In addition to the interesting demographic shifts noted in the 2015 Greater Boston Jewish Community Study, this year’s results hint at significant attitudinal changes along the Boston Jewish landscape. Ten years ago, when Boston’s rate of interfaith marriage looked to be lower than that of other communities, there was a sense of being insulated from an anticipated wave of change. For better or for worse, it’s no longer the case.
The reported movement away from denominational and institutional affiliation appears to be universal, i.e. not limited to Boston, and not limited to Judaism. Yet being Jewish remains a valued aspect of many, many lives. We might understand this intuitively, but how can we really know what’s behind it?
It’s been nearly five years since I left a leadership position in a Jewish organization, where my role was to study Jewish attitudes and respond to the changes we’re now seeing in fuller force. It was frankly not easy to keep the focus on the constituents versus the preservation of the institution. The two are intertwined, to be sure. But which comes first?
Having lived that experience, I propose another question: Can we agree on what we’re here to do? Because when we can do that, we will have a path to knowing what yet needs to be done.
Full disclosure: I am a practicing Jew, a Me’ah alumnus. I am married to an agnostic man, raised Catholic, who embraces Jewish values and practice. Our home is kosher. We greet Shabbat, light Hanukkah candles, change our kitchen for Passover, participate in two seders and fast on Yom Kippur. According to the study, this makes me (us, actually) “immersed.” Yet institutional and communal Jewish life have not worked particularly well for me, or for us. Thus we do not feel a part of a “community.”
I draw the following conclusions.
My husband talks about Jewish practice in terms of what the practices mean, and the value they bring to his life, and to our life. We don’t see or hear so much about this in “Jewish” institutional programming (with notable exceptions). I anticipate that these words will generate examples that suggest I’m wrong. But the fact is that the status quo is satisfying a shrinking cohort while new options, including worship communities, are growing up around it. I fear that, study results notwithstanding, we will remain much too complacent about what exists; ironically, at the same time there will be increasing concern about whether or not our institutions will survive.
We must do much more than welcome each other. We need less worry about institutions, and more focus on what they provide—and how well. There are now many, many choices available to those who want to be stimulated and connected. Modern-day adults demand quality and creativity for themselves and for their children and grandchildren. They expect to be inspired. And this is a big opportunity, because Judaism has so much to offer.
This path cannot be traversed without the benefit of consumer insight. We should not presume to know what the changes we’re seeing will yield. In-depth conversations with real constituents (and non-constituents especially) almost always uncover deviation from our closely held beliefs. Innovation comes from a willingness to see beyond one’s own assumptions.
Rabbi Irwin Kula describes Judaism as a toolbox full of values and practices that can guide us to better-lived lives. All the research I’ve seen, or conducted, suggests that the tools—emphasis on education, being charitable, second chances, rest and rejuvenation, dealing ethically with others, community support for the ill and the bereaved, and even fasting—are exactly what even “nominally involved” individuals value about being Jewish, even considering their other options. And as my personal experience reveals, the tools also deeply compel those who choose to walk with us.
We should be studying, using and teaching this in exciting and provocative ways that people will embrace—as the study suggests, in catalytic manner. The character of Jewish life may change; the concept of community may change. That is yet to be determined. The point is not for Jewish life as we know it to survive. The point is for people to thrive. The Jewish toolkit is a roadmap. Employed to their fullest, in a contemporary context, the tools will keep the Jewish religion, people, community and maybe even institutions alive—and, more important, living.
So let’s keep asking questions. The Community Study should be just the beginning.
Read the 2015 Greater Boston Jewish Community Study here.
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