace of mind begins with being honest with ourselves, if not with others – so if you don’t go, my guess is it’s probably because you don’t want to go, because the experience is just not doing it for you, for whatever reason, and no amount of guilt-tripping is going to change that. What is coercive, pretentious, dishonest, or otherwise unethical cannot be spiritual. For me, it is not possible to feel a connection with the Divine if I can’t at least begin by being truthful with myself about my goals, motives, desires, and interests. God already knows, so why fake it?

Rabbi Moshe Pesach Geller says:

It is AWESOME to be a Jew today. Here at home (the Land of Israel) despite all, we see with wonder and live in amazement of our dance to become what is ‘normal’ for a Jew. Everything comes alive here: our language, history, traditions, wisdom, calendar, the diversity of Jews (all ethnicities, colors and countries in the Exile from which we have returned) and so, so much more. It’s just so hard for Jews who know not their language, history or ageless source material and the knowledge and wisdom contained within.

By way of illustration: Imagine hundreds of years after his death, Einstein had thousands of descendants, who argue over the meaning and significance of Relativity, but are ignorant of basic arithmetic, let alone algebra or calculus or physics. It becomes a matter of opinion. And we know about opinions: everyone has one regardless of level of knowledge or experience. And just because one has one, does not automatically mean that those opinions are worthy of respect.

The utter overwhelming majority of American Jews could not pass the most simple basic tests of knowledge about ANYTHING Jewish. So of course, how could being a Jew be good for one so impoverished and bereft. Why should they?

Anyone who wants to know why celebrate being a Jew can feel free to contact me. I’ll even give out my email address: rebmoish@gmail.com. If you’re coming to Israel, call me: 052-733-6791. Shabbat Shalom.

Dear Adam,
There is a non-theistic alternative for Jews who are athiests, agnostics or just not comfortable with synagogue services, which can be repetitive and boring.
Secular Humanistic Judaism
Why not give it a try–and write about it for Tablet?

Rabbi Moshe Pesach Geller says:

See my comment below. Thanks for making my point.

person63 says:

Not sure if you are being sarcastic – ?

What I see in synagogues is: socializing; discussions of politics and current events; discussions of Israel and the Holocaust; discussions of antisemitism; discussions about ethnic loyalty, identity, language, and culture. Any of that might be fine, but it is not Judaism.

Almost never do I hear anyone say that the purpose of Torah study is to teach us how to love God and other human beings through becoming receptive to God’s love and wisdom. Almost never do I see Torah study go deeper than a scan of the footnotes at the bottom of the Chumash. My general impression is that many people sometimes don’t even know about the existence of the source texts. And it’s not their fault if they don’t know what they don’t know. And then we get people looking to other traditions for answers they could find in Judaism if someone were teaching the correct material.

A sense of responsibility or obligation cannot be imposed from the outside – that work is an inside job. People have to want it, they need to be informed that the tools for transformation exist, and then how to use those tools, and they need to be taught what Judaism says about what it means to be a good person. When people become alienated from themselves, they can’t be connected with one other. Or with anything. Isn’t that what the rabbis call pizzur ha nefesh?

So that is why I say start on the inside, and the outside will begin to fall into place, but it is an organic process, a journey that each individual has to take alone, but is easier with support from others who either have the knowledge, embody that knowledge, or at least care about it.

the young (alas, I am no longer among them, as a card carrying member of AARP) are bored by most synagogue services. my daughter, a product of Jewish day school, lives and finds spirituality in Jerusalem where she attends “egalitarian orthodox” shuls. the key is COST.

i don’t blame Adam for not wanting to spend $1000 or more on something which has little perceived value. I blame our institutions for not figuring out a way to bring our yeladim into the kehillot kedushot on a treadmill. let them walk before they are asked to run. make it inexpensive AND work on the experience.

t’filah can be meaningful, can be joyous and can be experienced. but first we have to work on the barriers to entry, including cost and BORING ritual which never changes. so here is one practical piece of advice.

focus on the physical holidays like sukkot, chanukah, purim and even Tu b’Shevat sederim. Experience them inside a KK. Walk in the door and see if YOU can help to transform the environment once you are inside it. Don’t be a stranger. Don’t feel like a stranger. The shul is not, or should not be, a strange land.

Hinei ma tov u’manayim, shevat achim gam yachad!

Stephen says:

I am not Jewish, however, I am married to a Jewish girl, daughter of a rabbi, as a matter of fact. She is not highly observant, but the rest of her family is VERY observant. Her brother is married to a woman who is a Reform rabbi. I got to many Jewish events with my wife, mostly family related in some way, like Passover seders, Chanuka menora lightings, and so forth. Since I’ve been married, I have become an Orthodox Christian, and am very ‘into’ it. I attend church very often, and have taught Church school to grade-schoolers, and so forth. I have been an altar server in my Parish. I feel myself to be very deeply committed to my beliefs in the Orthodox Church. I love my wife, and have never even thought of not being married to her. Due to medical issues, we have no children, which eliminates a number of potential familial problems. I must say, however, that if I met my wife today, I would not marry her, as she is not an Orthodox Christian, and I would not marry outside of my Church at this point. However, in a way, it is a shame, as I feel that by understanding more about Judaism, I have gained a much deeper understanding of my own Church, and why I believe the way I do. So, I understand why some people are ‘against’ inter-marriage. But, it can work, on a personal level. I appreciate Judaism, but frankly, without Christ, I see it as a ‘dead religion’ with no link to hope, and it looks to me very much like a Jewish ethnic society, with very elaborate rules about what you can and cannot eat. I liken it, vis-a-vis my own Church, to the feeling that, “God gave us salvation thru the Jews, but we have grown-up now, and Christ is our shepherd.” And I’m glad of it.

