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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 Jared David Berezin
Sometimes it’s nice to have others make minor decisions for me. I’m happy when my wife decides what we’re cooking for dinner. It’s more convenient when a friend suggests a specific date to get together. If I look in my closet and see only one pair of pants (the others being in the laundry), no problem, it makes deciding what to wear very easy.
Sometimes though it can be difficult to avoid others trying to make decisions for me. From political commentators telling me who “won” a debate, to companies telling me what product will make me happy, to programmers at Netflix creating algorithms that tell me what movies to watch, I’m bombarded with recommendations from people I’ve never met.
For important lifecycle events—baby naming ceremonies, bat and bar mitzvahs, weddings and funerals—affiliated and unaffiliated Jews alike tend to rely heavily on others, most often experienced and knowledgeable rabbis. For unaffiliated Jews and interfaith couples who do not belong to a synagogue, however, rabbis are often strangers whom we don’t know and who don’t know us.
Stepping away from the cast of strangers
The day my grandfather died, my mother said aloud what we were all thinking, “Arrangements need to be made.” I immediately pictured the typical funeral service with a rabbi we didn’t know talking to us about a man he didn’t know. Something inside me cried out, “No more strangers!”
Since my grandfather suffered from dementia, the nurses, doctors and staff at the assisted living facility were always strangers. As my grandfather’s dementia progressed, the cast of strangers in his life expanded to include even us, his own family. I was extremely grateful for the care he received, and yet I wondered, “Why must we rely on someone we don’t know to care for Papa even after he’s dead? Do we really need a stranger to show us how to say goodbye to the man we loved so much?”
Rabbis, like all individuals, can be wonderful people, but I was hesitant to have a rabbi who did not know my grandfather lead us through such an emotional experience. Although a rabbi would help ensure that Jewish rituals were met with accuracy, this had never been a priority for my grandfather. He loved to poke holes in theology and remind us not to take ourselves too seriously. I wanted a service that was as loving and authentic as my grandfather; an experience that was both Jewish and completely tailored for the man I admired.
I asked my mother and aunt—my grandfather’s daughters—if I could lead the funeral service. Initially, they said they’d think about it. In our next conversation I learned that their hesitation stemmed only out of concern for me. “Would you be OK?” they asked. “Would it be too difficult, since you and Papa were so close?” Truth is, I was scared to get what I asked for. Even thinking about attending a funeral makes me nervous.
Interfaith marriage as a confidence-booster
The determination to create and lead my grandfather’s funeral service grew in large part from my experiences in an interfaith marriage—I was raised a Reform Jew and my wife was raised Christian, though she has since developed an aversion to all organized religion. To build rituals and Jewish holiday celebrations that are meaningful for both of us (and our friends who are Jewish and of other faiths), we experiment with ideas from within and outside Judaism. Together, we’ve learned that we can try anything—if a ritual works we can do it again; if it doesn’t we can try something new.
Developing a practice of spiritual self-reliance and interfaith experimentation gave me the strength to take responsibility for my grandfather’s funeral, to help lead rather than be led and to do so without the pressure of trying to be exactly perfect.
The Jewish ritual at the end of a burial service is to place dirt atop the casket. This voluntary ritual gives loved ones an opportunity to participate in the burial process. Creating and officiating my grandfather’s funeral service felt like an extension of this dirt ritual, a way for me to get my hands dirty, to get involved and to get uncomfortable for the sake of love and gratitude.
Preparing the funeral service also helped me appreciate all of the work done by strangers of all faiths whom we rely on to help us say goodbye, particularly the gravediggers. I prepared the words; they prepared the land. After they carefully lowered the patriarch of my family into the earth, I thanked the cemetery workers for their work. A couple of the men nodded in recognition as they walked away wordlessly to their next task.
“I am officiating this funeral service as a grandson mourning the loss of my grandfather, my Papa,” I said at the start of the service to the group of family and friends gathered in front of me. Minutes later as my wife and I were performing the song “Lechi Lach” on flute and guitar—a duet my Papa always treasured—a gust of wind sent my yarmulke flying. As a family friend chased after the yarmulke and plopped it back on my head, I cherished the intimacy of the imperfect graveside service.