In today’s world, the Internet is the first stop for people of all ages when they need to find answers or community, even when it comes to Judaism. My 36-year old brother brought this home for me this past December when I asked if he needed me to email and sing the Chanukah blessings to him. He responded, “No thank you, I got them on Google through my new Droid phone.” If that doesn’t sum up where Judaism is today, then I don’t know what does. He used his cell phone to find his answer instead of using it to call his sister, the almost-rabbi. Who needs a synagogue when you have a Smartphone?
He and my wonderful sister-in-law are working hard to embrace Judaism in their home, even though it is not her religion. They engaged in the Chanukah blessings ritual with their 7 month old son. It held meaning for my brother and he wanted to share it; to express his Judaism, teach his family, and to connect himself to the Jewish people. He did not need the synagogue to do this, or even a rabbi.
This may be because many synagogues seem too authoritative and have become static institutions, using old paradigms of membership and belonging. However, from a synagogue’s perspective Jewish peoplehood is a primary understanding of what they do. Yet they tend to alienate young adults, their potential membership, due to outdated language and programming geared toward a different audience. With the growing trend of “extended singlehood” of non-Orthodox Jewish adults who remain unmarried until the age of 40, this population does not have a compelling reason to join since they do not yet have children.
Rather than thinking creatively about how to engage this population of unaffiliated Jews who want to receive Jewish information, education, ritual and worship, they continue the status quo while watching their numbers decrease as they look out in the pews. Ethan Tucker addressed this issue in the Zeek article, “What Independent Minyanim Teach Us About the Next Generation of Jewish Communities.” He cites the following three reasons why Jews do not join synagogues. The first is that “Jews live modern, autonomous lives outside of the sphere of coercive rabbinic power…and thus will make their own normative choices.” The second is that highly educated Jews have been trained to think critically about texts as sources of wisdom and not authority. And, lastly, despite the challenges from modernity, many young adults do care what Judaism has to say as a source of help when dealing with personal and communal concerns. They need community of some sort to assist with decision-making and crisis. This means they want and need something, they just know it isn’t the typical synagogue.
Today the word “belonging” has new meaning when one can belong to any community in the world via a Facebook group or fan page. In the free marketplace of the Internet membership no longer means paying dues but clicking “yes” to a request to join. Dr. Ezra Kopelowitz and Dr. Shlomi Ravid, in their study entitled “Best Practices of Organizations that Build Jewish Peoplehood,” outline the historical context for opting into the Jewish collective belonging. The shifts began in the 17th century, with the first shift lasting until the early 20th century. This was a time of Traditional Belonging, in which membership was mandated by law. The second shift is known as Enclave Belonging, and marked the early 20th century until the time of World War II. The Time of Affiliation, the third shift, where membership became a choice, extended through the 1960’s. The sixties through current time is known as the fourth shift, or the time of no affiliation. Now is the time for employing a new model of thinking about being Jewish to turn the tide.
Synagogues have fallen victim to this trend. Strong ideologies have kept congregants away. Kopelowitz and Ravid found religious institutions that are successful in engaging their membership use a Jewish peoplehood paradigm understanding that Jewish belonging is multidimensional and complex and Judaism needs to be approached moderately. Being a part of the Jewish people means being connected to all Jews regardless of identity of the individual or an institution. The research echoes the anecdotal evidence from the Zeek article – people want and need community because they want to be in relationship. That is human nature.
Being Jewish means more than belonging to one synagogue or institution. It means belonging to the Jewish collective. The community encompasses more than the religious piece of Judaism. Therefore, Jewish religious experiences become the journey, not the destination, and religious education provides the tools for this trip that should ultimately lead to communal experiences. The role of the synagogue, or any Jewish institution who works for Jews for that matter, is to bring Jewish people together so that they can relate to one another, the larger world and to God. The way this is enacted can be through social justice work, prayer, and education, but all institutions in the organized Jewish community need to remember those three things are the means, not the end. The ultimate goal is for a single Jewish person to find meaning and fulfillment within their Jewish life by strengthening their connections to others going through a similar quest.
This project may ask more questions than provide answers. It is about the different questions that arise when trying to understand Peoplehood as a concept for Jewish education, Jewish identity building, Zionism, and so much more. As this website continues to grow and develop, it is my hope that you will contribute to this blog and to the many resources found throughout the site. Blog posts will be updated weekly so visit often!
 Lawrence A. Hoffman, ReThinking Synagogues, (Woodstock, VT: Jewish Lights Publishing, 2006), 39.
 Steven M. Cohen, “Changes in American Jewish Identities: From Normative Constructions to Aesthetic Understandings,” Institute for Global Jewish Affairs No. 30, March 16, 2008, http://www.jcpa.org/.
 Ezra Kopelowitz and Shlomi Ravid, “Best Practices of Organizations that Build Jewish Peoplehood,” January 10, 2010, 2.
 Kopelowitz and Ravid, “Best Practices of Organizations that Build Jewish Peoplehood,” January 10, 2010, 3.
 Kopelowitz and Ravid, “Best Practices of Organizations that Build Jewish Peoplehood,” January 10, 2010, 9.
 Kopelowitz and Ravid, “Best Practices of Organizations that Build Jewish Peoplehood,” January 10, 2010, 27-28.