Jewish Attrition, and the Final Frontier of Jewish Communal Acceptance

Accepting adults who are unmarried and childless, truly accepting them and their lives not as a temporary stopover on the way to marriage and children, but accepting their lives as they are, is the final frontier of Jewish acceptance.

by Lauren Brownstein

It happens every few years. There is a survey of American Jewry, the results are released, and the American Jewish community (at least, those who are interested in reading and analyzing these sorts of things) gets its knickers in a bunch over the findings. Intermarriage! Assimilation! Low Affiliation! Oh my! It’s the “lions and tigers and bears” of Jewish life. This time, it’s the Pew Research, Religion & Public Life Project’s publication, A Portrait of Jewish Americans. (released October 1, 2013)

What’s missing, but hinted at, in this most recent survey is a pattern that I have observed in my own life and in that of many of my friends here in the Washington, DC area. I am willing to bet that this pattern repeats in communities large and small all over the US.

Not assimilation, but attrition – those who were once involved, or even highly involved, in Jewish life, but no longer are involved or affiliated. The Pew report does provide some statistics on those who were raised Orthodox but no longer are Orthodox. It also provides statistics on those who have changed their Jewish affiliations, e.g. used to be Conservative but are now Reform.

But what about attrition among non-Orthodox Jews? For example, adults who once belonged to synagogues (and attended on most Shabbats), hosted Shabbat dinners, attended Jewish events, joined Jewish organizations, dated exclusively within the religion and more – in other words, followed more “traditional” Jewish affiliation paths – but now no longer do so?

Essentially, I am describing myself. In my 20s, I was the dream of those who wish to “engage the next generation.” I belonged to a synagogue with lots of other people in my age cohort. I attended Shabbat services every week, and I even helped to lead these services. I hosted or attended Friday night Shabbat dinners almost every week, and I often hosted Saturday afternoon Shabbat lunches, lingering meals filled with serious Jewish conversation, Hebrew singing, and plenty of goofy laughter that stretched well into the afternoon. Because I was what I would call “fairly Shabbat observant,” meaning that I did not watch TV, go shopping, run errands, etc. on Shabbat, these meals provided great moments of friendship and also filled the long Shabbat afternoons until sundown on Saturday, when I would turn on the electronics, check email, pick up the phone, or go out with friends on Saturday nights. During this time I belonged to numerous Jewish organizations and I only, only, dated Jewish men.

And now? At age 42, I no longer belong to a synagogue, and I only sporadically attend Shabbat services. While I sometimes attend Shabbat dinners, I rarely host them. I would prefer to date Jewish men, however, I have accepted the reality that it’s simply too limiting at my age; I now date men who are not Jewish.

My friends who host and participate in Shabbat dinners are married with kids, while I am not. Their houses can accommodate lots of adults and children comfortably, while my small apartment just isn’t a good fit for all the adults and kids. These friends also attend Shabbat services at synagogues regularly, as I used to do. And certainly, I could still continue to do so, if I wished. To be honest, it just doesn’t feel so comfortable anymore. When I attend Shabbat services at synagogues with people my age, I am often the only single person over the age of 30 and under the age of 70. As a synagogue executive director once said to me, “Everyone wants to look around the synagogue and see people who look like them.” While there are minyanim that cater to an unmarried crowd, I tend to be among the oldest people in the room when I pray with those groups. Broad generalization alert: those who care as much as I used to care about going to Shabbat services tend to have married by my age.

I put most of the responsibility for my sense of isolation from the Jewish community squarely on my own shoulders. I could go to Shabbat services and just be swept up in the service, rather than feeling like an outsider. I could find other people to invite for Shabbat dinner each week. I could attend Jewish communal events and join Jewish organizations. I know. I know.

But… the same is true for 20somethings. And our Jewish community has been falling all over itself for nearly two decades finding ways to “engage young adults.” Some of the brightest minds in Jewish life have dedicated themselves almost exclusively to young adult/young professional outreach. Incredible programs have been created, millions of dollars have been spent. Why so much effort for one particular age cohort, but no effort for those who do not neatly fit the mold of what our Jewish path is supposed to be: dating, marriage, family, and affiliation?

Those who have invested (either as professionals, volunteers, or donors) in engaging young professionals in Jewish life wouldn’t tell a 24 year old, “So, you want to be connected to the Jewish community? Just go to events on your own. Go to Shabbat services on your own. You’ll find people to connect with. You’ll find your community.” So why say this to the 40 year old, 50 year old, or 60 year old who feels unanchored in a room full of people whose lives are not like theirs? This isn’t just a single person’s dilemma. I remember a married friend once saying to me about her synagogue, “Yeah, I pretty much felt invisible here until we had kids.” Invisible.

