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Jews of all types are turning away from their institutions

Liel Leibovitz
April 03, 2023
Kate Dehler
Kate Dehler
Kate Dehler
Kate Dehler

I’m probably not the guy you’d expect to write the cri de coeur on behalf of alienated Jews. I send my children to a Jewish day school and Jewish summer camps, and neither, as you may imagine, are free. I wake up early each morning and slump over to a little shtiebel, or place of prayer, to daven with my neighbors, and I often return for the afternoon and evening prayers as well. I host a Talmud podcast and spend a few hours each day studying. And for about a decade now, I’ve left my beloved hogs and mollusks behind, committing myself to a life of keeping kosher. I’m not afraid of commitment to Judaism—I relish it. I want nothing more than to affiliate myself with individuals and institutions seriously dedicated to leading robust, curious, and passionate Jewish lives.

And yet. I feel lost—homeless—in the landscape of American Jewish institutional life.

A few years back, my wife and I finally found a synagogue whose spirit of prayer we enjoyed. But we were soon pushed out by community members who informed us—by interrupting its own rabbi during a sermon, no less—that viewpoint diversity would not be tolerated, and that, from that point on, all facets of communal life would be dedicated to promoting the latest progressive pieties. It wasn’t even that we minded politics so much; it’s that we came for God, not the Democratic Party, and God was nowhere to be found.

Onward to another shul it was, where no succor arrived. When Israelis elected a right-wing government, the shul announced that, in response, the congregation will no longer recite the prayer for the State of Israel. A few of us suggested, privately and respectfully, that anyone who truly cared about Israel should always pray for it, especially when it struggles to overcome very real and very troubling domestic challenges. Eager for some guidance, we wrote the rabbi and asked for a meeting. An appointment was scheduled, then postponed, then put off for two years; we await it still. Our voices were neither heard nor acknowledged; we learned about the liturgical decision from a promotional interview in a liberal newspaper.

We would’ve put up with all of this, most likely—written it off to yet another sordid chapter in the glorious Jewish history of communal quibbles and quarrels—had we found anything else worth our while. A Friday night service crackling with ruach, or spirit. An adult education class that challenged and engaged us. A place our kids felt was welcoming and nurturing. Anything, really, that felt like a genuine and warm community. There was none, anywhere. At the shuls we belonged to and at others we sampled, at community centers and programs all over New York, we found nothing but decay: of nerve, of imagination, and of ability to engage folks like us who desperately wanted to be engaged and were willing to pay for it with their money and their time.

Everywhere we turned, even at the dimmest house of worship, we met a few radiant and inspiring Jews toiling for little love or cash to serve the community. Their devotion made us even sadder; much more than us, they deserved better. And everywhere we turned, Orthodox communities of all stripes offered us something very close to the tightly knit community we craved. But, like so many families, ours is a religiously diverse household, with some members more interested in observance and others less so, and we wanted a place where everyone felt comfortable. It broke our hearts every day to learn yet again that such a place didn’t exist.

What did exist were mills. Shuls whose entire business model was waiting for children to reach a certain age and then watching their parents pay dues simply because there was no other way to guarantee them a bar or bat mitzvah. Community centers that offered almost nothing of distinct interest to the Jewish community but knew it could count on Jews to pony up because of luxuries like a swimming pool or a stellar childcare program. Organizations that were quick to solicit donations but very slow to step up when Hasidic Jews were bashed in the streets of Brooklyn or continuously reviled in the pages of The New York Times. These mills all beckoned, and told anyone who wouldn’t buy into their racket that they were part of the problem of Jewish alienation.

I feel lost—homeless—in the landscape of American Jewish institutional life.

So as I read the results of the latest survey, I sighed in relief: For once, the problem isn’t me.

You don’t have to be a political scientist to understand the simple and dismal story the survey, sponsored by the Keren Keshet Foundation and given to Tablet, is telling. Jews do not have a problem with Jewish life, or customs, or traditions, or foods, or culture. They don’t find Jewish history and theology repugnant, and don’t feel that they no longer wish to be part of the story that began at the foothills of Mount Sinai and remains strong today. Instead, the problem is with Jewish institutions. Only 21% of survey respondents have attended synagogue in the past three months—less than half the amount who have prayed to God. What this tells you is not that our people are not connected to Judaism but rather to Jewish organizations too feeble or sclerotic or disinterested or soulless or broken to give us simple Yidn the community we want, need, and are eager to join.

Many of us, hallelujah, are waking up and building our own things. My wife now organizes Thursday evening get-togethers where fellow refugees from Jewish institutional life—more and more of them every week—come to drink and talk about the weekly parsha. And when we at Tablet took over a Manhattan comedy club for a few nights of Hanukkah and invited people to come light the menorah with us, listen to great teachers share short talks, and raise a toast to tradition, we sold out almost immediately. Demand is surging; supply, alas, is limited, with too many resources lying at the hands of people whose most prominent credential is having demonstrably failed to do the thing they promised to achieve.

But while some of us are busy building, many of us can’t. People whose job it is to be mothers and sisters and fathers and sons, to be dentists and lawyers and nurses and teachers, to be good neighbors and good citizens. People who don’t have the specific skills or the time, after a full day at the office and an evening helping with homework and cooking dinner and cleaning up and putting the kids to bed, to do something as herculean as establishing a new shul to cater to our spiritual needs. Even cracking open a Mishna might be a page too far for people who end their nights slumped on the couch, staring at screens, texting friends that they wish they had someplace better and more rewarding to be.

Kate Dehler

In a few days, we’ll read the Haggadah, and marvel at the line informing us that “in every generation, one is obligated to see oneself as if he or she personally went out of Egypt.” And as we do, we’ll realize, with pain and amazement, that though we’ve come a long way since the days of Moses and Aaron, we haven’t really gotten that far at all.

Writing about the Exodus, Rashi, the greatest of all of the Torah’s interpreters, informs us that only one-fifth of the Israelites chose to march out of the house of bondage. The rest, the overwhelming majority, traded in the oppressive familiarity of slavery for the more unpredictable promise of liberty. The rest, in other words, chose to remain in institutions that were failing them simply because they knew and could imagine nothing better.

Had I been there, would I have been one of the silent and spineless majority, shuffling quietly back to the brick and the mortar while the few and the proud marched out into the wilderness? For years, this nightmarish scenario tormented me, taunting me that maybe I wasn’t as resolved in my commitment to living Jewishly as I’d like to believe. It took years of throwing myself into Jewish communal life and still feeling alienated to realize I was asking the wrong question. I shouldn’t have been scared that there would be a Moses with not enough people behind him; the truly terrifying scenario is a throng of people aching to flee Egypt and no Moses to lead them to freedom.

Liel Leibovitz is editor-at-large for Tablet Magazine and a host of its weekly culture podcast Unorthodox and daily Talmud podcast Take One. He is the editor of Zionism: The Tablet Guide.