As an unaffiliated Jew myself, I can relate to this. I live in Vegas which has a rather large population of unaffiliated Jews. We do not band together over our unaffiliation, though. Instead, it serves to drive a rift through the community. There is a certain mold that must be fit around the unaffiliated Jew here and if you don’t fit that mold they won’t give you the time of day. I don’t have a doctor/lawyer boyfriend. I don’t have a fancy car or house. My kids will not go to the fancy Jewish day school. I don’t even want kids. I haven’t actively participated in the Jewish community in months. I have no desire to, but I do have a desire to among like-minded people who make me feel welcome.

I converted to Judaism a few years ago. I am a spiritual person who went to church for several years. I believe in G-d, but I never did by the whole Jesus story. My pastor actually suggested that being Jewish might be a better choice for me. From a spiritual perspective, I think he was right.

However, as several of you have pointed out, synagogue is not often about our relationship to G-d and how to live that relationship. It is often about Jewish culture and antisemitism, etc. This is all fine, but it still leaves me feeling spiritually hungry.

To make things worse, many of the portrayals of Christians I have encountered in shul have been borderline offensive to me. I have a wonderful Christian family who still loves and accepts me with my conversion. It bothers me, but those who grew up Jewish, just don’t see it.

Also, because I am more of a spiritual Jew rather than someone who just focuses on tradition and ritual, I often get a sense that I am doing it wrong at shul. I want to be part of things and practice, but I haven’t found it to be easy. Instead, I am finding more solace in attending community events at the JCC or through Jewish Family Services. This isn’t by choice. I still pay dues at shul, and I WANT to go, I just don’t feel entirely accepted or understood.

My issues art exactly the same, but I can identify with that sense that if you don’t fit a certain mold, then you aren’t entirely accepted.

You described my synagogue exactly.

I agree with you I feel the same way. only difference is that I do feel guilty for being unaffiliated. It would be nice to be more connected to the Jewish community. like yourself I very much ”desire to be among like minded people who make me feel welcome”. with any mazel maybe we both will find that connection some day.
Best wishes to you Brianna.

Lancedc says:

I am a 56 year old Jewish man. It is interesting to me how some of us
focus on being Jews and not so much on being human beings. It is also
interesting that one who seeks personal spiritual fulfillment is
considered narcissistic by some, which saddens me.

With all due
respect to Rabbi Geller, I find his notion that it is narcissistic to
want to find a sense of personal spiritual fulfillment and personal
connection deeply troubling. It reminds me of the all-too typical
tendency of religious people in any religion to believe there is only
one real way to be Jewish or Christian or Hindu, etc. and that other
approaches are somehow less legitimate, valid or true than the one way.
This is an idea I reject outright.

The truth is that personal
spiritual journeys and seeking connection on a personal level always
have been part of Judaism and Jewish life, as well they should be. And
there are many ways to seek and explore, both within communal settings
and outside of them. Yes, community and communal religious life have
been emphasized in Judaism, but not to the exclusion of one’s personal
spiritual life. Both are important, both valid.

It seems to me
that the reason so many Jews find synagogue life unfulfilling is that,
with rare exception, it no longer speaks to a range of sensibilities and
needs of contemporary Jews and Jewish life. How often do synagogues
discuss the full range of Jewish notions about God? How many talk about
mystical concepts of God, of God is everything and everything is God,
of “ayn od mivado”, for example? How many promote honest and open
questioning of the Torah’s view of God as some separate being sitting
out there commanding, judging, rewarding and punishing? What is God?
IS there God? What are we doing when we pray? Why pray at all? Are
prayers answered?

When it comes to these kinds of questions – and
I believe many Jews, especially younger Jews, thirst for conversations
and learning about these kinds of questions – I find that most
synagogues and their leaders rarely talk about them. Instead,they
continue to provide the same kinds of answers that we are taught as
children, whether in a day school or supplementary school. Further, by
and large, the model for synagogue life in America has changed little
in over 100 years, and during the 100 years when technology has changed
life more quickly and dramatically than at any other time in history.
If synagogues want to remain meaningful and relevant in fast-changing
world, then they have to change, too.

Finally, I find little
concern in so many Jews seeking meaning in life, whether within or
outside of Judaism and Jewish communal life. We Jews will survive as a
people, or not, over time. Civilizations rise and fall, come and go.
Judaism, Jews and Jewish life will remain and survive for as long as we
bring something to this world and for as long as people find Judaism and
Jewish life compelling in some way. If the day should come when we
cease to exist, the Universe will continue on without us, and that’s OK.