Here’s the hard truth, as I see it: Accepting adults who are unmarried and childless, truly accepting them and their lives not as a temporary stopover on the way to marriage and children, but accepting their lives as they are, is the final frontier of Jewish acceptance.

For a while, accepting intermarried couples was the final frontier. Then, accepting the LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender) community was the final frontier. As these groups gain greater acceptance (certainly, not full acceptance, but greater acceptance), single and childless adults are the final stand.

I believe that it is far too scary for most of the Jewish community to say “Yes, it’s OK if you never marry, if you never have kids. You can still be a part of the community, and we still will invest resources, new ideas, and renewed energy in making the Jewish community a welcoming place for you.” It’s too scary, for the same reason that the other two cohorts I’ve talked about seemed so scary for so long: what will become of the Jewish people, and the Jewish future, if we accept this lifestyle?

Well, to borrow the rallying cry of the LGBT community: We’re here. We’re queer (or, in this case, just plain different). Get used to it. This population of Jews isn’t going away.

I used to be what my friends called a “super Jew.” Now, I’m barely affiliated. At the risk of sounding full of myself… the Jewish community lost something when it lost me. I’m not entirely lost yet, but I’m on my way. And, believe it or not, there are lots of others out there like me. You don’t know about them, because you don’t see them. They are not going to Shabbat services. They are not attending Jewish communal events. Like me, they miss it, and they wish that they could recapture that sense of belonging and connection that they used to feel. I have lost a sense of connection that was deeply meaningful to me.

I’m willing to put in the effort to make this happen. In fact, I’ve given it a shot (several shots) over the years. I started a monthly Shabbat dinner group for people in my age cohort. I taught Shabbat yoga classes. I’ve organized friends to attend Jewish communal events. But these efforts just haven’t gained a sustainable momentum. It is hard to build momentum in a vacuum. I can’t do it alone.

Again, let me say that I accept most of the responsibility for my sense of isolation from Jewish life. And, certainly, there are lots of single, childless Jews out there over the age of 40 who do not share my point of view, and who continue to find their home in the Jewish community. Those are the Jews that are more visible, like the tip of the iceberg. But there is a huge, silent iceberg underneath the surface.

As a professional fundraiser, I know that study after study show that it’s more important (and more cost effective) for a nonprofit to retain the donors it already has, rather than constantly focusing on acquiring new donors while the old donors slip away and stop giving. Perhaps our community should give at least equal time and energy to finding ways of retaining the affiliated Jews it already has – Jews with a proven history of participation, innovation, and dedication – rather than focusing almost exclusively on “engaging” new generations, and new families.

So go ahead. Engage me.

I dare you.

Lauren Brownstein is a philanthropy consultant based in the Washington, DC area. She has worked with numerous Jewish communal organizations, social service agencies, youth groups, synagogues, community centers, federations, and more.

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Comments

  1. JP says

    Lauren,
    I really sympathize with/empathize with you even though I am in an entirely different demographic: married with children, post Bar Mitzah and heading soon to post confirmation. However, we felt the same way when we were married with no children, married with infants, married with pre-school children, and married with school age children. While no-one would ever describe us as super-Jews, a Jewish education for our children was a top-priority for us so we made sure our three children attend/attended as long as there is/was a program for them. We attended kabbalat shabats, and every parent/family religious school program, and encouraged our children to attend as many social activities as possible until they finally got old enough where they just plain refused. We sent our children to the local Jewish day-care until they kicked the youngest out because he would not nap. We sent our kids to the local Jewish day camp every summer. What did we get for this 20 year commitment?
    1) We invited all of their classmates (20+ per class) to their Bar Mitzvahs less than 15% attended their and they were invited to less then 40%. (Leadership response – nothing we can do … not everyone is a mensch)
    2) As parents we were invited to two classmate BarMitzvah and not one other social engagement outside of the temple. In short we have no Jewish friends.
    3) Our three children have no Jewish friends from the temple.
    4) Our oldest child not only does not have a positive outlook on the Jewish community he has a negative one.
    5) Our middle one is happy with his non-Jewish friends and did not care if he had any further association with Jew or not.
    6) We only got calls from the temple (from people that did not know us) when they wanted more money or wanted us to bake or volunteer for something and then later the perfunctory call /email at the holidays
    7) When we complained that we had had enough we just did not want to pay any more but still willing to pay what we had for this relationship, the leadership pointed to the door and added that your son who would like to volunteer to help out is not welcome either.
    8) We were told “So, you want to be connected to the Jewish community? Just go to events on your own. Go to Shabbat services on your own. You’ll find people to connect with. You’ll find your community.” …. we did that and we never found it.

