Jewish Attrition, and the Final Frontier of Jewish Communal Acceptance

Accepting adults who are unmarried and childless, truly accepting them and their lives not as a temporary stopover on the way to marriage and children, but accepting their lives as they are, is the final frontier of Jewish acceptance.

by Lauren Brownstein

It happens every few years. There is a survey of American Jewry, the results are released, and the American Jewish community (at least, those who are interested in reading and analyzing these sorts of things) gets its knickers in a bunch over the findings. Intermarriage! Assimilation! Low Affiliation! Oh my! It’s the “lions and tigers and bears” of Jewish life. This time, it’s the Pew Research, Religion & Public Life Project’s publication, A Portrait of Jewish Americans. (released October 1, 2013)

What’s missing, but hinted at, in this most recent survey is a pattern that I have observed in my own life and in that of many of my friends here in the Washington, DC area. I am willing to bet that this pattern repeats in communities large and small all over the US.

Not assimilation, but attrition – those who were once involved, or even highly involved, in Jewish life, but no longer are involved or affiliated. The Pew report does provide some statistics on those who were raised Orthodox but no longer are Orthodox. It also provides statistics on those who have changed their Jewish affiliations, e.g. used to be Conservative but are now Reform.

But what about attrition among non-Orthodox Jews? For example, adults who once belonged to synagogues (and attended on most Shabbats), hosted Shabbat dinners, attended Jewish events, joined Jewish organizations, dated exclusively within the religion and more – in other words, followed more “traditional” Jewish affiliation paths – but now no longer do so?

Essentially, I am describing myself. In my 20s, I was the dream of those who wish to “engage the next generation.” I belonged to a synagogue with lots of other people in my age cohort. I attended Shabbat services every week, and I even helped to lead these services. I hosted or attended Friday night Shabbat dinners almost every week, and I often hosted Saturday afternoon Shabbat lunches, lingering meals filled with serious Jewish conversation, Hebrew singing, and plenty of goofy laughter that stretched well into the afternoon. Because I was what I would call “fairly Shabbat observant,” meaning that I did not watch TV, go shopping, run errands, etc. on Shabbat, these meals provided great moments of friendship and also filled the long Shabbat afternoons until sundown on Saturday, when I would turn on the electronics, check email, pick up the phone, or go out with friends on Saturday nights. During this time I belonged to numerous Jewish organizations and I only, only, dated Jewish men.

And now? At age 42, I no longer belong to a synagogue, and I only sporadically attend Shabbat services. While I sometimes attend Shabbat dinners, I rarely host them. I would prefer to date Jewish men, however, I have accepted the reality that it’s simply too limiting at my age; I now date men who are not Jewish.

My friends who host and participate in Shabbat dinners are married with kids, while I am not. Their houses can accommodate lots of adults and children comfortably, while my small apartment just isn’t a good fit for all the adults and kids. These friends also attend Shabbat services at synagogues regularly, as I used to do. And certainly, I could still continue to do so, if I wished. To be honest, it just doesn’t feel so comfortable anymore. When I attend Shabbat services at synagogues with people my age, I am often the only single person over the age of 30 and under the age of 70. As a synagogue executive director once said to me, “Everyone wants to look around the synagogue and see people who look like them.” While there are minyanim that cater to an unmarried crowd, I tend to be among the oldest people in the room when I pray with those groups. Broad generalization alert: those who care as much as I used to care about going to Shabbat services tend to have married by my age.

I put most of the responsibility for my sense of isolation from the Jewish community squarely on my own shoulders. I could go to Shabbat services and just be swept up in the service, rather than feeling like an outsider. I could find other people to invite for Shabbat dinner each week. I could attend Jewish communal events and join Jewish organizations. I know. I know.

But… the same is true for 20somethings. And our Jewish community has been falling all over itself for nearly two decades finding ways to “engage young adults.” Some of the brightest minds in Jewish life have dedicated themselves almost exclusively to young adult/young professional outreach. Incredible programs have been created, millions of dollars have been spent. Why so much effort for one particular age cohort, but no effort for those who do not neatly fit the mold of what our Jewish path is supposed to be: dating, marriage, family, and affiliation?

Those who have invested (either as professionals, volunteers, or donors) in engaging young professionals in Jewish life wouldn’t tell a 24 year old, “So, you want to be connected to the Jewish community? Just go to events on your own. Go to Shabbat services on your own. You’ll find people to connect with. You’ll find your community.” So why say this to the 40 year old, 50 year old, or 60 year old who feels unanchored in a room full of people whose lives are not like theirs? This isn’t just a single person’s dilemma. I remember a married friend once saying to me about her synagogue, “Yeah, I pretty much felt invisible here until we had kids.” Invisible.

Here’s the hard truth, as I see it: Accepting adults who are unmarried and childless, truly accepting them and their lives not as a temporary stopover on the way to marriage and children, but accepting their lives as they are, is the final frontier of Jewish acceptance.

For a while, accepting intermarried couples was the final frontier. Then, accepting the LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender) community was the final frontier. As these groups gain greater acceptance (certainly, not full acceptance, but greater acceptance), single and childless adults are the final stand.

I believe that it is far too scary for most of the Jewish community to say “Yes, it’s OK if you never marry, if you never have kids. You can still be a part of the community, and we still will invest resources, new ideas, and renewed energy in making the Jewish community a welcoming place for you.” It’s too scary, for the same reason that the other two cohorts I’ve talked about seemed so scary for so long: what will become of the Jewish people, and the Jewish future, if we accept this lifestyle?

Well, to borrow the rallying cry of the LGBT community: We’re here. We’re queer (or, in this case, just plain different). Get used to it. This population of Jews isn’t going away.

I used to be what my friends called a “super Jew.” Now, I’m barely affiliated. At the risk of sounding full of myself… the Jewish community lost something when it lost me. I’m not entirely lost yet, but I’m on my way. And, believe it or not, there are lots of others out there like me. You don’t know about them, because you don’t see them. They are not going to Shabbat services. They are not attending Jewish communal events. Like me, they miss it, and they wish that they could recapture that sense of belonging and connection that they used to feel. I have lost a sense of connection that was deeply meaningful to me.

I’m willing to put in the effort to make this happen. In fact, I’ve given it a shot (several shots) over the years. I started a monthly Shabbat dinner group for people in my age cohort. I taught Shabbat yoga classes. I’ve organized friends to attend Jewish communal events. But these efforts just haven’t gained a sustainable momentum. It is hard to build momentum in a vacuum. I can’t do it alone.

Again, let me say that I accept most of the responsibility for my sense of isolation from Jewish life. And, certainly, there are lots of single, childless Jews out there over the age of 40 who do not share my point of view, and who continue to find their home in the Jewish community. Those are the Jews that are more visible, like the tip of the iceberg. But there is a huge, silent iceberg underneath the surface.

As a professional fundraiser, I know that study after study show that it’s more important (and more cost effective) for a nonprofit to retain the donors it already has, rather than constantly focusing on acquiring new donors while the old donors slip away and stop giving. Perhaps our community should give at least equal time and energy to finding ways of retaining the affiliated Jews it already has – Jews with a proven history of participation, innovation, and dedication – rather than focusing almost exclusively on “engaging” new generations, and new families.

So go ahead. Engage me.

I dare you.

Lauren Brownstein is a philanthropy consultant based in the Washington, DC area. She has worked with numerous Jewish communal organizations, social service agencies, youth groups, synagogues, community centers, federations, and more.