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By Jordyn Rozensky
When I asked my partner who is not Jewish if we could start visiting synagogues in hopes of finding a formal Jewish home for our worship and community, he agreed immediately. His first step was to clear Sundays on his calendar—until I reminded him that while church meets on Sundays, Shabbat services are Friday nights and Saturday mornings in the Jewish community.
We started our search with Reform synagogues within a 20-30 minute drive. We wanted a synagogue with leadership that included women, whether in the form of a rabbi, cantor, executive director or board, and we were hoping for a community where a young(ish) couple like ourselves could find community.
I turned to a rabbi friend of mine to ask how to visit a new synagogue when you’re thinking about membership. His advice:
“Folks should set their first visit in accordance to what they think they will use as members. If they don’t plan on going to Shabbat services regularly, going to Shabbat services is not a great first visit—too much potential for alienation.
If they are looking for religious school, go to the education director.
If they are looking for fellowship, contacting the membership committee, the sisterhood or the executive director is a good start.
If the rabbi is really important, make a meeting. “
Still a bit overwhelmed with the idea of setting up meetings, we began our research at home with a list of values we needed in a Jewish setting. Well aware that this was just the tip of the iceberg, we placed disability accessibility and inclusion, LGBTQ equality and inclusion, and the full welcoming of interfaith families at the top of the list.
Knowing that inclusion and equality is more than a yes or no answer, we put together a list of questions for the synagogue. You’re welcome to use the questions in your own search for a synagogue, but I also encourage you to think beyond these questions and identify issues that may be important to you—such as how a synagogue embraces social justice or the environmental policies of the synagogue.
We also came up with a list of questions that needed to be answered that touched on more of the tachlis or details:
Armed with these questions and a better idea of what we were looking for, we were ready to start our search. From here we found several synagogues in driving distance of our home that appeared to share our values.
We’re excited for our next steps: sitting down with leadership, observing a Shabbat service and imagining ourselves as active members of the synagogue.
By Jared David Berezin
Why am I an unaffiliated Jew? In many ways, I should want to join a congregation. I’m in my early 30s. I’ve had a bar mitzvah. I’ve traveled to Israel. I enjoy celebrating Jewish holidays, including Shabbat. Passover is my favorite time of the year, and my wife and I love hosting our annual interfaith-humanist-vegan seder with friends of many faiths. The central question of why I am not a member of a synagogue, and why I have no desire to join one, spawns more questions:
Many of us have read articles about shifting demographics, aging congregations, low service attendance and the increasing number of unaffiliated Jews. Many of these articles pit affiliation and unaffiliation against one another as competitors, with blame often irrationally ascribed to young Jews, especially those who fall in love with someone of another faith. These articles resemble conversations I’ve had over the years with older affiliated Jews, in which being young, Jewish and unaffiliated was treated as a temporary illness that would cure itself once the patient got married (to another Jew) or had children. What is often missing from these discussions is the spiritual value of being unaffiliated, and how creating Jewish moments outside of a synagogue can be meaningful and fulfilling.
My childhood experiences in a Reform synagogue convinced me that religion was something you learned and performed, whereas spirituality was something you felt and experienced in the secular world. The first crack in this logic occurred in college when I read the “Song of Songs.” Then I attended a few events sponsored by the campus Hillel group, enrolled in a Hebrew language course and delved into Kafka’s works. I began to associate Judaism not just with coldness and formality, but with intellectual curiosity and growth.
Years later I participated in a Birthright trip to Israel where music, nature, spontaneity, adventure, politics and Judaism intertwined. Judaism became bigger, complicated and more interesting. I was living at the time with my girlfriend (now my wife) who was raised Christian but has an aversion to all organized religion and rituals that tend to suppress individuality. So when I got home from Israel and was suddenly very excited about Judaism it freaked her out a little bit. But she could see that I was inspired, and so we began celebrating Shabbat together on Friday nights. We’d put out the challah, grape juice and candles, and I’d recite the prayers in Hebrew and English. But it all felt just as cold and empty as the rituals from my childhood; none of the vibrancy that I felt in Israel was there.