    Like you we could have done more …
    “We put most of the responsibility for our sense of isolation from the Jewish community squarely on our own shoulders. We could go to more Shabbat services and just be swept up in the service, rather than feeling like an outsider. We could attend Jewish communal events and join Jewish organizations. We know. We know. ” But it is supposed to be a two way street and with both of us being introverts we felt particularly uncomfortable and just needed a more outstretched hand.
    The truth is I never felt so isolated, so alone, and so invisible, as I did when I was actually at the temple before and after High Holiday service or at an Oneg for Shabbat.

    The bottom line .. an open invitation, a greeter, a perfunctory hello or email of good wishes does not make a place welcoming. It may help me come through the door but it wont keep me coming back. Costco and Loews have greeters too. I am welcomed when I feel that someone really wants me there and would actually care and miss me if I was not. Being welcoming and establishing and maintaining relationships take continual effort and time. It actually means doing more than meeting someone half way.

    Anyway I share all this rambling to say you are not alone. While it maybe worse for your demographic, all demographics experience the same feeling to various degrees.

    Let me say don’t give up. The sense of belonging and being part of community is good for you and worth the effort. In realizing that our affiliation was actually working against our aim of strengthening the sense of connection our children have with the Jewish community we ended our 20 year affiliation (and we probably should have done so sooner). Our two youngest children led the way to a different congregation (more inconvenient but as it turns out well worth it) and the change for them in just two months has been night and day. They look forward to going, drag me to go. For the first time, they want to attend youth group events. My wife and I are admittedly reserved and tentative, but we are giving things a try.

  2. Rachel Meytin says

    Lauren -
    Thank you for writing a lovely piece. I am saddened to realize that while I used to feel this way, I have forgotten to remember about it now that I’m no longer in that broad demographic (of people not pulled into community). Thank you for reminding me/us to remember every Jewish life path is valid and valuable – and that we need to do more to bring everyone in.

  3. Beth says

    I’m reminded of a piece written by Gary Rosenblatt of the NY Jewish Week some years ago, titled Reach out to the Affiliated. I often felt, in my former community in Brownstone Bklyn that it was always about outreach to those who were unaffiliated. What about the rest of us, those who come to shul and are involved? Why do we assume that involvement means comfort and ease in synagogue life. Case in point for the author who was involved but found herself left behind by a community which values marriage and family, even if not every Jew is so successful at these much valued principles. As a parent of a child with a disability, I can say that’s another area where real acceptance is hard to find as well. For a long time, I’ve been aware of the points that you make here – I have more than one friend who never married or had kids and watched how they stepped away from synagogue life more and more. Almost all of them. When one single friend celebrated a big birthday with a group of other good friends we relished the chance to make it a big party – without a wedding and/or a baby over the course of her life, when is she ever the center of attention and mind you this happened privately, not publicly. That’s a problem and the answers may not be so hard, I think but extra outreach is necessary especially as more and more singles remain single for their adult life. Thanks for writing this.

  4. rob says

    I understand what Lauren feels, but her frustration is misplaced. Why go to synagogue to be with people (i.e. married with kids) who go to synagogue not to be with G-d but to be with others like themselves? The purpose of congregational prayer in Judaism is not to make a social club and cater to lonely hearts, but to communicate with G-d in ways that individual prayer is otherwise limited.

    Lauren wants a Jewish life and doesn’t want to share it with a Jewish man because it is “too limiting”. Maybe she should stop dating for the sake of dating and date for marriage. Date in larger Jewish communities. Move to larger Jewish communities. Happiness is a choice, and Lauren chooses to be unhappy in dating non-Jews. I’m guessing that dating for companionship is her social goal, not dating for Jewish marriage; perhaps she is not willing to pay the price and “wants it all” but only if handed to her on a silver platter.

    It’s all about her and what she wants, not what she can give. I feel bad for her.

  5. Laura says

    Thank you for writing this. I think this can happen to anyone who is active in the community but doesn’t fit a predefined mold. It’s fine for a while, but eventually, it’s not sustainable. I worked in the community for a few years, and while I had a very Jewish upbringing (Conservative, bat mitzvah, Jewish camp and youth group), I didn’t feel like it was enough to ever fully be part of any Jewish community I found-professional or personal. So when I left my job, I withdrew completely. I married a non-Jew, and while my kids go to the JCC for school (partially because it’s the JCC and partially because it’s the best program in town), I am still not a part of any community. I would like to be more active, but can’t figure out how and I’m afraid it will be the same thing all over again.

