Building Communities for the New American Jew

Building Communities – Winter 1987

Building strong Jewish communities has never been easy. It is getting harder all the time.

Close to 40 percent of all Jews in North America are unaffiliated with any religious congregation. A high percentage of these people belong to no Jewish organization at all, secular or religious. Even Jews that do belong to conventional communities often have merely peripheral attachments and are notorious for their fickle commitments. Like many children of the consumer culture, they have difficulty relating to groups that do not provide them with an immediate and obvious benefit.

Modern America is very different from the social environment that spawned the traditional Jewish communities of Eastern Europe. In Russia and Poland, there was constant reinforcement of the tight-knit, all- encompassing character of Jewish commu­nity life. Jews saw themselves as aliens in a sea of hostile Gentiles. They were so ab­sorbed with survival that the security of group belonging far outweighed any indi­vidual indulgence they might conceive. And, of course, there were no options. You had to be religious. And you had to be Orthodox. America totally transformed the char­acter of the Jewish community. It provided a setting so different from what had ever existed before in the Jewish experience that old formats simply became obsolete.

In America, affluence replaced poverty, ambition vitiated the attractiveness of sacri­fice and obedience, and individual freedom undermined the power of conformity. State and church were separate. Religion was a private opportunity, which any citizen could embrace or resist. Many “flavors” of Judaism emerged, which received no gov­ernment support and which had to compete in the open marketplace of ideas. The secu­lar university took the place of the yeshiva, and the authority of doctors and professors became more impressive than that of rabbis.

The synagogue congregation became the standard Jewish response to the new envi­ronment. Unlike the old kehilla, with its power to intrude on every aspect of per­sonal life, the American alternative was much more like the secularized urban Prot­estant church, designed to serve the reli­gious needs of a middle-class clientele. The American synagogue was no European gemeinde. It did not seek to embrace all Jews for all of the time. It was a “part-time” institution, which competed with many other institutions to win allegiance, enthusi­asm, and money from the individual Jew. The leaders of the synagogue could no longer command. They had to persuade and cajole, with no guarantee that their efforts would be rewarded. Mandates from on high gradually yielded to a focus on the needs of prospective members. After all, if the “buyer” was not satisfied with synagogue A, he might choose synagogue B, or no syn­agogue at all.

On the whole, the American synagogue community, although radically different from any Jewish community that had pre­ceded it, proved to be quite successful. It dramatized the connection of Jews with their ancestral past. It educated the young with a smattering of ethnic culture and reli­gious ideas. It provided a setting for holi­days and rites of passage associated with family life. It gave a visible, legitimate pres­ence to Jewish identity in the general com­munity where Jews spent most of their time. It was sufficiently ambiguous so that Jews, at their convenience, could pass for either a nationality or a religious denomination.

In fact, the synagogue community proved far more viable in the American setting than the alternative Jewish organizations that emerged. The purely ethnic secular schools, whether Yiddishist or Zionist, and the home-country fraternal societies, the landsmanschaften, although strong initially, ulti­mately found oblivion. They lacked identifi­cation with a “church,” a familiar and respectable institution for most Americans trying to preserve their ethnic loyalties.

In the first phase of its development, the synagogue community relied on certain strengths inherited from the traditional communities from which its members came — props that had not yet been weakened by the transforming power of a capitalist cul­ture. The close-knit family with its high motivation to produce children, the social segregation of an immigrant community, the ethnic ghettos that did not admit strang­ers easily, the sense of duty to ensure group survival — all these transitional remnants of the old world persuaded people to join tem­ples or synagogues.

But the community of the future can no longer rely on this inherited support system. The power of an urban consumer culture has so changed the character of Jewish life in America that the old “glue” simply is no longer available. American Jews today are different from their parents and grand­parents. They have different values. They have different needs. They respond to a dif­ferent environment. If we, as Humanistic Jews, want to create strong communities to recruit unaffiliated Jews and to maintain their allegiance, we have to understand the anxieties and the needs of the people we want to mobilize. After all, in the free set­ting of a free society, they would have to choose to join our community above many other options available to them.

Most of our membership prospects no longer feel that they must join any Jewish temple or synagogue. The old sense of duty and the attendant guilt have simply van­ished. Jews today are less interested in dis­covering what they can do for the commu­nity than in learning what the community can do for them. In a society in which peo­ple are self-absorbed and see themselves as victimized by the demands of external powers, appeals to obligation tend to fall on deaf ears, especially if the institution, as with a humanistic congregation, has no tra­ditional connection.

