We Need a New Way to Count

by Dr. James Hyman

As we reflect on the High Holiday season we all saw a significant number of people “came out of the woodwork” for their once or twice a year participation in a synagogue service. These are people who pay dues, though one could accurately say that they have tenuous connections to the institutions of the Jewish community. Nonetheless, we count them as “affiliated” and generally speaking we don’t spend a lot of time worrying about them.

This penchant for counting people is an abiding characteristic of the Jewish people. Like debating, wrestling with God or other big ideas, counting helps to set things in order, to create coherence out of chaos. During the time in the wilderness, there were two censuses taken in the wilderness. One could interpret the process of becoming Israelites as moving from the chaos of a rag tag bunch of confused slaves to order – to a coherent mission driven people – achieved by being counted.

Counting also refers to something worthwhile, as in, “this counts for something.” It is a statement of value. We count because we value who and what we became as a result of our progression from Egypt to Sinai. While we may have had value as individuals before that, as a collective, as a people, we were made to “count” after our encounter at Sinai.

Affiliation in Jewish communities is all about counting, in both senses of the term. We consider someone to be affiliated if he/she pays membership dues or tuition to a Jewish institution, or makes a donation to a Jewish organization. They are on our mailing lists, our membership lists, and our donor lists so we count them. Thus, the message we send to them is that if they pay, they count; if they don’t pay, they don’t count! They are unaffiliated, lost to us, a negative statistic on our demographic surveys. In a sense they remain potential Jews, but not Jewish enough to be counted – for they are not affiliated. Yet, we all know people who identify very strongly with their Jewish identity but do not find joining Jewish institutions to be either meaningful or a good investment of their time and money. Many of these people also do not give to Jewish organizations, though many do give to other kinds of organizations. And that is a problem for the institutional Jewish community to be sure, for membership rates are declining.

The truth is that we in the Jewish community spend a great deal of time looking out of the windows of our institutions, trying to figure out what is wrong with all those who don’t want to either enter or give. The conclusion we come to is that they don’t know enough about us, or they are somehow lacking in terms of their Jewish identity and Jewish commitment.

But what if neither is true?

What if the reason they don’t join is because our institutions have nothing meaningful to offer them? Let’s remember that the institutions of Jewish life in America were created in the early to mid 20th century. They were created in response to the needs of the community. Jewish places of worship became the central institution of suburban American communities, and JCC’s and social service agencies were also desired by most communities. Jewish Federations evolved as centers of Jewish communities, raising money and offering strategic leadership. Since the middle of the 20th century, Jewish institutions have changed very little.

In contrast, Jews have changed a great deal. They are more highly educated, more mobile, and their attachments tend to be more fluid. They are also more independent minded, embodying the notion that to choose is the most fundamental of American values and the variety of choices is virtually limitless.

I do not mean to suggest that all is lost. On the contrary, Jews today, like Jews in the past, seek meaningful lives in America. We are, like other Americans, meaning seeking beings. This notion of “meaning-seeking beings” is embedded in the very essence of our culture as Americans and as Jews. The vast and rich heritage of Jewish life and history can offer something extraordinary to this. But both our content and our delivery systems must be responsive to the changing nature of American Jewry, and too often they are not.

Recent research has revealed that many people who are not considered to be affiliated crave knowledge about Jewish values, history, holidays, and life cycle events. But at the same time, they want lower barriers to finding these opportunities. They don’t want to have to join or even enter a JCC or a synagogue in order to learn. They don’t want to have to establish a long term – or even a short term – relationship with a Jewish institution in order to connect with other Jews. Instead, they want to be able to learn, celebrate and socialize when and where they choose, in appealing and convenient locations.

But the vast majority of learning and connection opportunities the Jewish community currently offers these Jews are within Jewish institutions. And when they choose not to take us up on these offers, we tell them that they don’t count. Their only value is as potential members of our community, yet until they pay, they are untapped potential. So let’s be clear. We have in this country a significant number of Jews who have strong Jewish identities, a desire to become more educated as Jews, a desire to be part of a Jewish community, but no desire to join the existing institutions of Jewish life.

So we can continue to look out of the windows of our institutions and try to find ways of drawing people in, in spite of the fact that this is precisely what they say they do not want. Or, perhaps, we can do something very different. We can re-think the way we are approaching the challenges posed. We need to think far more broadly about community, about membership, about affiliation, and about how we are offering Jewish experiences if we want to expand the number of Jews who are connected to a Jewish community of any kind. We have an obligation to say that they do indeed count and that as a community we want to offer opportunities that enrich them as Jews in ways that are compelling to them. If we did that, we might find that the notion of “affiliation” looks very different than it does today. We might even find that our community and our institutions will gain new sources of energy and vitality, so that there will still be Jews around to be counted for generations to come.

Dr. James Hyman is the CEO of The Partnership for Jewish Life and Learning in Rockville, MD.