  6. JP says

    Rob,
    I won’t speak for the author, but your comments made me feel uncomfortable. To me, just as my relationship with G-d is personal and may be different from yours, my relationship (meaning both what I bring, what I need and what I take) with a congregation is personal and may be different from yours; but is equally valid. The same would be true for those of the author. As to some of the other comments. We are not just leaves blowing in the wind. We do have the ability to influence the direction where we go and where we land; but (mixing metaphors) we are not all dealt the same cards. But leaving all that aside, the relationship between member and community is a two way street; both have responsibility to the other. However, the community has more resources, strength and reserve than the individual and so it is the community that should go more than half-way and reach out. And in this case, it sounds like the author did her part; but the community just sort of abandoned her and moved on.

  7. Alana says

    Lauren,
    There are already communities where you would be more than welcome. Like the synagogue I belong to… if you feel like leaving the city and coming out to the burs, we’re here. Contact me and I”ll let you know where I am.

  8. Carolin says

    Lauren,

    I totally relate. I agree with what you are saying. There are many of my friends who are in the 40s and single and feel as though the Jewish Community failed them. They were involved in single events, did the holiday thing, and now they don’t fit. They find themselves struggling to determine if they still qualify as “young adults” or somehow moved into the next stage, but without a partner and no kids. Yet it seems that most events for people in their 40s are geared towards families. I see these friends of mine, stopping their involvement completely, even thought they too were “super Jews.” Sadly, I don’t know what to do to get them involved again, all they say is “I’m too old.”
    However, as a 30 something female, who still attends most of the “young adult” events, I do find that at some events, especial the religious ones, I am pitied as a childless woman and a single one. I am only seen as that, and not as someone who makes a difference in the world, or as someone who contributes to society positively; rather I’m just the sad single woman with no children. As your friend stated, I’m ignored and pitied. Hopefully this vision of singles will some day change, though I think that day may be far away.

    Thanks again for your thoughts.

  9. rob says

    JP,

    G-d gives individuals free will to pick and choose what we observe in and feel about Judaism. No question about that. But redefining Jewish worship away from the meaning, purpose, and boundaries of Torah, Talmud, and Halakha (all of which together are the essence of what makes Jewish thought and life different from non-Jewish thought and life) hasn’t helped the lonely hearts like Lauren and it hasn’t helped the non-Orthodox world grow or maintain their numbers or even their self-definitions (e.g. Conservative Judaism abandoning it’s reliance on Halakha over the last 30 or 40 years. ). I don’t expect that Orthodoxy is for everybody, but the non-Orthodox should stop whining about their self-inflicted communal consequences and personal issues with Judaism; the definition of insanity is doing the same over and over while expecting a different result. Non-orthodox “movements” don’t work except to move away from Judaism by rationalizing individual choices to not keep mitzvot, halakhot, and minhag Yisroel; the recent Pew study proves that (and is not unique in its conclusions). Non-orthodoxy is failing, collapsing, imploding, and most within that cohort cannot ever move towards greater observance because they would suffer cognitive dissonance after having been raised and taught to invert Jewish theology, that is, to put secular politically correct ideas above what G-d, through Torah, tells us. Sad, but true; the empirical evidence doesn’t lie. And truth sometimes hurts.

  10. says

    You are spot-on about the alienation of unmarried people after a certain age. . .I was also a “super Jew” in my 20′s and now that I’m older, am mostly turned off from what seem to be two extremes: “Young Adult” events attended by hordes of 25 year olds, or more traditional Shabbat dinners and other events where married friends give me looks of pity and wonder if I’ve tried “that Jdate thing” . . . . it does not seem that traditional Judaism or Jewish institutions are set up for unmarried people.

    Btw, not sure why commenter Rob thinks the author is dating for companionship vs marriage, or how very isolating it is to go to shul “to be with G-d” only to be surrounded by people who pity you for your unmarried, childless state. Here’s a hint Rob, synagogues are usually filled with live humans, and most of them are there because they are now parents and want their small humans to have a Jewish experience. Anyway Lauren, I get it, we get it, your article is the voice of so many people in the same situation.

  11. Cynthia says

    I think what you have said is important and may be the main reason you don’t see other over 30′s in the shul but consider this: I have belonged to many organizations over the years including a choir and a quilting guild. I realized somewhere along the line that the reason why I wasn’t seeing people my age is that demographics are working against me. There are simply a TON of baby boomers out there and they are joiners. In 1970 when I was born, the population hit a low point in the U.S. and when you consider the small amount of Jews in any one shul’s locale, you are not drawing from a big crowd of 43 year olds. I hear you when you talk about the lonely feelings but I for one would love to see you at services and make friends because even as a mom of two with a husband who seems to know many congregants, I still feel awkward at the onegs.

