Throughout my time on OTZMA we have had many, many speakers, and each one that discusses American and diaspora Jews seems to touch upon the same issue. Just a few weeks ago, Scott Copeland, Director of Israel Travel Education for Makom, talked to us about the challenges American Jewish life faces today. There is a trend now in Judaism to “define your own Judaism.” Jews are picking and choosing which practices to follow and which midrashim to believe. Jews are combining their “secular interests” with their religion and through that we have seen a huge emergence of lifestyles such as Jewish farming or Jewish yoga.
As a Conservative Jew, I have always believed in defining one’s own Judaism. I think it is beautiful that we are all embarking on personal religion quests, so, why is this an issue for the Jewish people?
The issue is that while we are each taking our own paths, we are leaving the community aspect of Judaism behind. Community has always been one of the central components of Judaism. I feel so connected to each and every Jew because we (generally) believe that same things, follow the same practices, and share the same history. But the Jewish community is deteriorating. We are no longer a group of Jews, but rather a Haredi jew, a reconstructionist Jew, a “JewBu” (Buddhist Jew), and a non-affiliated Jew.
While the idea of losing the community is bad enough on its own, there are many other implications that come along. For example, we are losing our connection to Israel. If we are each on our personal quest, why do we need Israel? Why do we need the land of the Jews? This thought process is especially relevant for younger generations who do not have the memory of existential threat.
Another consequence is synagogue membership. While less people identify with a specific movement of Judaism, they are less likely to want to join a synagogue of a specific denomination. The loss of synagogue membership, in my opinion, is a big deal. Synagogues provide so many important things, especially for youth. It supplies an automatic group of friends and support system. It supplies educational lectures and social events. And it provides Hebrew school for the children…and Hebrew school provides these kids with the background knowledge to be able to choose what kind of Jew they want to be.
When I asked Copeland what was being done to handle this issue, and what solutions he could pose, he did not have much of an answer. To his credit, I do not believe that this was a sign of him being unprepared or unknowledgeable, but that it is still a very new problem and the answer is definitely not obvious. He suggested that a good way to keep the feeling of a Jewish community is to hold activities and events that bring together two very different groups in Judaism, such as a Chabad group and a Jewish farming group. This allows people to stay on their personal Jewish journey, while reminding them that they are part of a larger community. And of course, these types of activities bring more understanding and acceptance of different types of Jews.
Copeland did mention an additional related challenge. He stated that even if this personal path trend did not exist, a true feeling of a whole Jewish community would still be difficult to exist. At the end of the day, we all live different lives and, especially in America, are very spread out. A Jew on Long Island will have little connection to a Jew in Mississippi (and they would probably never meet each other anyway).
I am definitely on my own Jewish journey, as I discussed in my last post, but a large part of that journey is feeling connected to the Jewish community. Thus, this issue is something that has really caught my attention and I think about frequently. All of these ideas are explained further and in more detail in the book, The Jew Within: Self, Community, and Commitment Among the Variety of Moderately Affiliated. I am planning on reading it soon. I would really love to hear what you all think of this!