Five Truths About Unaffiliated Families

I was ordained as a Reform rabbi in 2007, and I spent the next four years running a family education religious school program at a synagogue. I then spent the next seven years serving “unaffiliated families.” This is what I have learned.

  1. It’s not them and us.
    The Jewish world writes about “unaffiliated families” as they. They are different from us, “engaged Jews.” They are hurting us by their unwillingness to join synagogues. There have to be efforts and programs to encourage them to join. We have to lower barriers so that they can join. One reason for this is that synagogue families tend to behave differently than unaffiliated families in terms of Jewish practice and participation in the wider Jewish world. However, many Jewish professionals are themselves “unaffiliated.” They have the excuse of being professional Jews, so they “get enough” Judaism through their work. One can read many lessons from this. In my eyes there is no them and us. I am the same as the families I serve, even though I am a rabbi married to a rabbi. In terms of our parenting challenges, our religious practices and traditions, our love of Judaism, and our desire for our children to find joy, meaning, sacred purpose, and a sense of being connected through Jewish holidays and experiences; it’s all the same. I have studied more about Judaism than the families I serve. I am, perhaps, more confident about my Judaism. I am, perhaps, more conflicted about Judaism. We all want our children to be mensches. We adults strive every day to be mensches ourselves. If we are honest about who we are then we can talk about us all and not feel threatened.
  2. There is an important overlap between interfaith families and unafilliated families.

    Synagogues are full of interfaith families and synagogues need interfaith families to continue to join. With this said, it can be hard for a family to choose to belong to a synagogue when one partner is not Jewish and still holds on to aspects of their religion as part of their family ties and identity. It would mean choosing one partner’s upbringing over the other one’s. It could mean that one partner may feel like the guest over and over. The prayers get learned and the traditions become rote, but for many people, it does not become their own. For some families, this scenario does not work, and thus they remain unaffiliated.

  3. Unaffiliated families do care about Judaism.

    I have heard over and over again that unaffiliated families just don’t care that much about their Judaism and how sad that is. Fellow Jewish parents who are affiliated negatively judge them for saying that the cost is prohibitive. Some say that we see a person’s values by what they spend their money on. We are all hypocrites. While it’s true that as clergy and Jewish leaders we want people to join synagogues for many reasons including to support an intergenerational community, for study opportunities, for social justice work and worship, for lots of people, their primary reason or only reason is for religious school. Spending thousands of dollars to join a synagogue so that children can attend religious school feels out of whack.

  4. We need to talk about a communal feeling, not community.

    What about community? One can hire a tutor to teach a child about Judaism and to prepare for bar/bat mitzvah, but they won’t have community. However, just because children sit with twelve other kids their age on plastic chairs around a table in Sunday School does not mean they necessarily feel a sense of community either. They may attend religious school week after week (when they aren’t sick, don’t have a birthday party or a sports commitment) and still not know the first and last names of the kids around them. They know “the boys are always bad” or, if they are lucky, they have a close friend or two. Sometimes they go to elementary school with the kids in Temple, and sometimes they don’t. Forming a sense of community is complicated. Making friends is even a different animal. For these reasons, I think we should talk less about community and more about instilling a communal sense. This is the sense that Judaism is “done” with other people. This is the knowledge that we pray with many voices (for some prayers, we need at least 10). This is the sense that we are a people. We share something with others who are also in Jewish families just because we celebrate the same holidays, eat the same foods, know the same language, read the same stories, etc. When a child is working with siblings at their kitchen table with their rabbi or their bar/bat mitzvah tutor, they don’t have this communal feeling. It is up to me, as a teacher and rabbi who works in homes with unaffiliated families, to shepherd them into experiences that are communal so that they feel this essential truth of Judaism.

  5. Some unaffiliated families chose other options, and that has to be okay and even supported.

    It may be that some unaffiliated families won’t join synagogues no matter the outreach. We pit synagogues against the unaffiliated. What if we understood that there are people who will thrive in synagogues and there are people who are going to thrive in smaller groups, and who want to create their Jewish lives in more independent ways. People can go in and out of wanting an institution at different times in their lives and doors can be open in both worlds. What if we weren’t threatened by each other but loved and respected and understood each other? And, what if there were more interfaith spaces so that there could be liberal Christian clergy and Jewish clergy who shared spaces?

I am a rabbi for unaffiliated families who want to learn about, practice and participate in Judaism. There are many clergy and Jewish teachers like me around the country. There are non-profits devoted to working with families who are not connected to synagogues. It’s important that all families who want access to clergy and learning can know it’s available to them and that their choices are okay and good. People are not unaffiliated when engaged with Judaism.