“Affiliated” and “Engaged”
I just returned from the Jewish Outreach Institute’s annual conference called Opening the Tent: Visions and Practices for a More Inclusive Jewish Community. It was an interesting conference that explored practices for welcoming interfaith families, non-Jewish partners of Jews, Jews-by-Choice, and, generally speaking, all whom are “unaffiliated”—including Jews perceived to be “on the margins” (i.e. Jews of Color and GLBT-identified Jews)—into the established community.
I was pleased to hear stories shared by many individuals “on the margins” who have found a thriving place for themselves in the organized Jewish community, and I was grateful for the measurable steps being taken by some institutions to lower barriers for their participation, “affiliation,” and “engagement.” What struck me as somewhat frustrating, however, were the measurements used to define “affiliation” and “engagement” in the first place. What does “Jewish engagement” actually mean? And what are honest and fully inclusive ways of defining the possibilities to “affiliate” Jewishly? Can we solidly define “affiliation” at all? For the majority of conference presenters and participants—and according to a study whose findings were shared at the conference—“affiliated” was defined by one of two factors: paying dues at a synagogue, and having a JCC membership. While synagogues and JCCs fulfill an important need in the Jewish community and are indicators of Jewish “affiliation,” they are certainly not the only ones, nor are they necessarily the primary ones. My own experience is somewhat reflective of this. I’ve always been quite engaged in Jewish activities, both “normative” and “alternative” ones (as some of the conference participants might categorize them). I regularly attend Shabbat services at a minyan or at the Moishe/Kavod House. I like chanting Torah. I’ve participated in both short- and long-term Jewish service programs. I host Rosh Chodesh gatherings, and go to queer Jewish retreats. I also work professionally in the Jewish community. But at 24, I do not belong to a synagogue, and I don’t have a JCC membership… which means, apparently, that I am “unaffiliated.”
What’s missing from this seemingly antiquated model of identifying “affiliated” and “unaffiliated” Jews is an understanding of the broader Jewish landscape (if I can call it that), beyond the synagogue pews and the JCC swimming pools. There are countless numbers of creative, grassroots Jewish initiatives out there—literary activism, eco-centered activities, artistic, musical, and cultural media production, independent minyanim, and radical social justice campaigns (to name a few)—that serve as the centerpieces of affiliation for us “unaffiliated” (and generally younger) folks, not because these experiences are “cool” or “less Jewish,” but because they’re purposeful, authentic, and empowering.
So, as important as it is that members of the Jewish establishment are broadening their visions of inclusiveness to accommodate the changing faces and family structures of our community, it might also serve the establishment well to think outside the box by honoring the creativity of the so-called “unaffiliated” rather than just trying to get them in their doors. Even with tireless outreach efforts, we may never go so far as to knock… and that won’t make us any less Jewish or any less engaged.