Transcending Demographics

by Rabbi Gail Diamond

When I graduated rabbinical school 20 years ago, I was happy to get a job at a 100-family synagogue that had been built right on route 95 in Attleboro, MA. We were in a growing suburban area and soon we had over 120 children in the religious school. “Demographics are everything in this business,” I thought as I watched colleagues in nearby Taunton, MA and Woonsocket, RI, struggling with synagogues in what seemed to be the “wrong” locations. “These are the problems we want to have,” I told congregants as we worked to fit all these kids into a tiny building, built 25 years prior with only two classrooms.

I was wrong. In the decades since I have learned that my work and the work of my colleagues transcends demographics and statistics. What matters, as my colleague Rabbi Barbara Penzner told me back then, are moments of connection and religious meaning, and the ways in which we connect these moments together to make a whole.

I have seen how this is true in two ways over the past decade. First, I have watched my successor in Attleboro work with the community to become a much stronger religious center, even as the number of school aged children in the community and the religious school declined. The synagogue now has an active men’s club (I thought men’s clubs were a thing of the past), ever expanding social action activities, a social worker who helps families in need (sponsored by the local Jewish Family Service) and ever expanding connections with the wider Jewish community and the local multi-faith community. The synagogue has weathered and grown with additions and losses. I looked at numbers but my successor has looked at the whole community and asked, how can we best serve the people who are here? In doing so, she and her congregation have created and re-created a vibrant, thriving community.

Meanwhile, in Jerusalem, I have been teaching Jews from around the world, watching young, middle aged and older adults find and create meaning. If I understand the recent Pew survey on Jewish life in the United States correctly, there is no discernible statistical movement of Jews from less observant to more observant. Nonetheless, our work at the Conservative Yeshiva is fully occupied with those who are on this (statistically non-existent) path. The students I meet are deepening their Jewish observance and most are on a trajectory bringing them further into the Jewish community than they were yesterday or a decade ago. (Those who are not becoming more involved are simply already very much involved.)

The biggest challenge to the North American Jewish future, highlighted by the Pew study, is the “rise of the Nones.” Robert Putnam and David Campbell, in their 2006 work, American Grace, discussed the phenomenon whereby Americans of all backgrounds increasingly identify as simply “no religion.” Nones is the term that has been coined to describe them. For the Jewish people, the rise of the Nones is a significant threat. If people don’t even consider themselves Jewish, how can the Jewish community reach them? They are lost to us.

Nones are not new. When my great-uncle Jack married an Irish woman in 1929, he left his Jewish family and Jewish community and became a None. But the rate at which people are leaving the Jewish community has significantly increased, and that is the challenge that we must take seriously.

The good news is that we know the kinds of factors that make a difference – for adults and children – in forming the trajectory of a committed Jewish life. Immersive experiences for youth, like summer camps and youth groups, and parallel experiences for adults, make a difference. Significant adult learning experiences, as documented for example in Diane Tickton Shuster’s Jewish Lives, Jewish Learning, change people’s connection to the Jewish community. Meaningful Israel experiences, like birthright, move Jews to greater Jewish connection. At the Conservative Yeshiva, my colleagues and I see daily the value of combining these elements, not only for individual Jewish journeys but for shaping Jewish young adults and older adults to become Jewish professional and lay leaders, to become mentors and shapers of the Jewish future. We reach lay people and students in every liberal Jewish movement and seminary, in North America, South America and Europe, with intensive Jewish learning and immersive community in the heart of Jerusalem.

It doesn’t matter where you are from: the content of Jewish connection makes the difference. A colleague came to speak to students at the Conservative Yeshiva last summer and told us how 80% of North American Jews are now concentrated in just nine urban areas, and how it makes sense to concentrate community building efforts in these markets. He spoke demographic truth that day, but the program at that moment included 140 students from 21 different countries, and it wasn’t based on the kinds of clear-cut, demographic truths that informed my rabbinate 20 years ago. It was based on the notion that people of all ages from every place Jews live could come together in Jerusalem, learn Torah, immerse themselves in a temporary, intensive community, and find not only religious meaning but inspiration for helping others make the connection as well.

This year alone, we have students whose Jewish life was shaped in Tulsa, OK, in Pasco, WA, and in Chelyabinsk, Russia. It didn’t matter to them where the centers of Jewish life are in the world – what mattered to their Jewish journeys is what happened in their small towns, in their small synagogues and their small communities. The moments of connection they experienced in these far flung communities brought them to Jerusalem today. Now we are working with them on connecting the dots – on helping them to form a coherent pattern of those all important moments of connection – one that will lead to a lifetime of Jewish learning and practice.

As I write this, alumni of the Conservative Yeshiva serve as rabbis and congregants in Greenville, SC, Oklahoma City, OK, Grand Rapids, MI, and Syracuse, NY. None of those communities will ever be the demographic center of the North American Jewish Community but all can and do offer vibrant Jewish life to the Jews who are there. The question I ask is not whether the grandchildren of the Jews in these towns will be Jewish, but rather whether the Jewish community will serve as a locus of meaning for Jews today. Will there be a rabbi or lay person to reach out and provide spiritual support to a sick or dying Jew in a hospital or nursing home? When a couple has a baby, will there be someone to bring that child into the covenant of Avraham Avinu and Sarah Imenu? When a family suffers a loss or economic crisis, will a Jewish community be there to help? When a Jewish child comes of age, will there be a community to welcome them and to celebrate their parents’ efforts? And will there be people who devote their lives, as rabbis, cantors, Jewish educators and, even more importantly, as volunteer lay leaders, to create these connections? What can I do to make sure these things happen?

None of these questions will be answered by studies or surveys. All of these questions will be answered in moments of connection, and all of those moments of presence will transcend demographics, making a Judaism of the present that will be worth carrying into the future.

Rabbi Gail Diamond is the Associate Director and Director of Institutional Advancement at the Conservative Yeshiva in Jerusalem.