Abraham Unger, who we blogged about a few days ago, had an interesting op-ed in the New Jersey Jewish News recently. He wrote about the unaffiliated members of our Jewish community, and how we need to recognize that, between “suburban and exurban sprawl and the rise of technology,” unaffiliated does not necessarily mean disconnected from Judaism, and we need to rethink the importance of affiliation.
Unger starts off by saying that those who sit on the “inside” and measure success through institutional growth are bound to see the growing number of unaffiliated Jews as problematic. And in a sense it is – one measure of success for outreach is by how many people come through the doors once they have been invited.
But, he says, this leaves out “literally hundreds of unaffiliated Jews and their families whom I know.” These are Jews who don’t belong to a synagogue or any Jewish institution, but still identify strongly with the Jewish people. “Don’t assume that someone who doesn’t ‘belong’ is not a serious Jew,” he says.
He argues that affiliation is not a true “marker of Jewish identity.” With the rise of blogging and online social networks, people are forming more “micro-communities,” where they don’t feel the need to tie themselves to a larger organization in order to belong. All this, Unger says, means Jewish communal institutions and demographers need to stop measuring the Jewish populations in terms of “affiliated” and “unaffiliated.” “Indeed, the fact that Jewish identity is so much in flux and is constantly being transformed shows that Torah remains alive and open today,” he says.
Maybe he is right, but only as far as Jews with a strong Jewish identity. Unger says nothing of the unaffiliated Jews who might need the guidance and support of a strong institutional entity. If you already know how to lead a Shabbat service or you know how to host a Passover Seder, perhaps you don’t need the institutional support as much as, say, the adult child of intermarriage who is trying to reconnect to Judaism. Those are the unaffiliated that we need to find. Through Public Space JudaismSM programs like Passover in the Matzah Aisle and Eight Days of Oil, we are helping to engage these families that have, for one reason or another, lost touch with Judaism.
With the rising number of interfaith families and the shrinking institutional memberships, we agree with Unger that it’s time to think about the Jewish community in new terms. For Unger that means meeting the needs of people who don’t struggle with the question of “why be Jewish.” For us and many others, it means continuing to lower barriers, engage the unaffiliated and encourage all those without a strong Jewish identity to increase their participation in Jewish life.
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