By Dr. Susie Tanchel
The power we feel in belonging to something bigger than ourselves is an important part of what lies at the heart of people’s “just Jewish” identity.
Where do you feel you belong in the Jewish community? According to CJP’s 2015 Greater Boston Jewish Community Study, one of the most significant shifts in Jewish identity in the last 10 years is how Jews define themselves as Jews. In 2005, 83 percent of Jews defined their identity in terms of denominational affiliation. Now, a mere 10 years later, that number has dropped to 55 percent. Today, close to one in every two Jews (45 percent) understands themselves as “just Jewish.” This is a significant trend in our community and worthy of further exploration.
“Just Jewish” certainly can be interpreted to be Jews who, according to CJP’s typology, are “minimally engaged.” But one can also apply a far more nuanced approach to this analysis. Denominational divisions are becoming far less relevant as fewer and fewer Jews affiliate in this way. Perhaps it shouldn’t surprise us, since this shift is consistent across other faith communities and suggestive of a broader societal trend. All around us people are eschewing labels. A person’s occupation, location and even gender is less fixed than it was a generation ago. Fluidity and boundary-crossing are, themselves, values. We must not mistake this lack of affiliation for a lack of desire to belong.
Belonging to something greater than ourselves remains, as always, a significant motivator in the human experience. Connections matter to each of us. Even as denominational affiliation has decreased, according to this study, the number of Jews in Boston has seen a moderate increase (4.6 percent since the previous study). So now perhaps non-Orthodox Jews are no longer joining or belonging to synagogues because of denominational affiliation, but rather based on the strength of their feelings for the rabbi/spiritual leader or for their commitment to the other members of that community. But make no mistake, belonging—connecting around a shared purpose—still frames our search for meaning and relevance. Living in a world that feels increasingly isolated and polarized—due to the ways technology is used, the more palpable political divisions and the more transient nature of millennials—highlights the importance of connection. Being a part of a larger group grounds us, comforts us, gives us joy and offers opportunities for connection. The power we feel in belonging to something bigger than ourselves, that preceded us and that will continue beyond our time, is an important part of what lies at the heart of people’s “just Jewish” identity.
In moving beyond denominations, I believe we in the Boston Jewish community need to strive to create new Jewish communities of substance and connection, which avoid developing a secular and religious divide. Even as we remain welcoming to the “immersed” and “affiliated” into these communities, we need to commit to ensuring that our hearts and doors are open to do the difficult work of integrating the voices and the perspectives of all families raising Jewish children. This is especially important in what historically have been more closed settings, such as Jewish day schools.
As the diversity within our community continues to become more pronounced, we certainly will seek to forge connections around the issues upon which we all agree. But it will be equally important to engage with one another on more complicated and controversial issues. Future Jewish adults will not magically develop these necessary capacities at age 18. If we hope for adults who can collaborate with others through empathic listening and respectful challenge to solve the complex problems confronting us, we need to start educating our children toward these goals—today. At Boston’s Jewish Community Day School (JCDS), we are training our children to develop the habits of mind and heart necessary for engaging with difference. We believe these conversations, and the resulting productive tension that children learn to navigate, leads to creativity, the refinement of ideas and the generation of new insights.
How blessed we are to be a part of this vibrant, diverse Jewish community. I look forward to engaging with you around our differences and thereby creating a stronger community for us all.
Read the 2015 Greater Boston Jewish Community Study here.