From Affiliation to Engagement, From Silos to Playlists

by Allan Finkelstein

I began my Jewish communal career in 1972 as a BBYO regional director in Minneapolis. At that time, affiliating with Jewish institutions constituted a principal way – THE principal way – of expressing one’s Jewish commitment and connection to the Jewish community. Accordingly, Jewish communal institutions, lay leaders, and professionals focused on recruiting members, serving members, and, in general, boosting “Jewish affiliation.” We divided the world into two groups: the affiliated and the unaffiliated, and affiliated usually meant belonging to a synagogue.

Today, people no longer “affiliate” or “join.” While a sense of belonging feels good, loyalty to the organization or institution is trumped by stronger desires for individual meaning and purpose. Being unaffiliated no longer implies lack of interest in things Jewish or lack of connection with Jews or Jewish life. Certainly, to restrict affiliation to congregational membership alone doesn’t describe how Jews see themselves connecting with Jewish life. Would we call members of Hadassah, AIPAC, independent minyanim or Moishe Houses unaffiliated if they don’t belong congregations? What about those who are actively participating in Jewish cultural activities, or volunteering for community service, or pursuing Jewish learning activities? Are they too deserving of the dismissive and frankly, disrespectful, term unaffiliated?

A term more appropriate to today’s reality is “engagement.” Our goal is to engage more and more Jews in activities, causes, social justice ventures, spiritual searches, cultural involvement, learning and social networks that deepen their connections to Jewish life. Every study of Jewish identity confirms that the more involvements people have, the more likely they are to do things Jewish, whether lighting Shabbat candles, studying Jewish texts, reading Jewish blogs, listening to Jewish music, or engaging in Tikkun Olam.

I grew up at a time when membership meant everything. Today, the focus on membership per se may actually be a barrier to engagement by privileging the meaningless act of dues-paying over the plethora of meaningful Jewish involvements. Less engaged Jews are not interested in how we think they should connect, or how we build our institutions. Their search for meaning requires that we ease access and smooth out the handoffs from one program to another. In the world in which we now live, the focus on institutional survival as an endgame will likely lead to the opposite effect. Our shared goal should be deeper penetration into the Jewish community, being comfortable with flexibility, helping people create their own playlists for Jewish life.

A Jewish communal world that emphasized engagement over affiliation would be one that would also work to eliminate turf battles. Instead of criticizing and downgrading other Jewish organizations, we could devote our energies to finding new collaborative approaches and more sensible ways to facilitate the connections and engagement.

Unlike other times in our history, American Jews today have the luxury to define themselves. They can be as Jewish as they want in any way they choose, and they can express that Jewishness wherever they wish. They don’t need to huddle together for protection or build parallel societies as a bulwark against discrimination. The result of this new freedom is that younger American Jews no longer compartmentalize their Jewish lives nor are they interested in following the pattern established by their parents and grandparents of assigning Jewish culture, learning, and ritual to different institutions. Young Jews have absorbed and been shaped by a mash-up, cut-and-paste culture that combines various forms to create something new. They are comfortable davening to a hip-hop beat or attending vegan Seders. Their most spiritual moments may come at Israeli film festivals or volunteering at an AIDS clinic. The Jewish sage they relate to may be the Kotzker Rebbe or Lenny Bruce, or both.

We want people at our JCCs, congregations, minyanim, organizations, projects, start-ups, bookstores, cafes, theaters and Israel trips to engage with the extraordinary multiplicity of Jewish life and thought through culture, through learning, through history, through action, and through the whole mish-mash that is today’s Jewish scene. Our communal spaces and institutions need to appear (and be) flexible, non-prescriptive, and welcoming, in short, well-suited to introducing a current generation of Jews both to what it has meant to be Jewish in the past and to what being Jewish means today. Those meanings may well be different, but the interplay between dissimilar viewpoints has always been the essence of Jewish tradition and community life. The vision of Jewish life for the 21st century needs to be pluralistic, outward looking, self-confident, and vibrantly Jewish.

In short, let’s create a new vocabulary of Jewish communal life that reflects our comfort with, and commitment to individuals’ quest for meaningful Jewish journeys and that recognize the enriching – and challenging – scope of Jewish diversity today. And, of course, a change in vocabulary is but the start of changing our thinking, our habits, and our action. While we are at it, let’s change the often unwritten “rules of engagement” by which we have lived and which must be rewritten for the 21st century Jewish community.

Allan Finkelstein is CEO of the JCC Association.