By Ari Moffic
*Unaffiliated is a word that many Jewish leaders use to negatively and judgmentally refer to people who they say “won’t” join synagogues and who, they say, use money as an excuse even though they can afford it. It is used to infer that these people are selfish and not fully living out their Jewish responsibility to community.
Thanks to a grant from the The Open Dor Project, my eyes and heart have been opened to the needs and desires of unaffiliated families raising children with Judaism. This group is the largest and fasting growing in American Jewish life. I launched CoHere as a program to offer Jewish education to unaffiliated families and have worked with dozens and dozens of such families. What I have seen and learned can help all of us seeking to sustain a meaningful Jewish community in America. Here is some of what I have gleaned.
- Families feel they lack choices when it comes to accessing Jewish education for their school aged children. Jewish organizations are hesitant to offer Jewish educational classes because nobody wants to compete with synagogues. If PJ Library and JCCs and other Jewish organizations offered classes in geographically diverse centers, and the classes met certain criteria, we could be supporting so many more families than is currently the case. Meeting the needs of people uninterested in synagogues would not undermine congregations. Rather, it would provide opportunities for unaffiliated families to get to know Jewish clergy and educators. That can only grow Jewish ties and Jewish life in the long term.
- Parents do not want to fight with their children every week about going to Jewish classes. If Jewish learning is enjoyable, supportive, joyful, hands-on, highly participatory, limited in time commitment, and meaningful, often children participate willingly and even look forward to the sessions.
- Many families remain unaffiliated because they see themselves as not that religious. They may feel themselves to be personally spiritual, but they are not Jewishly observant of Shabbat and the holidays. They do not want to regularly attend a prayer service on Friday night or Saturday morning with lots of Hebrew and chanting, even with engaging music. Since communal Sabbath and holiday services are a big part of congregational affiliation, it is hard to imagine joining, and a focus on worship can turn families off.
- Many families feel they already have community. They do not see a need to join a synagogue for community because they already have close-knit social groups, on-line support through Facebook, some good friends, or family nearby. Parents are also wrapped up in their children’s lives and are busy and tired. Thus, while parents may not be able to enter into a situation of being members of a congregational community, which is indeed a Jewish value and way of life, they are eager supporters of Jewish learning, which is another important Jewish value and commandment.
- Families still want their children to be Jewishly literate so that the major Torah stories, values, historical occurrences, holidays and main prayers and songs are part of their psyche. In this way, Judaism lives on and continues, and parents feel proud and fulfilled at being able to accomplish this passing on of Judaism to their children. Parents want this because for them Judaism has been a source of pride, identity, family ties, communal affiliation broadly speaking, and they want that for their children as well. They want their children to have a feeling of belonging in Judaism as they grow, but they do not automatically see organized Jewish life as a way of achieving that.
- People look to Judaism at the major times in their life. They want Judaism when they get married, welcome children, when their children become B’nai Mitzvah, and when someone dies. At these times, Judaism helps Jews and their loved ones mark their lives with familiar words and traditions and it adds beauty, depth, meaning, sacred purpose and order. Many unaffiliated people also celebrate the major Jewish holidays with their family and these times are a source of joy, grounding, memory making, enjoyable cooking and are part of the rhythm of the family’s calendar year. Many even seek out a congregational service or a family service for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. The families I worked with celebrate Rosh Hashanah with a family dinner with a round challah, apples and honey. Many fast on Yom Kippur and have a break fast. Hanukkah is celebrated with lighting a menorah and giving and receiving gifts. Dreidel is often played. Passover is often a family holiday with lots of cooking and preparing and reading from a Haggadah, having the seder plate symbols and finding the afikomen. Families get creative with Passover. This is not a watered-down Judaism. It is real, and when we love, see and honor our families, we see what amcha, the people need and want. This is how Jewish leaders will create and continue Judaism.
- People want a connection with a rabbi who knows them, gets them, laughs with them, cries with them, and who is a pastor, a teacher and a friend.
Offering lots of options for Jewish education will not impede or hurt the variety of congregational offerings. Supporting the work of community rabbis and tutors is essential for the vitality and continuity of Judaism. When brave Jewish organizations and funders meet the needs of the people, Judaism will authentically and organically be thought about, learned about, practiced, and allowed to shape the world in positive ways.
Ari Moffic is the founder of CoHere Chicago, bringing Jewish education to unaffiliated families in Chicagoland