The search for self
Do Jewish spaces support meaning making?
We believe that modern American Jews choose Jewish identity, affiliation and behaviors because they find meaning. In fact, meaning-making may be at the root of Jewish connection — knowing that our institutions must help individuals make meaning through Jewish thought and action to remain viable as organizations. This is what keeps Judaism compelling.
Jewish practice and thought have evolved over centuries. What we do in our communities would be unfamiliar to our great-grandparents and unrecognizable to Jews of 1,000 years ago. Whether the changes that followed the destruction of the Temple or the advent of the Enlightenment, Jewish practice is full of creative adaptations.
We see this in our times. We have bemoaned and then accepted intermarriage, awoken to the presence of Jews of Color, Mizrahi and Queer Jews. Our leaders and communities have adapted ritual and practice to accommodate, then welcome Jews of different identities and abilities and then turned those innovations back toward the entire community because they were richer, more personal and/or more meaningful.
But the tension remains between those who would preserve the practices and ways of thinking of our grandparents and those who would change them to meet the needs of ourselves and our children. The presence of multiple generations pushing and pulling in opposite directions acts as one brake. The structure and inertia of our institutions and donors acts as another.
We are a retired psychologist and a retired synagogue executive director, and have been talking and thinking about Jewish spaces for a long while. We see that there are many reasons and ways to identify as Jewish and affiliate with the community. We have listened and thought about welcoming and inclusion. We believe that modern American Jews choose Jewish identity, affiliation and behaviors because they find meaning. In fact, meaning-making may be at the root of Jewish connection — knowing that our institutions must help individuals make meaning through Jewish thought and action to remain viable as organizations. This is what keeps Judaism compelling.
Sadly, meaning making has taken a back seat to continuity. If we are Jews L’Dor v’Dor, what keeps us connected? What matters? Meaning making, the search for self, is actually the psychological task of our lives. Do Jewish spaces support meaning making?
We cannot script meaning for other people. We CAN create spaces where meaning making can occur.
THINKING ABOUT AFFINITY
We present three broad categories of affinity: identification, affiliation and connection. Each of these creates opportunity for transformation, which may elevate the impact of Judaism in a person’s life.
It is not our intention to judge these categories. In fact, we assume that many of us travel from one to another and back again. At times, I’m “just Jewish;” at times I am deeply connected. I might visit a synagogue in another country as a tourist or as a worshiper or to check out the oneg. All of these choices count. Our essential question is whether modern-day Judaism creates space for different kinds of affinity.
“I am Jewish” probably because my parents were Jewish as were their parents before them. Being Jewish may be part of my DNA, literally an inherited identity I didn’t choose. I may behave in some ways to affirm this identity … or not. I can affirm my identity with the bagels or pastrami I eat, the books I read, the jokes I tell or laugh at or am insulted by, the Yiddish I sprinkle into conversation. These behaviors may include a Seder, attending High Holiday services, reciting kaddish for a parent … or not. What drives me to choose these behaviors may be that Jews do them. Or they may be simply “normal” behaviors, established in my childhood or in my social circles. In some sense, this form of Jewish affinity is a membership card — it says I belong, whether or not I engage.
It would be wrong to assume a consistency in these behaviors. What I do because I’m Jewish may differ from what you do because you’re Jewish. For that matter, the bagels my Catholic neighbor eats do not make her Jewish, but my bagels make me Jewish. What may be most important is that all or most of these behaviors are performed individually and some or many may be performed in isolation. I may choose a community, but I may not need one.
“I joined” for preschool, for High Holiday tickets, a b’mitzvah, or funeral. These relationships are, at least initially, transactional. When the services no longer meet my needs or my needs change — my child enters kindergarten, the b’mitzvah or funeral is completed, the community takes a stand I dislike — I may leave for a newer, fancier or simply different provider. If the gym down the street upgrades, I can leave the JCC. I’m going for the gym, not the community. If I didn’t like the sermon or the music or the social justice, I can drop into another synagogue.
If I remain in this category, I may slip nearly invisibly in and out of programs. I may engage casually with other participants. I might become friends, but the institution isn’t essential to that friendship. “I met you at the synagogue, but our friendship isn’t tied to the synagogue.” The community is not essential to me, but the service is important enough to buy.
“This is my community” whether it’s a synagogue, a study group, a JCC, or a team of JFS volunteers. I identify with the people around me, and the community is an extension of who I am. There is meaning in the connections, which may remain largely social, but are significant and tied to the institution. These are people I meet at services, serve breakfast with at the shelter, visit Congress to lobby, or study with. This community might also be at Pilates, the National Audubon Society, Rotary or other.
This is the sweet spot most organizations seek: the institution facilitates connections that bring people together in volunteer roles and friendships that remain centered at the institution. These relationships underlie long-term membership, repeat donations, advocacy and recruitment. These groups form the vibrant core who bring the energy to the room at any event or gathering.
What needs to happen for connection? I need to feel seen, known and valued. I need to know I will be missed if I’m absent. Whether it’s through friendship, volunteer work, board service or simply shared experiences, people who are connected feel they are important to both the organization and its members.
TRANSFORMATION/CHANGE: A fourth category
We believe that Judaism — and religions generally — can help people find and understand their place in the world, in relationship to the past, present and future, to others, to God (if they believe) and to eternity. Judaism can bring us to see ourselves and the world differently, to act ethically, to feel responsible. This may not be the goal of affiliation for some. We hope that Judaism can provide the space for a more profound understanding of our place in the world, but we must recognize that this searching is not universal. This is meaning-making.
Deep engagement occurs sporadically and cannot be sustained. These moments stand out as moments of awe, as turning points, as spiritual experiences. They may happen at lifecycle events, over meals, in nature, in crisis. They may happen in ritual — at a bris or naming — or without any ritual trappings. They are profound.
It is essential that we understand these moments are fleeting. Living in reality is not a lifetime of bliss or continuous revelation. We would exhaust ourselves and those around us. But being human allows that we be open to these moments: to revelation, bliss, awe and deep connection.
These moments could occur in any of the affiliation categories we explored above. I can be awed by a pastrami sandwich or onion bagel, an insight in a class or song at service. I can feel connected standing in front of a museum display case, at a funeral or bar mitzvah, or handing a hungry person a bowl of soup. And I can be changed in those moments.
We do not assume that all organizations should or will place high value on transformational experiences. In fact, many legacy institutions are based on predictable continuity. It is incumbent upon the consumer to locate the type of institution that serves their own needs. Not all synagogues are places designed for change. We do not place a judgment here, but simply acknowledge that the status quo has value.
Can these transformational moments have Jewish content? Of course! Can Jewish institutions be places of wonder and change? You bet. When clergy is with us at the end of life, when we struggle with illness or feel the joy of connection, these moments guide and center us. They can be full of meaning. And then they pass. We may feel them at Masada, or when the Chabadniks ask us to lay tefillin. We may find them in nature, or at a concert, or when we read an amazing book. But we may be more likely to feel them unpredictably, often when we are alone. We wonder if scripted time, such as liturgical prayer, may prevent spiritual moments. How do we bring them back into Jewish spaces, our Jewish lives? Who hears our stories? For it is through my stories that I understand myself and connect with you. Is there space in our communities for personal storytelling?
Betsy Stone is a retired psychologist who consults with camps, synagogues, clergy and Jewish institutions. She is the author of Refuah Shlema, a compilation of her previous eJP articles, recently published by Amazon.
Alan Halpern revamped membership and membership contribution models, launched a community Jewish cultural festival, rebranded a congregation, managed communications, finances and facilities for three synagogues over a 20-year career.