  12. Daniel says

    I was the same way as Lauren was until I started learning with Lori Palatnik and her husband Rabbi Palatnik. I feel bad for Lauren because if she started learning, she would have clarity on what it means to be Jewish, not just based on Shul life, but also have more clarity and what she needs in a relationship. I have seen MANY women soon get married after learning with Lori.

  13. Susan says

    Daniel, that is interesting. . . I learned with Lori P. also and the only thing that happened was that my new zest for Ortho Judaism scared away all of the non-observant single guys. I would most definitely NOT encourage single women to become more observant, unless they live in or plan to move to NY or Israel!

  14. HBB says

    I have watched this phenomena of reaching out to the unaffiliated and wept that those of us who are involved are ignored. It happens in many organizations, not just the Jewish ones…, and I believe some of it has to do with the leaders. It is much easier to reach out and inspire those who are new, open and turned on. It feeds the ego, and it is good. Still those of us who are involved and struggling to hold on are more difficult to cater to; the challenges are different and not as easily solved. Why not go for what is easier, more known, more comfortable.

    This is one perspective and some of my experience and I am certain there are those that feel differently. Hashem is listening…, so thank you for sharing your thoughts in this public arena. It is always nice to be acknowledged.

  15. JP says

    Rob,
    We clearly come to this from different places. “the empirical evidence doesn’t lie. And truth sometimes hurts.” Be careful about confusing correlation with causation. The “empirical evidence” you refer to is subject to interpretation. The “truth” you refer to is the truth as perceived through your lens not mine. Thinking there is only one truth denies the “empirical evidence”. Judaism has always been a living and dynamic religion. If not, it would not have survived all that it has endured all these years. Where are the high priests? the animal sacrifices? Have you not seen the different versions of Exodus found in the dead sea scrolls?

    I am not sure how you can declare
    “Non-orthodox “movements” don’t work except to move away from Judaism by rationalizing individual choices ” when in fact many of us are are living proof that they do work. Just as you said “I don’t expect that Orthodoxy is for everybody”, I would say that non-Orthodoxy is not for everybody either. In my personal family 3 out 4 of my grandparents were raised Orthodox (my maternal grandmother was Reform). One generation later none of their kids were Orthodox. My mother went Reform and had two children and now has six Reform Jewish grandchildren. Her brother went Conservative had five children and now has two Reform Jewish grandchildren and three non-Jewish grandchildren. My father’s brother had two non-Jewish children and no grandchildren. If any movement failed here, which one was it?

    You state that the Pew study “proves” the failure of the non-Orthodox movements. It does nothing of the sort even if that is how you choose to interpret the results. It shows correlation and not causation.

    There are many variables that the Pew study did not control for and many questions it did not ask. Take my in-laws that came to this country in the 1960′s from eastern Europe. The were raised Orthodox (there was no Conservative and Reform movement where they came from). Now they would say they are Reform but they are not. They are what they have been before they came here: non-practicing Orthodox Jews. How does the Pew study capture that? Conservative is not just Orthodox light and Reform is not just Orthodox very light. I consider myself to be observant (admittedly not perfectly living up to my own standards but always trying to do better) even if I may not appear to be so in your lens. As to your additional comments with respect to the author, I did not read her piece as whining. She called attention to particular need in the Jewish community using her personal story as an illustration and an attempt to get understanding (and perhaps compassion) of others. Do you really think there is no one like her in the Orthodox community? My perception would be that unmarried women (and even men) would feel even more disconnected there. I would hope that all branches of Judaism would find it worthwhile to reach out and try to include all those that want to be included (without condemning them for their choices) and clearly the author wants to be included.

  16. Paul says

    I totally agree with the author. She has completely described my experience. I went to Jewish summer camp. I’ve always had Jewish friends. When I moved to San Francisco 14 years ago, I didn’t join a synagogue, but I regularly attended events and services for the young adult community at a particular synagogue. But once you are no longer in the 22-42 demographic for the young adult community, the security guard doesn’t let you into the oneg. There is no group for people older than that, or rather, the group is for 40-100. Well, just like 20-something’s don’t want to hang with 40-something’s, those of us in our early 40s and 50s don’t want to hang out with people in their 60s and 70s. It sounds harsh, but it’s the truth. My parents ask every year if I’m going to high holy day services. The answer is always no, because instead of feeling part of the Jewish community by going, I feel even more isolated. I don’t see any familiar faces, and people just don’t reach out anymore to single people around 50.

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