Rabbinic Commentary

Yom Kippur Reflections 5784: Where I’m Going

I grew up in an unaffiliated and interfaith family in the 80s and 90s and it took until relatively recently to fully grasp just how normal my upbringing was.  When I was a young child, Judaism meant holidays and family.  That’s it. Nothing more, nothing less.  Judaism was part of my life, I understood it was part of my identity, but it didn’t take up a lot of space.  That is, until I got to middle school and realized (mistakenly thought) that I was different.  

I had many Jewish friends growing up, and once we got to middle school, these friends started preparing to become B’ Mitzvah. And since being different in middle school is less than desirable I was envious and embittered. By High School, I was determined. I took matters into my own hands, joined BBYO, and never looked back… I was on the path to the rabbinate at the age of 14 and I dreamed about one day becoming a rabbi for people like me, who didn’t grow up as an insider.

It didn’t take long for me to become an insider myself and since I was still very young everyone assumed I had been an insider since birth… the only problem is that it wasn’t true. In High School, college, rabbinical school, and still to this day, I very regularly find myself in a situation where someone says, “Oh, you’re from Milwaukee, what synagogue did you go to?” And since High School, I’ve been trying to figure out how to answer that question and I’ve gone through every iteration you can imagine.  I’ve been flustered, embarrassed, I’ve tried to explain myself… I’ve even tried to connect myself to a synagogue just so I could enter the conversation, saying something like, “well, I grew up unaffiliated, but my extended family belongs to ______,”   I did this because I learned that once I gave the name of a synagogue, I could then play the game.. Oh, do you know so and so, etc, etc…and oftentimes I did. Eventually I grew out of that phase and finally learned to proudly share my story and explain how my path is in large part what led me to the rabbinate in the first place.  

I’m aware that this particular experience is one that people who have converted to Judaism go through in a parallel way. I’ve been witness to many of these interactions, where someone asks someone who converted to Judaism what synagogue they grew up at or if they know such and such Jewish person from their hometown.  It’s uncomfortable, which is why I learned many years ago to never ask someone this but to instead ask a more open ended question, like “what was it like growing up there?”  This way, the person can decide whether they want to tell their story.

I know that those who have asked me this question were not trying to be insensitive, in fact the opposite. They were trying to connect with me, and as insiders themselves, they assumed I had always been one. And that’s why I thought that I was different… that is until I understood the data.

Turns out my Jewish upbringing was actually quite normal, even in the 80s. But today, all the more so as affiliation rates have plummeted in the last four decades.  If I were growing up today, I would be part of the majority. The largest “affiliated” group of Jews in America today are the “nones” - those who do not belong to synagogues.  And yet, those of us who do belong to synagogues still act as though every Jew we meet must have grown up at one, despite the fact that the statistics tell us otherwise. 

In 2019, the Twin Cities released a population study and the results were staggering.  They decided to measure engagement differently. Instead of focusing on synagogue affiliation, the study focused on how folks identify, how they feel connected, and what they do to express their identity. The study identified five types of Twin Cities Jews: occasional, personal, holiday, cultural, and immersed. Of course they asked about synagogue affiliation (31% affiliate), but the point was that synagogue affiliation is not actually the best way to measure whether, or how a person engages with Judaism in their day to day life.  It is no longer the determining factor in whether a person has a meaningful and active Jewish life, something I inherently knew from my childhood, but was conditioned to disagree with once I became an insider. This fact, which should have been so obvious to me, was distorted to the point where I had to relearn something I already knew to be true: people can have a rich Jewish life without belonging to a synagogue.

The study found that of the close to 88,000 people who live in Jewish households, 16% are “immersed” in Jewish life. That’s about 14,000 people.  That’s a lot of people, and having just left an immersive synagogue work environment, we were absolutely thrilled when multiple hundreds of people would show up to something. And for very good reason. Hundreds of people doing something Jewish in one space together feels electric, because it is. It’s the most incredible feeling and I don’t want to diminish the vibrancy of 14,000 people engaged in Jewish life. No doubt that nearly all of these 14,000 people (and then some) are doing something to mark this day of Yom Kippur. That’s a lot of Jews doing Jewish, all in one day, and that is amazing. 

But even though this day sees the highest number of people entering synagogue spaces (in person and virtually), there are still more Jews opting out of Yom Kippur services in America than there are opting in.

There are 74,000 people in Jewish households in the Twin Cities who identify as occasional, personal, holiday-centric, or cultural Jews. That is so many people who we (and by we I mean Jewish professionals) by and large ignore, forget about, stay up at night worrying about, or don’t know what to do about. I don’t blame synagogue leaders for not figuring this out. It's hard enough to engage the 16% who show up regularly! There aren’t enough hours in the day for the small staff of any Jewish institution or synagogue to meaningfully impact this many people. Trust me, I know!  But that doesn’t mean we (as a broader Jewish community) can give up on the 74,000 people who engage in non-traditional ways, or not at all.  We can’t afford to leave this massive majority population behind.

