By Lisa Zimmerman
It was not until the birth of my son, that I began to truly consider how we were going to share Jewish culture/life with him. My husband is an atheist, although he was raised in a traditional Jewish household including having a Bar Mitzvah. I, on the other hand, came from Jewish parents who were turned off from religion because of their experiences as children. I was raised with minimal Jewish culture and no religion. I have always felt that in spite of my lack of Jewish experience and my husband’s atheism, that it was imperative that we allow our son to make a decision for himself. But the question was, “How could we enable that, if the only source of Jewish culture that I was aware of was in a synagogue?” My husband had no desire to join and I had no footing in that environment. It was alien to me.
Nonetheless, it seemed to be a common theme in the area in which I live. Suffolk County, Long Island has the highest rates of unaffiliation and intermarriage in New York State, according to the Jewish Community Study of New York, 2011. I had no idea where to go and what a solution to this pervasive problem might be. All I knew was that the Jewish community had diverse needs and interests, yet for some reason they were not being recognized and addressed. Or so I thought.
Three years ago I saw a Facebook post from a friend sharing a group that was being launched. This group is called Jewish Without Walls (JWOW). I now had confirmation outside of statistics that I was not the only family in this situation. Not only are there families that are interfaith, but there are also individuals like us who are either unaffiliated or have no place to go to experience Jewish life outside of temple walls.
What appealed to me most about JWOW was that there are no walls! There are no literal walls and no philosophical walls. There are no divisions between different Jewish denominations or affiliations. Everyone is invited to JWOW programs. There are no membership dues and everyone is warmly welcomed. JWOW embraces the idea that there is no one right way to be Jewish. It offers experiential Jewish education for families and a community with which to learn about and celebrate holidays. The programs appeal to unaffiliated and interfaith families, along with members of local synagogues. JWOW provides a unique space for all families to meet each other, create friendships and do Jewish activities together.
In the last 3 years we have made bird houses at Home Depot for Tu B’Shvat, participated in a potluck Shabbat dinner on the beach, celebrated Sukkot at a local farm, experienced Purim by making rainbow hamantaschen, and learned about the holiday at an adult education class. It is through JWOW that I learned about the PJ Library program. My son has been receiving Jewish-related books and music for free every month for the last 3 years. And the largest event – one that brings out the whole community – is a huge Hanukkah party at two of our local malls. It draws hundreds of people every year who are incredibly grateful to see Hanukkah celebrated in such a public way during the holiday season.
JWOW has enabled my family to feel connected to something that is larger than us. I no longer feel isolated and confused about being Jewish. In fact, I know more about Jewish tradition than ever before! And I know that should we should choose to join a synagogue, give our son a Bar Mitvah, plan a trip to Israel, etc., that there is a place that we can go to find more information and receive support.
Lisa Zimmerman is a Holistic Health Coach and member of JWOW’s “A-Team.”