Unboxing Judaism

By Emma Sasson

In the culture of today, we are all trying to figure out our identity. What makes you, you? Jewish identity is evolving, and there are now so many perspectives as to what it means to be a Jew. Some people say they are culturally Jewish, some claim to be religious, while others state that they have no religion. We now live in a society where our identity is ever-changing and cannot be placed solely into one category. As we roll through the 21st Century, the conventional model of “what it means to be Jewish” in America is changing.

Younger generations of the Jewish collective are shying away from conventional synagogue life and are finding other outlets to serve their Jewish religious and spiritual needs. Many rabbis and cantors are turning away from full-time synagogue positions, opting instead for a more fluid and creative way to reach out to and fulfill the needs of not only their own communities, but others as well.

For centuries, the center of Jewish life revolved around the synagogue. Not only has it been a source of religious leadership, but within the last few decades, it evolved to offer amenities such as Jewish day schools, adult classes, cultural events and social groups (e.g. Men’s Club, Women’s Connection, Havurot, USY, etc.) Not only has the synagogue served as the anchor for Jewish identity, it has provided a central place for wandering Jews to rest. Rabbi Elan Babchuck, of Providence, Rhode Island, the Director of Innovation at Clal, — an inter-denominational leadership and learning training institute — explains, “The synagogue was built to do everything. It was built to be a place to educate kids, find a partner, find when you move into a new town; it was the way you gathered, found meaning. When the world went crazy, it was place to find solace and sanctuary.”

In 2013, the PEW research study on the demographics of Jewish identity in the U.S. showed some interesting findings, including: “Fully 93% of Jews in the aging Greatest Generation identify as Jewish on the basis of religion; just 7% describe themselves as having no religion. By contrast, among Jews in the youngest generation of U.S. adults — the Millennials — 68% identify as Jews by religion, while 32% describe themselves as having no religion and identify as Jewish on the basis of ancestry, ethnicity or culture.” Thus, the younger generations are veering even further from the conventional ideals of Jewish identity, venturing out from the box of traditional Judaism. Today’s culture provides easy access to information and communication, leading new generations of Jews to question doctrines and strict ways of thinking. As a result, Judaism is slowly leaving the confines of denominational Judaism and into a new wave of post-denominational thinking.

While the culture of congregational Judaism undergoes a shift, the ways in which clergy reach communities is also evolving. A new trend sees many rabbis and cantors no longer tied to one synagogue or community for a lifetime of service. Cantor Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D. of Los Angeles, describes this as, “the entrepreneurial cantor or rabbi.” Rather than being a part of just one synagogue, there is a new trend rising in which cantors and rabbis are breaking out of the box and catering to the specific needs of a community.

Some clergy are the founders of innovative start-ups that fill gaps in the Jewish landscape, while others have multiple roles within already-existing organizations. Cantor Friedmann, for example, divides his time between serving as Community Leader and Education Director at Adat Chaverim, a Congregation for Humanistic Judaism; a “Kol Bo” at a traditional Reform Congregation; a leader of Saturday services at a retirement home; and also a Professor of Jewish Music History at the Academy for Jewish Religion in Los Angeles.

Rabbi Elan Babchuck left his role as a conventional pulpit rabbi for his new position at Clal which created “Rabbis without Borders,” a network of rabbis from many denominations and locations whose main aim is to serve Jewish communities in innovative ways. Through “Rabbis without Borders,” Rabbi Babchuck has set up his own innovative startup called THRIVE: a grassroots organization that aims to share spiritual and meditative experiences with the community.

“In this world you are your persona, your profile page, your LinkedIn account, a place where you are very cleaned up,” he explains, “Even at synagogue, people come as their best selves, you dress your nicest. Why not provide a place where you don’t have to pretend? THRIVE is a retreat center where clergy from all faiths can come together. You don’t have to check your faithfulness at the door. You can be both. People want to bring their whole selves.”

Another rabbi bringing innovation to the Jewish world is local, Rabbi Daniel Bortz. He is a progressive rabbi who reaches beyond synagogue walls, searching for new ways to bring Judaism to people craving a new experience. In his new book, Beneath the Surface, he brings the teachings of Judaism to light by paring it down to its core values. His mission is to still, “use the Torah, but try to tie it in to more relevant topics.” He even ran a hospitality tent to serve the needs of Jewish festival goers at the wildly-popular musical festival, Coachella.

Although many American Jews crave a new outlet in which to experience Judaism, many people — particularly older generations — still prefer a more traditional synagogue lifestyle. Rabbis and synagogue leaders are faced with the challenge of making synagogues relevant and fresh, while at the same time maintaining their long-held traditions.

Rabbi Avi Libman, of Congregation Beth El in La Jolla, CA, understands that there is movement away from synagogues, particularly within the millennial community. However, his job is not to cater to those who don’t find a Jewish connection in a synagogue, but rather to be present to support Jews who do. According to Rabbi Libman, “The purpose of a synagogue is finding a healthy balance between being authentic and relevant. The mistake I think we make is we think one size fits all.”

People who find meaning in conventional Jewish worship and practice will retain their connection to the synagogue. For those who do not, there are options for exploration. Jenna Ross, leader of the 20’s and 30’s crowd, CHAI GROUP, at Congregation Beth El — La Jolla, also sees this shift. She explains her challenge: “How do we fill the religious and community void that just can’t be filled for this particular group of people in a synagogue?” Ross has risen to the challenge, offering such activities as Shabbat morning hikes. “They still get the feeling of unplugging after the week,” she explains. “They can reset themselves for the week to come, which in essence, is what Shabbat is all about.”

There is still a lot of unrest within the American Jewish community that re-envisioning Jewish identity will ultimately lead to the erosion of Judaism. Yet historically, cultures and religions evolve and often new expressions of these identities are born. We need not be boxed into previous models of Judaism; rather, we are free to choose from a vast array of new options as well.

Today as we intermingle with other cultures; intermarriage is on the rise and many of these interfaith families want to find a meaningful path to religious fulfilment. At its core, Judaism remains the same; yet the landscape of opportunities is expanding. Cheri Weiss, La Jolla local and cantorial student at AJRCA who hopes to be ordained in May 2018, explains, “There’s a fear among many traditional Jews that because synagogue membership is dwindling it could result in the end of Judaism. This just isn’t true. I find this a very exciting time, because people are still reaching out, they still want to have their souls touched and inspired and experience Jewish community. Now there are new options to embrace. Historically, the Jewish people have been through worse crises. Today the future of our world seems uncertain. People often turn to religion in times of crises — on both community and personal levels. They will always need to find a way to nourish their soul.”

As the Jewish climate in America continues to change and the boundaries of Jewish culture continue to expand, innovation and new ways of thinking will blossom. It is an exciting time to be a Jew and to watch as people unbox Judaism while retaining its core values. Tradition exists alongside new expression to touch Jews of all generations who crave nourishment of the soul.

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