So this, my friends, is where I’m going… and I’m doing so with my friend and colleague, Steve Barberio, who I used to work with at Bet Shalom for five years when he was Executive Director. Steve had a similar upbringing, with a Jewish mother and non Jewish father. Together, we’re heading back to our childhood roots, to the land of the 84% who by and large feel proud to be Jewish but who aren’t serving on boards, sending their kids to religious school, attending worship, etc, etc.  Together, Steve and I are aiming to engage even a small percentage of these folks, many of whom we know are looking for something different. We know this because the data makes it clear that a very large number of individuals feel dissatisfied and report that they haven’t found what they want or need.  The survey found that there are 20,000 people who say they think community is an important part of Judaism but who also say they don’t feel connected to the Jewish community.  Additionally,  “67% of Jewish adults reported at least one condition that somewhat or very much limited their connection to the Jewish community. Not finding interesting activities (36%) and not knowing many people (36%) were the most common limitations.” These numbers are astounding.  There are so many people who are looking for something that they haven’t found yet. And this data is from 2019, before the pandemic. I wonder what it may be now, in 2023.

I used to think that synagogues could be the end-all answer, that we just needed to figure out how to innovate better, make ourselves more attractive, and figure out how to get the word out. But I’ve come to realize that though there is certainly room for growth in synagogue affiliation, the data also suggests that many people firmly want a different path. There are a lot of people out there who will never belong to a synagogue no matter how incredible and innovative that synagogue is.

Steve and I are committed to saying that that’s okay. Let’s stop judging, shaming, and trying to convince people they want something that they are directly saying they do not want. Instead, let’s figure out what they do want and meet them where they are to help them get it.  Let’s let synagogues be synagogues and do the amazing work they do every day to change lives. Synagogues educate, they facilitate beautiful and meaningful worship, they accompany people through joys and sorrows, they inspire, they make the world a better place, and so much more… but only a small percentage of our people are interested in what they are offering. 

Synagogues are for many people but they are not for everyone and the world will not end by accepting that truth. Times change and I’m not willing to accept a world where Jews are only seen as “legitimate” if they belong to a synagogue. It’s time to validate different models of engagement that meet people where they are and affirm their decision to engage in Jewish life in alternative ways… through the home, through culture, through individualized ritual and spiritual development, or immersive experiences that capture the soul and create meaningful and lasting relationships.

Steve and I are calling the organization YourJewish and we envision an integrated Twin Cities Jewish community where the trend of Jewish dissociation is reversed and more people see Jewish life as desirable and relevant. It’s time to reinvigorate Jewish life, unlocking the potential Judaism has to give meaning to our lives and make the world a better place

Our mission is to design and deliver creative Jewish events, meaningful rituals, and immersive experiences that foster Jewish relationships and enrich people’s connection to Judaism.  We strive to meet people where they are on their Jewish journey, validating and nurturing the ways each person wants to live their own Jewish life. 

We’ve identified our core values and are currently working on what it will look like to execute our mission in the first few years of the organization. We’re talking to our network, building our board, and designing our website and marketing strategies. We’re both all in - this organization is our full livelihood and we’re working to make it a vibrant addition to the landscape of the Twin Cities Jewish community.  If you’re interested in what we’re doing, want to help us, or know somebody for whom this might be a good fit, please reach out.  We can’t wait to share more in the coming weeks and months as we prepare to launch over Chanukah of this year.

Today is Yom Kippur. A day of taking stock, of considering where we are in our lives and what Judaism means to us.  The liturgy is overwhelming and the Reform movement Torah reading is dramatic. God reminds us - Atem nitzavim hayom… you are standing this day, all of you, from the old to the young, the sick to the healthy, from the tribal heads to the elders to the wood chopper to the water drawer.  All of you are part of God’s covenant.  Not 16% of you, or 31% of you. All of you.  Those who are physically present on this day and those who are not.  Each and every one of you is sacred.  It’s a message of inclusion and a message of outreach. It's a reminder to each and every one of us to look around and to notice who is not present… and to consider why they are opting out and what we might each be able to do to help them feel part of the covenant, no matter what that looks like to them. To look them in the eye and to tell them that they are enough, that they matter, that they are part of the Jewish community regardless of how they choose to connect to it.

G’mar Chatimah Tovah - may the next generations be sealed with the gift of a vibrant, inclusive, affirming Jewish life.

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