Many voices emerged in our Community Study. Take these comments from four different individuals:
“Judaism informs my identity, my daily life and political outlook, but it doesn’t mean that I need to be institutionally involved.”
“I am proud to be a Jew and a fully participating member of the Jewish community (my synagogue, study group, Hadassah) and the larger community.”
“Though I feel a strong connection to Judaism, since my kids have grown I have not had much participation in the community. But I still feel a strong connection.”
“I never really had a Jewish identity—more of a Russian Jewish identity, so I participated in Russian Jewish community events, but not for any reason particularly related to Judaism.”
As we read the words of participants and look at the quantitative data, we see members of our community connecting in different ways. Some are attached to institutional Jewish life, and others are not but still have a strong Jewish identity. Some express their Judaism through their Russian community or their Israeli community, but not through other Jewish institutions. Some are more connected to Jewish institutions at certain life stages and less connected at others. Jewish identity is not only as varied as each individual, but can also evolve along one’s own life journey.
And that is part of the beauty of Judaism. Judaism is not a museum piece frozen in time; it’s something that evolves and has changed throughout its history. There is no one “authentic” Jewish experience; rather, we can each create a Judaism that feels authentic to us. And Judaism is not just a religion—it is also a people, a culture, a community and a lens through which to view the world. That only expands the way we can connect to our Judaism as individuals, and as communities.
Our Community Study provides an important glimpse into the lives of Jews in Boston today and confirms that we are a beautifully eclectic community. We are American born, Russian born and Israeli born; we are lesbian, gay, straight, bi, trans and queer; we are single and married; we are married to other Jews and to those of other religions or no religion; we are financially well-off and we are struggling to make ends meet; we are young and old. In other words, we are truly a mixed multitude. And we are diverse in how we choose to connect—some more fully than others, but also in different ways: some through culture, some through formal affiliation and some through more family-oriented paths.
Not surprisingly, our Community Study confirmed that we are also a different community than we were 10 years ago. We are strong with 248,000 Jewish adults and children in Greater Boston. And yet our patterns of connecting look different from previous generations. For some communities, but certainly not all, institutions are becoming less relevant. Our geographic shifts show that more of the Jewish community than ever now lives in Cambridge, Somerville and Boston, choosing to live in areas where there are fewer synagogues and Jewish institutions than our suburban neighbors have. Of the young adult, Russian, millenial and LGBTQ individuals who are synagogue members, they are as likely to be involved in an alternative community, such as a chavurah, minyan or Chabad, as they are to be part of a traditional synagogue with dues.
Across various ages, we see some decreases in formal Jewish education for children, but we also see an increase in informal Jewish educational experiences, such as camp and youth group. And we see a major shift in denominations. While in 2005 74 percent of the community identified as Reform or Conservative, in 2015 only 44 percent identified as part of those movements. In those 10 years, we saw an increase from 17 percent to 45 percent of Jews who identity as being of no denomination—identifying as secular, culturally Jewish, “just Jewish” or post- or trans-denominational.
Some may be concerned about these trends. For sure, they mean the Jewish community is changing, and change, by definition, can be scary. And yet I am hopeful and optimistic. Throughout the history of the Jewish community, we have changed. While each generation might be comfortable with its vision of Jewish life, the reality is that it’s usually replaced by something even more dynamic in the next generation. There are so many access points into Judaism, whether through synagogue, social justice, learning, celebrating a balance of particularism and universalism, community, history or food (and these are not mutually exclusive, of course!).
Our task is to make sure there are welcoming entry points for our increasingly diverse community, and that we celebrate each individual on his or her Jewish journey. The snapshot of our community, which reflects a true variety of ways of connecting, shows that we are already celebrating that diversity.