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Community Plus: Moving Beyond “Jewish While Doing Something Else”

Lex Rofeberg
May 30, 2017

by Lex Rofes

from the Spring 2017 issue of Jewish Currents

WHEN YOU’RE in your mid-twenties, as I am, and work for a Jewish non-profit organization, as I do, you hear a lot of questions from your elders. “What do millennial Jews want?” “Will young Jews continue to support their local Federations?” “How can our congregation recruit new, young members?”

Then there’s the big one: Are millennial Jews interested in Judaism and Jewishness . . . at all? In fifty years, will our children look out at American-Jewish life and find nothing but a barren wasteland of what once was but is no longer? These are the questions I hear from rabbis, lay leaders, and even everyday Jews without any Jewish communal street cred.

I am no time traveler, and cannot answer these questions with certainty, hard as I may try. But there are times and places for educated guesswork. While none of us can claim the powers of prophecy, there are moments that require us to think beyond the present. We 21st-century American Jews are in the midst of one such moment, when it is incumbent upon us not only to look at what Judaism is, but also at what Judaism will be. For it is changing, and the pace of that change is growing more and more rapid.

Most commentaries about shifts in contemporary Jewish life tend to revolve around a three key developments. One is the vast increase in the percentage of American Jews who marry individuals who are not Jewish. The Pew Research Center’s “Portrait of Jewish Americans” survey (2013) indicated that such marriages make up no less than 72 percent of the marriages that non-Orthodox Jews have entered into since the year 2000. A second trend has to do with the lessening intensity of attachment to Israel among younger generations of Jews. And a third trend that writers and scholars analyze is the ever-expanding reach of our digital world, which is shaping all our lives in ways nobody could have anticipated even a few decades ago.

I would argue, however, that all three of these issues are ultimately bound together in an overarching change regarding people’s sense of Jewish community.

IF FORCED to encapsulate 20th-century American-Jewish life in one phrase, one could do far worse than “building Jewish community.” Over the course of that century, we built a formidable network of Jewish communal organizations, national and local, designed to foster in American Jews a sense of connection to one another. We introduced an unbelievably successful amalgam of institutions that reached Jews from the crib to the coffin, and the primary job that these was to form bonds of connection among Jews.

In a broader American culture in which Jews did not always feel fully safe, this network provided support and a sense of security. In a culture in which Jews were not always welcomed as marriage partners, friends, or neighbors by those who were not Jewish, this network helped ensure that Jews could effectively meet their basic human need (third in Maslow’s famous hierarchy) for a sense of belonging.

Today, the realities of our contemporary Jewish experiences feel distant even from the recent past. While antisemitism persists (and is growing under Trump), it no longer manifests in the systemic and structural forms that plagued our country and the world a few generations ago. While it was once the case that Jews were forced to forge social connections to others in the Jewish population, the barriers have now largely been lifted. What we have not yet seen, however, is a change to that landscape of Jewish communal institutions that reflects the fundamentally different reality of our lives today. When you ask the staff and lay leaders of synagogues, federations, community centers, and community relations councils what their primary purpose is (note the high frequency of the word “community”!), they will typically answer that it is to build Jewish community -- and when you dig deeper, it becomes clear that “Jewish community” implies a space for Jews to connect with other Jews.

Well, I am a member of multiple Jewish institutions, locally and nationally, and I am studying to become a rabbi. I spend my life thinking, kvetching, and talking about American Jews. But something has become clear to me recently: that while building community is crucially important to me, as is connecting to Judaism, building community with other Jews, without doing so in a way that genuinely connects to Jewish ideals I cherish or practices I enjoy, is completely, fundamentally uninteresting to me. Entering into spaces designed for Jews to meet other Jews, without any sense of a broader commitment to values I cherish, seems fundamentally superfluous.

American Jews today inhabit a Jewish institutional landscape that I think of as “DWI” Judaism. DWI, of course, is the acronym referring to “Driving While Intoxicated.” That’s a strange phrase to invoke in a conversation about Jewish life today, but I choose it because my email inbox is flooded, daily, with “Jewish While…” invitations. I can go to a JCC and be “Jewish While” taking a spinning class with other Jews. I can join the local “Young and Jewish” division of the federation to be “Jewish While” playing kickball. I can head to my synagogue men’s club event to be “Jewish While” drinking scotch (as an aside­ -- eliminating the gendered character of synagogue social groups such as sisterhoods and men’s clubs may be an important step towards engaging many younger folks).

These initiatives made a great deal of sense in eras where myriad barriers to acceptance of Jews existed in broader society. In a world that made Jews feel not fully welcome in many social contexts, creating specific initiatives for Jews to interact with one another in a safe and enjoyable manner was logical and served an important need. But in today’s world, that need no longer persists in the same way.

IN MY COMMUNITY, by no means a metropolis, dozens of social opportunities abound that are entirely inclusive of me regardless of my being Jewish. It is far easier for me and other millennials to create longstanding relationships, both romantic and otherwise, with people who aren’t Jewish than it was in the early 20th century. Indeed, I and many others actually feel deeply uncomfortable in spaces that are expressly designed for Jews to meet other Jews. For a generation that holds the concept of diversity dear, we wonder why it would be any more valuable or important to forge friendships with Jews than it would be to connect with anyone else. We are often skeptical of spaces that are designed to be homogeneous in any way, because we know such spaces can yield a kind of tribalism that feels outdated and dangerous.