In
the end, what seems most important to me is finding ways to live full,
joyful and meaningful lives in peace and harmony with the rest of
humanity. There are many paths to truth, justice, love, peace,
spiritual fulfillment, a god-insired life, etc. Judaism is one way and
only one way, and within Judaism there are many different paths. The
sooner we let go of judgments about paths that may differ from our own
individually chosen one, begin to discuss God in light of modern
sensibilities, and embrace the notion that one path may be no more or
less valid and true than another, the sooner we all will find our own
ways to meaning and improving our world as individuals and communities,
as Jews or something else.

Miha Ahronovitz says:

Adam, when you write “20% of Israeli Jews are self-declared atheists (which is fine by me, I suppose)”, yon remind me of Rachel Shukert “Oprah Visits a Hasidic Family …” http://bit.ly/Pw3sAg.

She writes “I am a totally secular pseudo-atheist—I don’t believe in God, and I’m afraid He can hear me when I say so”

There are moments in life when we need to talk to Gd, simply because there is no one else to turn to. I describe my blues and my searches in Kabbalah (see Kabbalah of harder times | Pictures from the invisible http://bit.ly/H7NnJY) .

There are exceptional Rabbis I came to admire, because what they say resonates into me: the last Chabad Rebbe Schneerson and Rabbi Nachman of Breslov who died in 1810. There is also a less know Rabbi Avraham Mattisyahu of Shtefanesht. This was a large shtetl in Romania, where my father was born. The Rabbi Avraham was
known for his miraculous powers. Wherever he went he was followed
by thousands of onlookers, Jews and non-Jews both. On his annual
visit to Bucharest, the capital of Romania, all the shops and
businesses were closed as tens of thousands lined the streets to
welcome him.

In his eighty five years he never once recited
words of Torah publicly and there is not even one Torah thought
that can be said in his name. He sat and learned in his private
study, and whilst he was doing so he strictly forbade anyone to
enter the room. Every day when he finished, he carefully replaced
the books on their shelves, leaving no indication that they had
been used

Most articles in tablet (and myself) prefer the rational analytically approach of their holly writings. For example see this review of Burnt Books: Rabbi Nachman of Bretslov and. Franz Kafka” http://amzn.to/W9GcK0

When I emigrated to the west, I went to a synagogue and sat right in the back. The atmosphere was that of a club and social event. This is OK, but later I changed. I am lucky to be part of small synagogue in Placer County, California. Sometime I take lessons one on one one with the young Rabbi about the Maamarim of Rebbe Schneersson. They are mostly in Yiddish. I keep in touch with a Breslover Rabbi from Israel, who also writes and calls to me, and he explained some difficult lessons from Likutey Moharan of Rebbe Nachman http://bit.ly/MPWQqF which were extraordinary revelations to me.

I suppose, I enlarged the definition of being affiliated. Whatever talks to my soul and heart, and it is genuinely Jewish, with Yirat HaShem, because it is impossible for me to be someone else

You describe many synagogues, but not all. I think it’s unfortunate, then, to paint with so broad a brush. You lament that “what interests me about Judaism is not going to be taught or discussed in a synagogue.” That’s disappointing, no doubt, but there ARE synagogues where you WOULD be able to discuss the subjects that interest you, where you’ll find congregants knowledgeable about source texts, complications, numerous interpretations, etc.. Moreover, I’m sure you’d find at least one or two congregants (often the altakockers) who would want to talk (Torah) shop with you. While I agree that the general synagogue member is not very knowledgeable, it’s unfair to say you won’t find anything of substance.

I consider Judaism, the religion and ethical practice, to be distinct from Jewishness (the national identity, am Yisrael). I do think there should be more emphasis on our “national” identity in conversion programs, as I’ve heard a number of converts who converted for specifically religious/spiritual reasons bemoan the “tribal” focus and describe feeling spiritually alone, post-conversion. Fortunately, JoAnna, there is plenty of community online that can sustain and support your “doing Jewish.” Yasher koach.

morsej001 says:

Oh Ross, you’re still around! Readers of Tablet, Ross Vachon’s specialty is (or used to be) writing e-mails at random to Jews — e-mails full of lies (sometimes he claims to be a French intellectual, sometimes a movie star, sometimes a U.S. Marine officer). If you reply to him, he’ll reply to you — typically with a death threat.

I go to the shul in my neighborhood that sings the niggunim (tunes) from my youth. It just happens to be a modern orthodox shul with a chbad rabbi. I like the people though i am not observant in the way they are. Ther is no reason for you to be unaffiliated. Go shulo hopping unitl you find a group of people you like that and are not judgmental and affiliate. It doesn’t mean you’re giving up your soul.

Thanks!! Can you recommend any of these online communities??

Join our daily Minyan at Beth Sholom, Potomac MD. and u will find what you seek.

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Confessions of an Unaffiliated Jew

Study: A million U.S. Jews seek Jewish life outside of shul

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