Most of our membership prospects now come from small, dispersed families. These individuals have a need to find in a congre­gation or havurah the family feeling and family support they can no longer find in their personal settings. At a time when the old extended family is becoming mere memory, people are searching for substi­tutes. The old congregation used family loyalty to reinforce community loyalty. Now the tables are turned. The new congre­gation must provide family loyalty. For many temple members, the temple seder be­comes their family seder. Friends become more than friends.

Most of our membership prospects are professional people with advanced educa­tional degrees. They have intellectual skills that need recognition, and they enjoy partic­ipation. Repetitive rituals and passive listen­ing are less attractive to them than to their parents. They want high quality opportuni­ties for adult education in Jewish history and philosophy not readily available in the school settings they frequent. They prefer a seminar format of dialogue and interchange to didactic lecturing.

Many of our membership prospects are either single parents with grown children or young couples with no offspring on the horizon. They have very little interest in child-centered activity. Where the old con­gregation could rely on the support of unin­volved adults who were worried about the Jewish identity of their children, the new community has to develop intense pro­grams for adults themselves. Life cycle cere­monies that recognize the growth and achievements of adults become indispens­able. Reaffirmation celebrations of Jewish commitment, recognition of educational achievement at universities and profes­sional schools, acknowledgment of special birthdays and anniversaries—all these cer­emonies of passage become as important as thirteen-year-olds’ puberty rites.

Many of our prospective members are feminists. They do not want to be part of a community in which the major leadership roles are turned over to men. They do not want the “sisterhood” and “ladies auxiliary” segregation that in no way reflects the career world in which they function. They want to be part of a group in which impor­tant female leadership roles are visible and in which women work and study together with men.

Many of our prospective members are intermarried. They will not pay for toler­ance, rejection, or second-class citizenship. The old congregation was hostile to inter­marriage and had no place for non-Jews. The new congregation needs to welcome sympathetic non-Jewish humanists who are interested in Jewish culture. The former sharp distinction between Jew and Gentile is no longer as relevant as it was in a less mobile and less open society. There are many ways of expressing support for Juda­ism. Turning away prospective supporters who could help and be helped by the com­munity, simply because they do not fit into old kosher categories, is neither rational nor moral. At a time when 40 percent of all mar­riages by Jews involve non-Jewish spouses, such narrowness is also suicidal.

If we, as Humanistic Jews, want to create strong communities to recruit unaffiliated Jews and to maintain their allegiance, we have to understand the anxieties and the needs of the people we want to mobilize.

Some of our prospective members have embraced unconventional lifestyles. They may be living with lovers. They may be senior citizen couples who have chosen not to get married. They may be homosexuals. While the traditional congregation viewed these people with abhorrence, the commu­nity of the future will have to find room for them. From the humanistic point of view, their relationships, so long as they are not promiscuous, are morally valid. Their needs have seldom been acknowledged. And their talents have rarely been used.

Most of our prospective members are overscheduled and overcommitted. They no longer have the time or the energy to be per­manent volunteers. The army of gracious women who used to pour their energy into community work is disappearing. Unless professional leaders are hired, much of the essential labor will never be done. After the euphoria of pioneering is past, volunteers are hard to replace, especially if there is no professional help or direction. Humanistic Jewish congregations need access to a trained professional corps of guides and experts, whether these mobilizers are called rabbis, leaders, or teachers.

Most of our prospective members have multiple identities. As achieving individ­uals, they belong to a variety of career and friendship associations that have nothing to do with the Jewish community. They no longer function in the world of social segre­gation their parents enjoyed, and they no longer have the intense sense of Jewishness that flowed from this segregation. They want more from a Jewish congregation than Jewishness alone. Inevitably encountering in their daily experience ethical dilemmas and personal crises that require the help of a coherent view of human existence and human values, they want more from a con­gregation than Jewish culture and Jewish roots. They want a philosophy of life that can reinforce their self-esteem and give them the strength and insight to make wise decisions. Communities need to appeal to the search for personal happiness as well as to the traditional push for group survival.

Of course, the successful congregation of the future will still have to do many of the things that assured success in the past. Sabbath meetings, youth education and youth groups, holiday celebrations and life cycle events — all these tried and true formats of the past will continue to have their place. But they will have to be sup­plemented by a new openness to deal with new developments.

In many ways, Humanistic Jewish com­munities are better able to take this neces­sary plunge into the present and the future than our Conservative counterparts. Opportunity knocks. It is up to us to open the door.