I began to wonder whether the missing ingredient was community. I drew up a list of about 15 Reform and Renewal congregations in the Boston area and visited one every Friday night. I mumbled along with the prayers and songs, but it wasn’t inspiring. The predictability of the services, together with the congregation’s passive reliance on their rabbis felt all too familiar. Although this familiarity provided sentimental comfort and a sense of belonging for me, since my girlfriend was not raised Jewish, nothing was familiar to her, and she didn’t share the sense of comfort that I felt for the objects, rituals and language. Going to these various congregations with an interfaith partner was immensely valuable for me, because it caused me to ask myself these questions:
After attending dozens of synagogues both familiar and alternative, I was frustrated with myself for not feeling satisfied. I asked a rabbi whom I had been meeting with if I should just pick a synagogue, stay for a while and hope that it eventually felt right. His memorable response: “Keep looking. When it comes to religion you should never settle; you should be inspired.”
My girlfriend encouraged me to try one more place, and to our surprise it seemed perfect for us. The community lived within its means, renting rather than owning a space, which lessened the financial burden on the congregants. There was spontaneous conversation and dancing during services. The rabbi was explicitly welcoming of every type of person, a strong supporter of lay participation and able to connect Jewish teachings and rituals to the reality we live in. We became members and joined the shul band, and a year later I was asked to join the board.
Although the congregation’s practices were very alternative and free-spirited, it turned out that the key decision-makers in the community were just as obsessed with preserving their own way of doing things as I had found at the more formal synagogues. Deviations from their norm were considered inappropriate and without value. It pained me to hear board members refer to non-members (and even new members) as “outsiders.” During one meeting, several board members decided that the purpose of services should always be to satisfy the congregants who have been there the longest, rather than engaging with younger generations. I soon felt like a distant member of a community built for others’ needs. I resigned from the board several months later and the following year we did not renew our membership.
Finding a Meaningful Practice
Being unaffiliated does not prevent someone from being Jewish. It took me a while, however, to understand that being unaffiliated also does not prevent someone from having meaningful Jewish experiences. My wife and I are finding inspiration by celebrating Jewish holidays in our own way, tweaking traditions and developing new ones that have emotional and intellectual meaning for us. Some work, some don’t. In addition to our annual seder we’ve started a Yom Kippur tradition with a fellow interfaith couple: a day of fasting, focused conversation, meditation and a nature walk. I’ve also officiated my maternal grandparents’ funerals. These experiences require self-reliance and effort, and that’s in large part what makes them so special.
As much as we enjoy our Jewish life outside synagogue walls, there are many things that congregations provide that a couple like us simply cannot: a place for communal prayer, access to rabbis steeped in knowledge and a support network. There is a beautiful timelessness in large groups of people gathering together in a single space.
While I’m not planning to join a congregation—my needs have changed—many Jews and interfaith families desire to find a community that fits their needs. For congregations looking to grow, rather than speak only to those already in the building (those who already understand the coded behavior and language, those who share the same expectations of a service experience), rabbis and their congregants could look around and notice who is not in the seats. Cultivating a community of explicit (rather than implicit) inclusiveness requires open, honest conversations among rabbis and congregants about their community’s core mission, the unintended consequences of existing cultural norms and the potential for change. Here are some questions that I think about, and that I hope unaffiliated and affiliated readers can ponder and help me better understand:
By Robyn Bacon
Like his other mother, my 4-month old son Sam is Jewish. I am not. I was born and raised Catholic. My mother and her sister converted to Catholicism while attending the Catholic schools that offered a better education to black families than the separate but equal public schools in the segregated South. My mother went to mass every day and, after she died, the congregation at her local church planted a tree in her honor outside the front door. My aunt (her sister) regularly serves communion at Sunday mass. My father’s family has been Catholic for generations—his cousin was Mother Superior of a convent of black nuns in New Orleans. My Catholic background was such a point of pride for me that, even after agreeing that our son would be Jewish, I still wanted to name him Ignatius Xavier in honor of the founders of the Jesuits.
