The UJA-Federation’s Jewish Community Study of New York continues to make waves. Recently, an article in The Forward cited the above study to the effect that the number of Jews who report being synagogue members is greater than the number of those who actually pay dues. Be that as it may, I want to suggest that our concern about declining synagogue affiliation rates, while understandable, completely misses the point.
At JOI we work to turn this debate on its head. Declining membership rates is simply not what the Jewish community should be worried about. We’re not only barking up the wrong tree, we’re in a completely wrong forest. What we should instead take from this recent New York study is the revelation (if anyone needed a reminder) that the majority of North American Jews (New York being a revealing case study) have no connection to Jewish practice whatsoever.
According to the article’s author, Josh Nathan-Kazis, “many Jews don’t believe that synagogue membership is determined by dues payment.” Well, I agree, but I would add that many Jews (many more!) don’t believe being Jewish is dependent on synagogue membership of any kind. So let’s stop worrying about who is or is not paying synagogue dues, and let’s start worrying instead about people (like myself) who don’t go to synagogue at all – Jews who will never go to synagogue because they don’t believe in God, or because synagogue, for them, has ceased to be a meaningful way to “do Jewish.”
As JOI’s evaluation officer I work with others to develop tools for measuring Jewish engagement, rather than affiliation. We use our initiatives such as Big Tent Judaism and outreach methods such as Public Space JudaismSM, in order to engage those on the periphery of the Jewish community and pull them into the tent. At the same time, by insisting on ‘engagement’ rather than ‘affiliation’ as the driving force of the debate, we try to open up our definition of what ‘the Jewish community’ means. Because it can no longer be only about synagogue dues.
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