This past Shabbat I hosted the last in the three-part set of gatherings that had been planned, designed and implemented by our congregation’s membership committee. The goal of the gatherings was to introduce our new member families to our community, providing some orientation to many of its moving parts, and to each other. Our final gathering was purely social and it was quite evident that wonderful connections have already been made. In the space of just over a month, those families who chose to avail themselves of this opportunity probably traveled further, in terms of community connectedness, than they might otherwise have done in the space of two or three years of synagogue membership. Our next steps are looking at other groups within our congregation where we could help facilitate this kind of connectedness, whether they have joined us in recent years or been members for over 10 years.
Among the many conversations I had on Shabbat afternoon, was one where a parent thanked us for facilitating and providing the times and spaces for connections to be made beyond the walls of the synagogue and the timeframe of prayer services. With young children she said, quite honestly, that she didn’t expect to be a regular attender at Friday night services, but that they were interested in being a part of a community in other ways and at other times.
Back in the mid-1990s, I had a short first career, before deciding to retrain for the rabbinate. I did my PhD at University College London, in Cultural Geography. My thesis was examining the world of environmental education – so often aimed at youth with the hope that the next generation will be inspired to do more than their parents’ generation to alter behaviors that will enable us to live more sustainably on the planet. In my cultural/sociological research into the lives of some of these children, my research pointed out that, so often, the claims made by educators and the assumptions made about the effectiveness of such education were made in a vacuum. Content or Program alone could not tell you how effective the efforts of environmental educators would be. Children, just like the rest of us, live their lives in connection to others. Why, I might ask them, did they join the Scouts/Guides? Why did they get interested in a particular hobby? What kinds of experiences had they had in different kinds of natural environments? Over and over again it was members of their family who provided one primary set of influences, and their friends – their social connections – that drove the vast majority of what they did or didn’t do. Not so surprising a conclusion, but nevertheless so many people who are passionate about the environment focus solely on the educational content and program and continue to ignore the social context in which all of our everyday behaviors and choices are embedded. The former may be easier to create and form than the latter—it is more concrete and tangible—but that doesn’t make it the most effective way to go about doing things.
I share this, because that background and research has guided much of my thinking about religious education and religious communities too. We Jewish professionals tend to overly focus on the prayer service, the program, and the educational course without spending enough time focusing on the social context. To be successful, we need to know who are congregants are and the lives they are leading. Because of the particular demographics of the community where I am based, those dynamics can be quite different to those of another community in another geographical location. What I am learning is that, by emphasizing how gathering opportunities will facilitate community connection, and then being more intentional to make sure that the timing and the nature of the gathering will truly lend itself to these goals, all of the other Jewish content can be shared too. But we start with the connections. Last Shabbat we shared a beautiful Havdalah ritual together, and I was able to teach something about this ritual that many of the children present (and plenty of the adults too) were seeing for the first time. But we didn’t invite them to a Havdalah gathering; given the lack of context for that for some of them, that would have been a meaningless label to describe the nature and purpose of the invitation.
This, of course, is the whole rationale of what Ron Wolfson has termed ‘Relational Judaism‘ and many congregations are turning their attention toward how they can do a better job of being relationship-based communities. Today I fly to San Diego for the Union for Reform Judaism’s Biennial Conference. Always vibrant and energetic gatherings, this one is bound to be no exception. And, while there will be many useful sessions designed for information and idea sharing on all kinds of topics that will enable communities to reach toward greater excellence on many fronts, these conferences are, ultimately, all about relationship-building themselves. I almost always get more from the individual conversations I have with old friends, with strangers sitting next to me, and with colleagues, re-invigorating me in my work and inspiring me with the things they’ve already thought of and tried in their communities. Understanding this, the conference organizers this year have provided times and places—forums—simply to meet with others who show up around a common area of interest to share ideas and learn from each other, in addition to the more formally organized workshops.
We used to hear a lot of “build it and they will come.” Today, perhaps the more appropriate adage should be “connect, and together we will create.”
