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Ellen Frankel

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Jewish 'Nones' and the Question of Choice

Posted: 04/09/2013 4:31 pm

In the fall of 2012, the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life found that one-fifth of the U.S. population -- and one-third of the adults under the age of 30 -- identified themselves as religiously unaffiliated. These percentages are the highest the Pew Research Center polling has ever seen. While there are many hypotheses about what these numbers represent, and why this trend is increasing -- especially among the younger population -- the notion of choice and options is important to address in organized religion.

I grew up in a one-size-fits-all Judaism that, in fact, fit very few. There was one service to attend, one way to pray, and little if any room to experiment with other ways to connect to the sacred. Yet, from a young age, I was a seeker, yearning for a connection with the Divine and hungry for spiritual sustenance. When I was 11 years old, I used my allowance to buy a copy of the New Testament. Word of my reading the Four Gospels spread to my Sunday school teacher at my synagogue, and soon after to the rabbi himself. He walked into our class and said to me, "Christians believe that Jesus is the Son of God, but Jews don't believe that. What do you believe?" I remember my heart pounding but I met his eyes and said, "I thought we were all the children of God." He did not look pleased. (Nor did the rabbis later on in my life who discouraged my interest in Buddhism.) I experienced the synagogues of my youth and adulthood as uninspired, offering just one door to walk through, and one way to walk though it. I, like so many others, as the recent poll reveals, simply walked out.

We live in a society that demands choice. Remember years ago, when your choice of coffee consisted of regular or decaf? Compare that to the coffee shops of today where the myriad of options has become a language unto itself. We no longer have neighborhood movie theaters, showing just one or two feature films, but Cineplexes showing several different movies all under one roof. Those venues insisting on a one-size-fits-all model have failed or are barely surviving, while those places offering choice are thriving. This is true in our synagogues and churches today, as well. How many of the 20 percent of the religiously unaffiliated have walked away because there have been too few options to walk into? And what of the one-third of religiously unaffiliated under 30, who grew up in an era where choice in all areas of life is a given? If people don't feel that they are seen for who they are, for what they bring, and for their inclinations in how they pray, then it's understandable that they will choose to walk away.

At Congregation Shirat Hayam (CSH) in Swampscott, Mass., membership is up and the synagogue is thriving. On a typical Saturday morning, there are between 200 and 500 worshippers celebrating Shabbat in a way that speaks to their hearts, minds and spirits. Under the leadership of Rabbi Baruch HaLevi, a vision of an inspired Judaism has blossomed where the tent flaps have been opened and people are invited to walk in on their terms, and in ways that speak to who they are and what they seek. Members include both Jews and non-Jews, and people are invited to share both their journeys and beliefs adding to the deep spiritual atmosphere of the synagogue. Though part of the Conservative movement, the synagogue moves beyond labels and often identifies itself as being part of the Under-constructionist movement; that is, it is a work in progress, similar to the idea that we all are works in progress as we continue to evolve. Drawing on the concept of choice, CSH offers a weekly Synaplex on Shabbat, where members and non-members alike can choose from various options of service and prayer all under one roof. There is a traditional service offered for those who prefer the traditional framework for prayer. At the same time, there is a meditation offered reflecting the early mystics of old, where there is an opportunity to sit in quiet reflection before prayer. As the traditional Torah service continues down the hall, there is a Renewal Minyan offering where people can focus on certain portions of prayers through chanting and drumming and where readings from other traditions that reflect the Torah portion for that week are often shared. Following these options, as the traditional service continues, there is the choice of a Torah study hosted by a visiting rabbi or scholar, or Torah yoga, for those who connect with body prayer, where the yoga poses and postures of the day are infused with intention based on the weekly Torah Parsha.

During these morning options, there is a Shabbat café in the lobby of the synagogue with coffee and pastry and an opportunity to sit, eat and simply talk and connect with others. Rather than a place and space to pass through en route to somewhere else, it can serve as a destination in its own right, allowing for connection with one another, a desire that many people are searching for within their community. After the Torah study and Torah yoga options conclude, people come together for the healing service offered in the ongoing service in the sanctuary, followed by the rabbi's sermon and then the Ruakh Rally featuring the Ruakh Rally Band, where the congregation joins in a rousing and spirited song and dance session before heading into a full, sit-down lunch.

The morning is fluid, with people coming and going, flowing into one form of worship to another, with no dress code and with full permission to stay for all or just part of the Synaplex offerings.

The one-fifth of the population that chooses to remain religiously unaffiliated will have many reasons to do so. But how many of those unaffiliated, and how many of the 33 percent under 30 who are religiously unaffiliated want a spiritual community where their individual journeys are welcomed into community with an understanding that people need options for how they connect to each other, themselves and the sacred?

In a world that demands options, religious institutions would do well to reexamine the experience presented inside its walls. When new choices are offered that speak to the rooted values of the tradition, nothing is lost while much is gained. And maybe some of those who have walked away because of too many closed doors will find options of pathways leading inside to the heart and spirit of their faith.

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