The Unaffiliated Jew

Humanistic Judaism, Vol 24, No 1-2, Winter_Spring 1996

The unaffiliated Jew — a “floating” Jew, unconnected with any formal Jewish community — is a modern phenomenon. Throughout most of Jewish history, membership in a religious community was a political and social requirement. Society consisted of rival religious groups. The only alternative was excommunication. 

The contemporary world features a historical novelty: the individual citizen, endowed with a large degree of freedom and autonomy and able to make affiliation a personal choice. Furthermore, the choice need not be permanent. Temporary affiliation is common, as is membership in more than one community. Competing groups vie for allegiance. Family and work connections are primary; leisure, ethnic, and religious connections are generally secondary. Some people prefer to be serviced by communities to which they do not belong. In a mobile, consumer economy, why bother to join a synagogue or church? Just use the rabbi or minister as the need arises. In most Western countries, the number of religiously unaffiliated people equals or exceeds the number who are affiliated. There are no precedents to guide us in coping with a situation in which religion is merely one of many alternative activities. Both Jewish and Christian institutions are entrepreneurial endeavors that must prove their value in the marketplace. The powerful clergy has been replaced by the fickle customer. 

In this free marketplace, new phenomena have emerged: people who choose to remain single, people who intermarry, homosexual unions, feminist assertiveness, sequential careers, leisure identity — all legitimate and popular options within a powerful culture based on rapidly changing technology and secular education. Assimilation to this culture is unavoidable except for a minority who choose to withdraw to islands of segregation. For most Jews in America, assimilation has already taken place. 

The profile of the unaffiliated Jew is not one of defiant rejection. It is one of a free citizen with a priority list that often changes daily. Most unaffiliated Jews enjoy being Jewish at some time or other. It is just that they have so many other, more important things they want to do.  

Jews have been ambivalent about the wonders of a free and secular society. On the one hand, capitalism, urbanization, and the disestablishment of the Christian religion have provided the Jew with unprecedented opportunities for economic power and social advancement. On the other hand, those same opportunities have wrought havoc with the tightly knit conformist Jewish communities of the past. The fading away of overt anti-Semitism in the upper classes has removed one of the sustaining forces for an intense Jewish identity, especially at a time when secular beliefs and secular views dominate the daily lives of individual Jews. Most Jews want to have their cake and eat it too. They want all the advantages of a free capitalist society without giving up the survival value of the old community structures — which, of course, cannot exist in a free environment. When nostalgia for the past bumps into vested interests of the present, almost invariably the present wins out, though guilt and regret may conceal what has happened. 

There is no single kind of unaffiliated Jew in North America. Some unaffiliated Jews are “believers” but find Jewish communities too expensive. Some regard the family as a sufficient venue for their Jewish activity and see no advantage to belonging to a larger group. Some are intermarried and do not find synagogues or temples comfortable places with which to connect. Some are in search of spiritual and philosophic answers that Jewish institutions do not provide. Some are absorbed with personal and family problems that are far more important to them than the issue of Jewish survival. Some acknowledge that they are Jewish but do not want to do anything about it. Still others see Jewishness as part of the smorgasbord life, choosing to taste it when it strikes their fancy. A substantial number would choose a Jewish community if it made them feel good about being secular and free. 

Being simultaneously Jewish and secular was, at one time, easier than it is now. Seventy years ago the overwhelming majority of Jews in North America lived in the ethnic culture of Ashkenazic Eastern Europe, dominated by the living presence of the Yiddish language. To be secular was to be ethnic. To be secular was to use and value Yiddish. A unique language is as powerful a preservative as a unique set of religious practices or a unique set of religious beliefs. 

But Jewish ethnicity, like other European ethnicities, is not sustainable in North America. In the end, all Europeans give up their native languages, use English, and meld into the category designated as “white.” Only African Americans, Hispanics, and Asians remain ethnically intact because they are visibly distinct. North American Jewry is becoming de-ethnicized. Especially given the increasing rate of intermarriage, its discrete character is fast disappearing. 

What is happening in North America is in direct contrast to what is happening in Israel, where the dominant culture is also secular. There Ashkenazim, Sephardim, and Oriental Jews are thrown into a melting pot and emerge as a new ethnic group with Hebrew as its defining language. In North America, ethnicity is no longer an effective way of mobilizing unaffiliated Jews. Unless there is some inspirational, ideological element, Jewsih identity, like Italian identity, will be absorbed into the new white world. 

