I was at another gathering of intelligent Jews committed to Jewish life, identity and spirituality, all of them networking and talking about the issues that brought us together, when I heard a familiar sentence. “I’d lived on the Upper West Side for nearly 20 years before I found the perfect one.”
The sentiment landed in my ears as a quintessentially singles kvetch — the quest for the perfect mate and the frustration about how long it could take. Swiveling to face the speaker, I recognized her, realized that she was married, and that her contextual “perfect one” in question was not a single, but a synagogue.
Given the environment, it totally made sense. The meeting in question involved a group of Jewish writers, thinkers and researchers who had gathered to hear some preliminary findings from a 2007 National Spiritual Communities Study, “Emergent Jewish Communities and Their Participants. The study was sponsored by the S3K Synagogue Studies Institute and by Mechon Hadar, an Institute for Prayer, Personal Growth and Jewish Study that itself emerged from such an independent spiritual community. The study surveyed some 80-plus communities, all of which were founded after 1996 and that exist outside of formal denominational affiliation. (The results of the survey are at www.jewishemergent.org/survey.)
The statement about the “perfect one” stuck in my mind. While it expressed a fact about today’s Jewish community — that we’re looking at the concept and its structure differently — it also worked on a singles level. Many people play the field before settling down with a monogamous lifestyle. But on a spiritual level, the quest for an independent community that better fits your needs is a more specialized search that JDate can’t fulfill. You’re looking for one synagogue to fill your spiritual needs. You could even call it “monogoguamy.”
People have called the 20s-40s generation spoiled, that we always expect things to be tailored to our needs. But this quest for something better and more personalized doesn’t come from a sense of entitlement; it comes from a central repository of independent spirit and innovation. We live like technology, not in ever-fixed marks, but in desktops and lifestyles that can be customized hourly, down to the last icon. If we need something that doesn’t exist, we take our acquired skills, purchase a domain name and invent it on our own. If we don’t have the skills, we comb our networks for the people who do, or for the places that can teach them to us.
It’s revolution, not with ‘60s-style sit-ins and student takeovers of campus administration buildings, but with modular movement, creativity and gumption. It’s a declaration of independence not from spirituality, prayer, tradition or community, but from the structures that restrict more personal connections with those ideas. It’s a search for community intimacy, aided by Google.
The S3K/Hadar study indicates that 45 percent of the rabbi-led emergent communities and an astounding 81 percent of independent minyanim consist of people under 40. Two-thirds of the members of such communities are female. And while the oft-cited National Jewish Population Study of 2000-2001 indicated that 68 percent of synagogue members are married, the percentage is much lower in emergent communities: in independent minyanim, it’s 51 percent; in rabbi-led emergent communities, 64 percent; and in alternative emergent communities, 27 percent.
What might the amateur singles anthropologist unscientifically glean from this survey and these numbers? That people under 40 are looking for something smaller, a way to discern the substance from all of the other stimuli in their lives? That women are more likely to commit to community intimacy than men? That after singles “play the field” with other synagogues and multiple memberships, they reach a point when it’s time to settle down? That today’s synagogues may not be as “under-40-friendly” as they might imagine they are?
While five of the 15 communities with the most survey respondents were in NYC, others were in Los Angeles, Washington, D.C., San Francisco, Boston, Seattle, Denver and Scottsdale, indicating that the quest for alternative spiritual solutions is not an outgrowth of New York City alone. In the spiritual and singles abundance of Jewish communities worldwide, there may be so much choice that even years or decades of cruising the asphalt jungle may not provide “the perfect one.”
Whether questing for a spouse or for a synagogue, traditional-minded Jews are looking for the same thing: the chance to connect with an entity whose values are, if not identical, at least complementary to their own. When they find a community (or person) that’s really special, they become more willing to compromise on the things that aren’t really that important, because for the most part, it’s a match.
Esther D. Kustanowitz, although between shuls right now, finds herself drawn to emergent communities and, at heart, knows that she’s synagoguamous. You can contact her at email@example.com.
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