With this history, I wasn’t sure what to expect when I told my family that Sam was going to be Jewish. I was especially concerned about my father. Dad’s family is Louisiana Creole. For him, being Catholic is not just about religion. It’s a core part of his identity, as integral to his sense of self as being black and from Texas. Sam was already biracial and a native Californian. I was afraid that when Dad learned that Sam was going to be Jewish, he might decide Sam was too different to be his grandson.
To my surprise, my father was not only accepting, he was also enthusiastic. And full of questions. Why was Sam going to be Jewish? How could my baby be Jewish if I’m not? Was he going to be baptized Jewish? What were the Jewish holidays? It was a bit overwhelming. Figuring that it would be better to let him find his own answers, I asked IFF/LA’s Rabbi Keara Stein for book recommendations.
Dad came to visit Sam for the first time a week ago. When he called before the visit, he mentioned that he had read the books. Judaism had made a strong impression on him and he was “excited” that it was going to be a part of Sam’s life. He liked the Jewish sense of community and the rituals, but most of all he liked how, as he described it, Judaism emphasized study over knowledge. “I feel like that really resonates with me,” he said.
I suggested that he join us for Shabbat dinner while he was in town. (His text message response was “I’m down w/‘Shabbat’ after I look up what it is.”) We also invited my cousin, who just moved to LA, and my mother’s brother, who happened to be in town. So my father experienced his first Shabbat with his grandson, surrounded by family. It was the first time he had ever shared a family meal at my house. It was also the first time he ate challah, which he thoroughly enjoyed.
At his suggestion, he and I took Sam to services on Saturday morning, where, after seeing me navigate the prayer book, he asked if I knew Hebrew. (“Not really,” I answered. “But it’s OK to just la la la if you don’t know the words.” He laughed.) Driving home, we talked about what to expect at Sam’s bar mitzvah. And he finally asked an easy question. Dad wanted to know why Sam didn’t have my last name. “Easy,” I said. “Our name is Bacon. That’s just not very Jewish.”
Before he left, my father told me how much he enjoyed his trip, even the two hours we spent at services. Looking back, it might have been the best visit we’ve had as adults. Talking about Judaism made for some of the longest and most personal conversations we’ve ever had. And his curiosity gave me a chance to think more deeply about what it means to raise our son in our Jewish community. Dad’s parting words were a request that I let him know when holidays were coming so he could be prepared. Perhaps I’ll give him a call for Shavuot.
Jake loves the Torah. He stands up proudly as he carries it in his arms, declaring “I’m doing it independently!” He places the Torah in the ark with great tenderness, stroking its velvety cover before he says goodbye and closes the door.
Jake loves his classmates. He leans in toward his friends and says hello as he peers at them through his thick glasses. Jake doesn’t seem to mind that one classmate is in a wheelchair, or another struggles to sit still during class; he simply loves them. When Jake goes to a separate room for individual tutoring, he asks where his friends are. And he asks to sit next to friends in circle or during prayer services, where he basks in their presence.
Jake loves praying. When he hears the class begin to sing prayers, he rocks back and forth and flaps his hands with a look of pure euphoria on his face. Now that Jake has learned to sing the prayers himself, he joins in with the same enthusiasm as fans cheering at a football game (and often the same volume). Jake understands that we direct our prayers to God, and has remarked: “I love Eloheinu.”
Jake loves Judaism. The joy he feels when studying, praying or celebrating a holiday is palpable. He wears his kippah (small head covering worn in synagogue) with pride. He feels at home in his synagogue and in his religious school. He gleefully uses Yiddish words, saying “I am a little vantz*” after a moment of mischief.
Jake chooses love, and we, his teachers, #ChooseLove, too. We love teaching Jake and watching him learn. We love the challenge of making lessons and materials accessible to him. But most important, we embrace both Jake’s strengths and his special needs, and we love the unique, mischievous, delightful young man that he is becoming.
*A vantz literally means a louse, and is slang for troublemaker.