‘I belong nowhere’: Conversations with unaffiliated Jews post-Oct. 7

“I belong nowhere,” said my client, expressing how she felt when her liberal friends did not call her to express sympathy after Oct. 7. “I no longer feel comfortable in my progressive network, but the organized Jewish community, which I have weak ties with anyway, feels very alien to me.”

It all started when a former colleague told me a friend of his was experiencing personal, political and identity issues post-Oct. 7, and suggested that Jews like him were ripe for life-coaching. So, I sent a simple WhatsApp message to some people who fit this demographic or who know those who do. I went to make a cup of tea, and when I came back to my phone it was vibrating incessantly: “That’s me!”  “That’s my cousin.” “I’m not in the group you mention but I am in touch with these people. What can you teach me?” 

Well, this is what I have to share.

Clients want to work on the personal, the political and the community levels.

Most of my clients think of themselves as Jewish, but their primary identity was/is with the left-wing political groups that provided their social framework. All of them were disappointed on Oct. 7 when, at best, their friends did not contact them. 

For some clients, all they want to do is work through this experience by talking about it with someone who will listen. Others, however, are having an ideological moment and rethinking their political allegiances. Were they wrong to support the groups that they did? Or are the groups’ values essentially sound, and their response was just the product of a misunderstanding, misinterpretation, or an absence of facts? If they are rethinking the underpinnings of their former ideology, how do they forge a new political identity?

It is hard to feel like you are suddenly the black sheep of your social circle or ideological community. Is there anywhere you truly belong? Katrina_S from Pixabay

They want acceptance, respect and validation.

Almost everybody I have spoken to is looking for a stronger connection with the Jewish community, which they either left or were never really part of, but they are having trouble connecting.

Though their Jewish identity may be tenuous, their exploration of it is serious. However, approaching these people as “once lost but now found” is not an effective way to connect with them. They cannot be reduced to statistics to be shifted or fresh meat to be turned into committed Jews; some will choose not to go this route, and anything that smacks of conversion will be counterproductive. 

They want to speak to each other.

Even an event that is light on Jewish content is often too much for people dipping their toes into the water. Attendees seem cliquey or use terms they don’t understand. Across the board, clients express their desire to speak to people just like them — others who want to share experiences, be understood and decide how to move forward.

Most have some strong Jewish experiences.

This may be a function of who I have reached out to, but most of the people who responded to my message have strong past Jewish experiences. They may have been very involved in a Jewish youth movement, but then went to university and lost interest. They may have spent time in Israel, or had a relationship with somebody more committed to Judaism than them. Rather than wringing our hands about how we “lost” these people, their “return” is a reminder that there is a wellspring of Jewishness out there that can be tapped, and hopefully in ways more positive than Oct. 7.

We have a small window of opportunity.

Most clients express a sense of urgency to deal with these issues, as clients in crisis often do. There is another reason for a sense of urgency among Jewish leaders, however: The current political and social situation will eventually improve, and people seeking to be more involved Jewishly now will direct their attention elsewhere.

One-on-one coaching is clearly only part of a larger community response. We need programming that will attract these groups, guided by the insights I have shared — programming that will hopefully help my client to soon be able to say “This is where I belong!”

Rabbi David Levin-Kruss is a Jerusalem-based educator and life coach. He has held positions at the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies and Melitz Centers for Jewish-Zionist Education.