Disaffiliated Jews

There are thousands of disaffiliated Jews in the Jewish world.

I do not mean “unaffiliated” – those who have aged out of their parents’ memberships have not yet chosen a synagogue of their own (which they will eventually), or those whose children are post-Jewish education (Bar/Bat Mitzvah or beyond) who have drifted away from synagogue life, or those who create their own havurot or family co-op Sunday Schools. “Disaffiliated Jews” means they have signed out, signed off, turned away from Jewish connection – they have actively chosen to disconnect.

There may be many reasons for disaffiliation: some left a very insular ultra-Orthodox community and became just as true non-believers (or even anti-believers) as they had been fanatically faithful. Some had very painful experiences with emotional, physical or sexual abuse and the complicity of Jewish authorities in the event or its subsequent denial has turned them off to all of Judaism. For all of the commendable openness today of liberal Judaism to interfaith families, an entire generation was told their love was wrong, their families were rejected, and their children were pushed away from Jewish community. Given their parents’ rejection, these now-adult children of intermarriage may have reasoned that their own Jewishness should be private, or even none at all.

But I suspect that the most common path to disaffiliation is a gradual evolution from religious tradition to secularizaion. Being raised Orthodox, Conservative or Reform, they have been told over and over that Judaism is about God (prayer and belief), Torah (revelation and commandment) and Israel (God’s chosen people and land). But what if they question whether there is a god that does what tradition claimed, or even whether there is a god at all? Maybe they saw a human tragedy or natural disaster that challenged their faith in divine providence and love. Or they took a class or read a book about another religious tradition and realized that religions are all responding to the same human condition based on human experience, knowledge and wisdom (or mishegas/foolishness), even if they put their words into a god’s mouth or a prophet’s pen. If the only way they know to be Jewish is to be religious, they reason, they must not be Jewish if they are no longer religious, even if they still love Jewish food, Jewish music, Jewish history, Jewish language, and their Jewish family.

This is why a viable secular, cultural and Humanistic Judaism is so important for a vibrant Jewish future. These “disaffiliated Jews” need to know that there is a space for them in the Jewish world as cultural Jews. And not just theoretical space: communities and ceremonies and even leaders and rabbis who respect and share their secular values and their cultural Judaism.

What makes someone Jewish? The most traditional definition is not an affirmation of faith or a lifestyle of ritual practice; it is a matter of birth. Jewish is who you are, not what you believe or do not believe, eat or do not eat. As I wrote in response to a Moment magazine essay contest in response to “What does it mean to be Jewish without belief in God?”:

If the only ways to be Jewish demand a belief in God, Judaism is in trouble….
If the way we live our lives and make sense of the universe focuses on human needs, human justice, human knowledge and human responsibility, then a Judaism beyond God is not only possible; it is necessary.
Let us find each other, and then let us find the courage to create a Judaism in OUR image.

The first step to appealing to “disaffiliated Jews” is to accept them for who they are, and to empower them to create their own Jewish re-connections. The sooner and the stronger they hear that message, the stronger and the larger the Jewish community will become.

About Rabbi Adam Chalom

Adam Chalom is the Rabbi of Kol Hadash Humanistic Congregation in north suburban Chicago. He is also the Dean for North America of the International Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism.
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3 Responses to Disaffiliated Jews

  1. Joan Lichterman says:

    You say “If the way we live our lives and make sense of the universe focuses on human needs, human justice, human knowledge and human responsibility, then a Judaism beyond God is not only possible; it is necessary.” I grew up in a secular household, but one that was steeped in the moral precepts of the Wisdom of the Fathers. While growing up, at 2-3 points I was troubled about who I was — where I belonged — in the general scheme of things. I didn’t feel comfortable in any church or synagogue I visited, and as an atheist the thought of worshiping God never held any meaning. I was in the labor Zionist movement for a while, attracted primarily by the Socialism and only tangentially by a feeling of belonging. (However, I ultimately rejected that as being too narrow, and as I’ve aged I’ve developed more sympathy for the Palestinian people.) Once I heard the Talmudic story about the question the nonbeliever asked of both Shamai and Hillel, I realized I didn’t need anything else. “Do not do unto others what you would not have others do unto you. That is the law. All the rest is commentary.” If I felt the need to stay in the fold, the last line — “Now go read and think” — would have some value. But I have a much wider humanist community that includes all people, not just Jews. I identify first and foremost as a human being, then as a woman, then as an American (like it or not). Somewhere down the list is as a Jew. My beliefs are necessary to my life, but identification as a Jew doesn’t feel necessary.

  2. J. Alongi says:

    I wish the local Humanist Judaism group here in Portland had more going for it. Wish we had a leader, or rabbi to inspire us disaffiliated jews to meet and rejoice in our culture and to to good works together.

  3. Pingback: Why be Jewish AND Humanist? Yom Kippur 5775 | Shalom from Rabbi Chalom

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