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Community struggling to meet the needs of Jewish identity surveys’ ‘others’

WASHINGTON (JTA) — Call it the age of “playlist Judaism.” 

That’s how Rabbi Kerry Olitzky describes engagement in Jewish life for the seemingly ever-increasing group showing up as “other” or “just Jewish” on recent American Jewish identity surveys.

“I no longer have to buy the entire package in order to have the [Jewish] service I want,” says Olitzy, the New York-based Jewish Outreach Institute’s executive director, referring to how iTunes and Napster broke the stranglehold on a music industry that once forced consumers to buy entire albums to hear one preferred song on demand.

Playlist Judaism, he says, accounts for the large growth of those Jews who identify as “other” and the drop in those who call themselves Conservative and Reform in a recently released demographic study of Jews in New York City and two of its suburbs, Long Island and Westchester County. 

Likewise, the last National Jewish Population Study, released in 2001, had 30 percent of respondents say they were “just Jewish.” So more than one in four American Jews take the label, eschewing the traditional ones of Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist or Orthodox. 

The rate in the recent New York survey was even higher, with 37 percent of respondents identifying themselves as “other.” That’s up from 25 percent in 2002 and 15 percent in 1991. 

Who qualifies as an “other” is open to debate, but some leading outreach professionals agree that the group’s needs remain unmet by the organized Jewish community.

As a catchall category, “other” includes those who call themselves “traditional” and “Sephardic” as well as “just Jewish” or “Jewish and something else,” among other responses. The “other” may be children of intermarriage raised with two religions, highly educated and engaged, culturally Jewish or simply people who have neither reneged their Judaism nor done anything to otherwise identify as Jewish.

Then there are “others” who grew up Jewishly involved but in nondenominational places such as BBYO chapters and campus Hillels, says sociologist Sylvia Barack Fishman. 

“They just don’t understand why you would want to break the Jews up in the different groups,” says Fishman, a Brandeis University professor and co-director of the Hadassah-Brandeis Institute.

For the most part, the “others” have not flocked to the organized Jewish scene, in part feeling unwelcome, says Diane Tobin, the San Francisco-based director of Be’chol Lashon (Hebrew for “In Every Tongue”), which supports racially and ethnically diverse Jews.

“Interpreting lack of denominational affiliation as lack of caring has negative repercussions and can become a self-fulfilling prophesy,” she says.

As Olitzky says, “If I am intermarried and grew up as a participating Jew, and then go to a local [Jewish] institution and am not welcome there, or my kids are not welcome there, why should I belong?”

The recent New York study, Tobin says, “suggests that people who are not affiliated with a particular religious tradition do not necessarily lack religious beliefs or practices.” She cites a 2007 Pew Forum study that found that nearly 44 percent of Americans change their religious affiliation at one point.

Some efforts have succeeded, Fishman says, pointing to formal Jewish education in the post-b’nai mitzvah years, including afterschool programs such as Prozdor in Boston, becoming involved in a Jewish youth group or attending a Jewish camp. Teens and young adults who do that are nearly as Jewishly connected as adults as those with a Jewish day school education, she says.

Some of the “others” are highly educated and very engaged Jews who don’t want to connect to one of the established movements. They are primarily in their 20s to 40s and involved in the independent and partnership minyans, such as Machon Hadar in New York and the D.C. Minyan in Washington. 

These minyans, with their high liturgical standards, have siphoned off what might naturally be the future leadership of the Conservative movement, Fishman points out. But observers agree that such initiatives are unlikely to become a trend outside of New York and other cities with high concentrations of Jewishly educated Jews.

Olitzky notes, “You don’t need to restrict yourself to Jewish institutions to engage Jewishly. There have been 300 startups in the Jewish community in the last 10 years. That doesn’t reflect less engagement. What it says is the institutions that exist are not meeting our needs.”

Fishman wants the organized community to better use cultural activities to target what she calls “emerging adults” — those in their 20s and early 30s. “Put energy into cultural programs, film festivals, Jewish music programs, where they can come on neutral turf and do Jewish things without making a big commitment,” she says.

Rabbi Avis Miller, who founded the Maryland-based Open Door Foundation, has been doing outreach for years. The operation reaches out to unaffiliated and marginally active Jews with classes about Judaism. Miller also twice chaired the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly committee on outreach and conversion.

There has been some success with cultural activities and other forms of communal outreach, she notes, "in reaching large numbers of young Jews who are not part of the denominational/institutional Jewish community, encouraging them to view being Jewish as one of their multiple identities.”

Miller cites such things as the Birthright Israel-Taglit free trips to Israel for young adults, free High Holidays service tickets, and other free programs at Jewish community centers and synagogues. However, she says, such outreach sometimes lacks depth, compounding the problem. 

“Much of non-Orthodox outreach seems to be a la carte — a rock concert or lecture with Jewish flavor, a bit of tikkun olam, a seder, a High Holy Day service, a Chanukah party, a taste of Jewish life without follow-up or depth,” she says. “To use a food metaphor, we seem to think that if we offer folks dessert first, they’ll come back clamoring for veggies.”

Underlying the problem is a communal system for delivering Jewish knowledge that often stops for families just after children become b’nai mitzvah, says Len Saxe, who directs the Steinhardt Social Research Institute and Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies at Brandeis.

“We currently have a Jewish education system that is a pediatric system; it is not sufficiently sophisticated,” Saxe says. “If we could change that, along with having programs like Taglit, we would be on our way.” 

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