Despite my deep connection to Jewish life every single day, therefore, I am fairly uninvolved in my local Jewish institutions. The vast majority of them continue to operate in a framework of “Jewish While . . .” programming, and when I compare their options with analogous secular frameworks (spinning classes, kickball leagues, or social drinking, to carry forth the programs outlined above), I find the latter, which obviously reach a larger and more diverse audience, preferable. I choose those over options designed expressly for Jews, and I speak quite regularly with other Jews who do the same.

What does it mean for me to be deeply connected to Jewish life on a daily basis if I am not particularly connected to my city’s network of Jewish institutions? My answer is two-fold. First, I frequently organize and attend Jewish programming that is organized by similar kinds of dissatisfied Jews, occurring outside of these institutions, in my home or in other public spaces. Second, I have access to a resource that the Jewish world has still failed to fully comprehend — the internet.

If I were to look at my top three Jewish affiliations, they would be my job, my rabbinical school, and my activist work. All three of these only exist because of the possibilities of our digital world.

I work in a city a time zone away from my boss, for a Jewish organization that exists almost entirely in cyberspace, making contact with people who are spread out all over the country and the world. For the time being, our organization is an exception due to its disproportionate focus on digital work, but more and more Jewish institutions are exploring what it can mean for elements of their work (or all of it!) to occur on the web.

The majority of my rabbinical education, through ALEPH: Alliance for Jewish Renewal, takes place via weekly classes in Zoom, a video chat program that allows students all around the world to learn together simultaneously.

My activism in If Not Now, to end Jewish communal support for Israel’s occupation, does consist of many in-person gatherings, but that is possible in a small city like mine only due to the ease and speed with which we can connect to like-minded peers all around the country through social media and email.

What’s perhaps most striking about all of this is that none of it even feels all that innovative to me! Though the phrase “digital native” has become a bit trite, it reflects a real truth about millennials like me: technology and its networking possibilities don’t surprise us. While we do relish person-to-person interaction in a shared physical space, we also recognize that we can build a real sense of connection and community through the internet.

But why do I participate in these programs, housed at addresses ending in .com and .org but largely avoid the programming that exists at addresses in my zip code? The answer is that my internet experiences are not “Jewish While . . .” programs. They aren’t focused primarily on building community among Jews qua Jews, though they are quite effective at that as a byproduct of other goals. They are focused, rather, on channeling the historic and spiritual traditions of Judaism in a way that improves individual lives, communities (consisting of Jews and non-Jews), and the world.

I HOLD A DEEP respect and admiration for Jewish leaders in the 20th century who capably produced an American Jewish culture that met the needs of its time. Without them, I could not engage in any of the work I care about so deeply. But the rules of the game have changed. Judaism’s job is not, for most of the Jewish population, to build community, for we have that elsewhere — we can find community at a dozen secular institutions within a mile of where we live, and through hundreds more online.

We expect something greater from our Jewish institutions, more than a paradigm of “Jewish continuity,” in which the goal seems to be the perpetuation of Jewishness for its own sake. We fundamentally believe that Judaism’s historic frameworks and teachings can and must be channeled to make our world a more compassionate and just place. The Jewish institutions that look to achieve that goal are succeeding all around the country and in online spaces that transcend geographic boundaries. As many mainstream synagogues struggle to gain any young members, for example, Jewish Facebook groups like “Jews for Decolonization” — which many might dismiss as a tiny niche interest — reach thousands of people.

The Judaism of 2017 and beyond excites me, because so many of us are looking for and creating more than simple Jewishness. We are transcending “Jewish While…” programming and centering initiatives that focus specifically on ways being Jewish can enhance our lives and our world.

There is no more fitting way to close this piece than to quote a visionary leader, Rabbi Benay Lappe. She is the founder of Svara, a radical yeshiva connecting Jews to Talmud through a queer lens. This organization has grown by leaps and bounds in the last decade, and it has done so through an unapologetic love for a Jewish text, the Talmud, which many see as perhaps the most alienating, difficult element of Judaism you could possibly think of. But her work has succeeded because she recognizes a basic truth, which she repeats whenever the opportunity arises. “Judaism in 100 years will be unrecognizable to us. But that doesn’t scare me.”

It doesn’t scare me, either. It gets my heart pumping, quickly, in all the best ways. Judaism is due for some rapid change in the 21st century. The institutions we have inherited may not be the centralized forces that they were once. New institutions and non-institutions may rise that eclipse them. But this is the way of Judaism. As Jim Stein writes, in his book Renaissance: A Strategic Plan for Transforming Judaism, “It is time once and for all to fulfill the ancient Jewish tradition of breaking with tradition.” He’s a baby boomer, and I’m a millennial, so some might argue I am predisposed to scoff at his words. But I won’t. Stein couldn’t be more right. It’s time to break with tradition. Just as our tradition instructs.

Lex Rofes lives in Providence, Rhode Island, serves as Strategic Initiatives Coordinator for the Institute For the Next Jewish Future, and co-hosts its Judaism Unbound podcast. He is in his second year of rabbinical school through ALEPH: Alliance for Jewish Renewal.