In recent years ideology has been the weak point of North American Jewry. In an age in which traditional belief is no longer possible for them, many committed Jews separate their personal belief systems from their Jewishness. Prayer is seen as unconnected with what they really believe. It is simply a traditional vehicle to do something Jewish. The words become more important than the ideas.The danger in this dichotomy is that time will weaken the need to imitate the past. Either the Jewish experience provides an important message and a guide for living, or Judaism turns into a cultural potpourri of form without substance. In the absence of conviction, Jewish identity will collapse before rival ideologies that address the daily problems of assimilated Jews with conviction and integrity. 

Unfortunately, the North American Jewish establishment, as represented by the new alliance of Reform and Conservative Jewry, avoids dealing with this issue and with the implications of mobilizing the free Jew in a free society for Jewish community life. A return to “tradition” means nothing if there is no return to traditional conviction. 

A truly effective campaign to recruit unaffiliated Jews for a significant community connection must start with two premises. The first is that a free society is a good society. Both the Enlightenment and the Emancipation were positive developments for the Jewish people. A false nostalgia for the past will only undermine the credibility of the recruiters. The second premise is that Jewish identity is important, that it is worth an investment of time, energy, and money. 

An effective campaign must be guided by the following realities: 

  1. Guilt-language is proving less and less effective. Fear of betraying roots and ancestors is no longer a powerful mobilizer. Contemporary Jews see themselves as consumers. They want to know what benefits they will personally receive from joining a community. Their sense of obligation to the past is weak. Collective appeals based on the sacrifices of the past are not working. In a time of rapid change, the question is “How will Jewishness improve my future?” 
  1. There are many kinds of Jewish communities for unaffiliated Jews to join. Some are formal; some are informal. Conventional synagogues and temples do not exhaust the possibilities. Some Jews want friendship and intimacy. Some want intellectual stimulation and social action. Some want spirituality and New Age mysticism. Some want large communities with many opportunities for education and friendship. Others want a quiet refuge from the stress of daily existence. No single community structure or strategy can, with integrity, serve all these needs. 
  1. There are many Jewish lifestyles. The conventional nuclear family no longer characterizes Jewish urban existence. There are armies of Jewish singles, both men and women. Many of them have chosen a solo lifestyle because they value work and leisure more than family. There are significant numbers of Jewish homosexuals who do not want segregated gay synagogoues. There are legions of Jewish feminists who want a more balanced view of the Jewish experience than patriarchal histories allow. Special events such as weekend seminars may be more attractive to a mobile, adult-oriented constituency than long-term membership in a congregation. Being unaffiliated need not be counterproductive to Jewish survival if it means continuous involvement in Jewish events. 
  1. Jews are more than Jews. They are husbands and wives. They are fathers and mothers. They are workers and professionals. Most of their anxieties do not deal with Jewish identity and Jewish survival Community programming has to embrace the whole person. Support groups for men and women, for children and senior citizens, for the sick and the emotionally wounded, are the lifeblood of successful communities through which a sense of Jewishness can course. Agendas of relentlessly Jewish content serve only a small minority. 
  1. Jewish identity must be viewed as a personal choice rather than an ethnic inheritance. In a time of intermarriage, international culture, and competing ideologies, Judaism must be seen as a philosophy of life, with roots in the historic experience of the Jewish people but with universal application. Non-Jewish partners cannot be attracted to Jewish identity if they see Jewishness as an exclusive and unachievable ethnicity. Jewish communities need to be less nostalgic and less parochial. 
  1. The culture and civilization of the Jews must be tied to the experience of the Jewish people, and that experience must yield some profound message. Unless Jewishness is bound to a compelling philosophic conviction, it will die of insignificance. The traditional perspective of the Jews as the Chosen People, the witnesses of God, is finding a declining audience. An alternative, secular message is that Jewish history testifies to a world in which the only power that guarantees life and justice is human power. But for Jewish history to become the foundation of a humanistic perspective, the traditional presentation of Jewish history needs to be revised. A new, more realistic story needs to be created. The themes of self-reliance and human cooperation, rather than piety, can offer an important message for the twenty-first century — a conviction with which young, well educated Jews can identify. 
  1. Successful experiments to meet the needs of unaffiliated Jews will not come from committees of the Jewish establishment. The most effective outreach will come from entrepreneurial individuals and groups outside the establishment, who are willing to take boldly creative leaps. A secular synagogue and secular rabbis would never have emerged from the deliberations of the cautious. The Jewish future will belong to those who refuse to wait for consensus. 

To serve the needs of the unaffiliated Jew is to recognize the wonderful pluralism of the Jewsih world, especially in North America. The old united, uniform Jewish community has vanished, never to be revived. The ability to live positively with openness, diversity, and change is the first step toward an effective strategy. 

Jewishness and Judaism are becoming choices. Adjusting to that new reality will be the key to Jewish survival in the Diaspora.