To Affiliate or Not?

By Tom Friedland


When my wife Sandy and I moved across the country in 2003, we interrupted 27 years of ritualized High Holidays celebrations spent with family and the friends that come with years of living in one place, and we faced choices of what to do in our new community. We had left a New Jersey community where we felt entrenched and a Jewish community in which we participated actively. Our three children were bat and bar mitzvahed at our local temple; Sandy was president of the local Jewish Community Center, and I served as a member of the Federation Board. Our friends were predominantly Jewish, and my mother and sister lived close enough that they joined us for holiday dinners.

All this ended with our January 1, 2003, move to Berkeley, Calif., to be near our married daughter and one of our sons. Forced to decide how to incorporate Judaism into our West Coast lives, we stepped back to reconsider what we wanted, needed, and believed. Sandy had always been the more religious. Having grown up in Denver where Jews were a small minority in her school and among her neighbors, she made BBYO, a Jewish youth group, the center of her social life and learned to love Jewish holidays and rituals. Though never particularly religious, she felt very Jewish culturally and socially.

I grew up in a suburban New Jersey village that was 50 percent Jewish. I felt no need for Jewish-only clubs or activities. Intellectually, I considered myself agnostic. Once married, I likely would not have affiliated with Jewish organizations absent Sandy’s influence. But when our first child was born, Sandy prevailed on me to join the local temple and to attend High Holiday and occasional Shabbat services. Gradually, as we made friends, we became increasingly involved in the Jewish community.

When we moved to Berkeley, Sandy was more inclined toward affiliating than I but less motivated to affiliate than she had been in New Jersey. In New Jersey, we had young children who would benefit from religious training. By 2003, our kids were grown and no longer lived with us. Though we both wanted to make friends in our new community, neither of us attached a Jewish requirement to that effort. I gravitated toward university programs rather than toward Jewish-community offerings. Sandy joined and soon led the Berkeley Pathwanderers Association, a group that preserves and restores walking paths.

Four years into our Berkeley stay, we have not yet affiliated with a synagogue, though we light Shabbat candles, attend Yahrzeit services at a nearby temple, and pay to attend High Holiday services at either a temple or Hillel.

Our institutional needs change yearly and now are influenced by evolving family circumstances. Of the two of our grown children who live nearby, one is married to a Catholic, the other is still single. Our third child lives in New York, married to a Protestant. Neither our Catholic son-in-law nor our Protestant daughter-in-law has converted; nor have our children converted from Judaism; a judge performed both weddings. Our son-in-law is committed to Catholicism and resists raising his children Jewish. Our daughter-in-law is less committed, but she and our son have postponed decisions about their children’s religious training.

Our first years in Berkeley, 2003 and 2004, our daughter Michelle joined Sandy and me for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services, and our nearby son, Ben, joined us for Erev dinner but chose not to go to services. We “shopped” at temples and Hillels for services we might enjoy as a three-person family, but didn’t find any entirely satisfactory. In 2005, I had heart surgery during the High Holidays and the family “celebrated” with me in the hospital rather than at temple.

A week before Rosh Hashanah 2006, Michelle gave birth to twins, Max and Sierra, and she didn’t make it to services. Sandy and I went to Berkeley’s Hillel and decided to postpone long-term decisions until our changing family needs clarified themselves. Six weeks later, in Brooklyn, Sarah gave birth to Jackson.

As the 2007 season approaches, we ponder whether we might make Judaism more appealing to Max, Sierra, and Jackson by affiliating with a temple. Our musing has not changed our 2007 plans. Our grandchildren are too young for our 2007 actions to matter, and we will remain unaffiliated for at least another year. We likely will attend Rosh Hashanah services at Stanford Hillel, near Michelle, and Michelle likely will join us. We may do the same for Yom Kippur, or we may fly East and spend Yom Kippur with New Jersey family and friends. Eventually, we may decide to step up our institutional Jewish involvement, but for now we are biding time and monitoring our changing family circumstances.


About Tom Friedland

Tom Friedland teaches economics part-time at the University of California-Berkeley and runs a family business from his home in Berkeley.