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It’s probably one of the first things that I learned from my time as a social science researcher – the short research and academic career that I had before deciding to turn to the Rabbinate … correlation does not always mean causation. Statistics are very good at demonstrating the former but, by themselves, cannot determine the latter without further investigation.
So, for example, a survey of shoe size and reading ability among Americans would reveal that the larger the shoe size, the higher the reading level. Most of us would recognize that there is a third factor – age – that accounts for both.
Then there’s the joke about the lunatic who wants to demonstrate to his doctor that he can control spiders. He speaks to the spider ‘Go left!’ and the spider on the floor moves to the left. Then he calls out ‘Go right!’ and the spider on the floor moves to the right. Then he says to the doctor, ‘but that’s nothing – watch this!’ He proceeds to pull the legs off the spider. When he calls out ‘Go left!’ and ‘Go right!’ again, the spider doesn’t move. ‘See!’ says the lunatic, ‘If you pull a spider’s legs off he’ll go deaf!’
In the past 24 hours there have been multiple reports and responses to the Pew Portrait of Jewish American life in major newspapers, blogs, and conversations on Facebook pages. It has sparked many interesting and reflective responses, all containing good observations. But there is also the tendency to misread the data, jump to assumptions about causation when only correlation has been determined, and to focus in on some of the data while ignoring other parts. I have found conversations about what part of the data has been most shocking/surprising/unexpected particularly interesting. Some are shocked by the statistic that 34% said that you could still be Jewish and believe that Jesus was the Messiah, for example. Many are concerned that, of those who identify as culturally but not religiously Jewish, 2/3rds of them are not raising their children Jewish in any way.
One of the things that I learned as a social scientist is that there are many ways of seeing, based not so much on what lies before us, but rather on who is doing the seeing. The artist, the developer, and the farmer can all look out at exactly the same field and see completely different things. So it is that those of us who work within institutional Jewish organizations, especially synagogues, look at this data with one set of concerns, whereas those who have created new Jewish cultural projects that seek to engage Jews outside of those traditional institutions would look at the data quite differently.
The full Pew study is over 200 pages long. I have not had the time in the last 24 hours to read and digest it. So it is not my intention to add my own layer of analysis to those that are already out there at this time. Rather, to caution us to think about our framing, how we are approaching and responding to the data that has been collected, and to be careful about jumping to conclusions. For example, if I add my own voice to those that have highlighted what is most interesting to them, I would draw attention to something that is mentioned but which hasn’t received a great deal of comment in the analysis so far. On the Pew Forum’s own summary page of the report, with regard to the youngest generation of Jews surveyed who show an increasingly ethnic but not religious sense of identification, they state:
This shift in Jewish self-identification reflects broader changes in the U.S. public. Americans as a whole – not just Jews – increasingly eschew any religious affiliation. Indeed, the share of U.S. Jews who say they have no religion (22%) is similar to the share of religious “nones” in the general public (20%), and religious disaffiliation is as common among all U.S. adults ages 18-29 as among Jewish Millennials (32% of each).
This piece of data should immediately alert us to the likelihood that there are a combination of factors that are shifting the culture of American society in general, to which we in the Jewish community are not immune. Does that mean that we who are Jewish professionals throw up our hands and give up on our attempts to keep Jews Jewish, help interfaith families make Jewish choices, and demonstrate the meaningful connections to our faith and heritage that we wish to share with younger generations? Of course not! But it does mean that we cannot jump to conclusions about what does and doesn’t work, what can and can’t be achieved, and what our expectations are, without reference to the larger cultural context in which we are living and working. And perhaps most of all, an awareness of the trends in this larger cultural context can help us keep our emotions in check. Instead of the hand-wringing and angst that sometimes drives a narrative that can sound a little too desperate as we mourn the ‘ever-dying Jewish people‘, if we acknowledge and even embrace the reality that we live and work in today we can more joyfully reach out and share what we have to offer, and are probably more likely to connect with Jews who identify differently to us because we are more present to who they are and will be less likely to try and make them fit inside our pre-existing structures.
I look forward to… well, to most things, because there really isn’t any other direction in which to look.