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Generation F
Theological fluidity of young Jews posing tough challenge to Jewish institutions on eve of 2011; rash of new efforts to reach ‘drifters.’
Staff Writer
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Her grandparents — “cultural” Jews on one side of the family, more traditional on the other — came to the United States from the Old Country a century ago and didn’t change their level of religious observance (or non-observance) during their lives. Their spiritual lives were a straight line.

Her parents, newly married, moved to Westchester County in the early 1970s, joined a Reform temple and never left it. Their spiritual lives were also a straight line.

Abby Sher’s spiritual life is a curve.

Raised in her family’s Reform congregation, where she became bat mitzvah, Sher, now 37 and a resident of Brooklyn’s Park Slope neighborhood, would attend worship services sometimes during college and afterwards, sometimes not. “Usually Reform or Conservative,” she says. One of those denominations will probably be her choice when she and her husband join a synagogue soon, but, she says, “I’m open to any denomination that speaks to me.”

Over the years, she has taken to devoting chunks of her time — sometimes more, sometimes less — to personal prayer for her friends’ and her own needs.

An author and performer, Sher identifies as “Reform — Reform in progress,” but adds, “it changes every day. I’ve been a drifter,” theologically that is, Sher says.

When it comes to Jews her age, Sher is not alone. She and young Jews like her are an increasingly typical segment of American Jewry on the cusp of 2011.

Sher, unlike her parents’ or grandparents’ generation, but like members of her under-40 generation, is in theological flux, likely to change her Jewish identity, her formal affiliation and her level of Jewish observance or practice. According to statistical and anecdotal evidence, many American Jews, especially in their 20s and 30s, wear different Jewish hats until they find one — or, as is often the case, several — that feel comfortable.

Call it Generation F — for fluid.

The term post-denominationalism has been tossed around for probably a decade now, and Jewish institutions have been grappling for some time with how to respond to the trend, how to reach people like Abby Sher. But the new fluidity — fueled by new thinking about Jewish identity and the pervasive influence of the Internet — suggests a deepening of the trend, so that today the nature of community itself is undergoing a vast transformation. It’s yet another sign of the Open Source Judaism movement, which fosters the creation of cyberseders and individualized prayer books that afford greater personal control over one’s expression of Judaism.

“It’s a long-term trend, and it’s not just a Jewish phenomenon. It’s a general phenomenon,” says sociologist Steven M. Cohen, director of the Berman Jewish Policy Archive @ New York University’s Robert F. Wagner Graduate School of Public Service.

Representatives of several Jewish institutions agree.

“This past decade has seen a new trend: a marked shift away from sub-labels to a disinclination to categorize at all,” Rabbi Elie Kaunfer writes in “Empowered Judaism: What Independent Minyanim Can Teach Us about Building Vibrant Jewish Communities” (Jewish Lights Publishing, 2010). “No broad label works to identify people who are true to their own complex Jewish journey.”

The national movement to establish independent prayer groups, which are not formally tied to any branch of Judaism, a movement that Rabbi Kaunfer has spearheaded, has proven particularly attractive to Jews in their 20 and 30s. “A world without convenient categories is a world that calls on people to take more ownership of the type of Judaism they want to practice,” he writes.

New ways of thinking about Jewish identity are feeding the trend.

“There is a significant trend for emerging adults to break identity assumptions in an age where Jewish identity has become multiple and fractured,” says Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz, a founder of the Uri L’Tzedek Orthodox social justice movement who now serves as senior Jewish educator at the University of California at Los Angeles’ Hillel chapter.

Rabbi Daniel Brenner, who this month moves from his position as executive director of Birthright Israel NEXT to director of Initiatives for Boys and Men at the Philadelphia-based Moving Traditions organization, finds that “the fluidity in American Jewish life exists in a context of general decline in ideological commitment to religious and ethnically defined movements.

“The fluidity of young Jews in their thinking around movements is a product of multiple factors,” he says, including “the rise of Chabad,” the chasidic sect which offers a nonjudgmental, no-demands alternative to standard synagogue behavior, and “the democratizing impact of the Web.”

Young Jews are marrying later and starting families later, so they can push off the time to join a congregation for their children’s Jewish education. Some point to the Hillel experience in college — many chapters sponsor several prayer groups under the same roof at the same time as an attractive pluralistic model for post-college life. And there’s Birthright Israel, which introduces the Jewish state and intensive Jewish life to young American Jews in a non-denominational setting.

Others point to the differences between their formative years and their parents’ or grandparents’. The earlier generations, products of the Depression here or immigration from the former Soviet Union, sought a spiritual anchor; when they felt at home in a particular shul or denomination, they were unlikely to leave it.

Their children, raised in relative affluence, feel less tied to a single institution or form of Jewish expression; similarly, most have lived in several homes and worked in several jobs in the years after they finish college.

“It’s easier to move around. It’s more acceptable to experiment with what makes you comfortable,” says 24-year-old Rachel Cahn, who works as a program associate for Birthright Israel NEXT.

“I can be comfortable in a variety of [Jewish] settings,” says 27-year-old Jake Wilkenfeld-Mongillo, a Connecticut native who was raised Conservative but now calls himself “traditional egalitarian.” A communications associate for the Jewish environmental group Hazon, he is a member of an unaffiliated congregation in Park Slope, Brooklyn.

The denominations themselves are, to varying degrees, redefining themselves, embracing practices that represent a break from their collective past or from the Jewish lives lived by many of their members. The rabbinical association of the Reform movement recently published the first Reform guide to the Jewish dietary laws, stressing the kashrut laws’ ethical importance for congregants who largely do not follow them. The Conservative movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary is putting an increased emphasis on keeping the mitzvot, underlining for a self-defined halachic movement the value of the commandments that many members do not keep. Orthodox institutions, seeing a decrease in the percentage of Orthodox Jews in this country from about 15 percent a generation ago to less than 10 percent today, according to most surveys, have turned to the Internet, social media and coffee house-type events to attract disaffected Jews.

“Among liberal Jews … the boundaries are especially porous,” Central Synagogue’s Rabbi Peter Rubinstein said in his Rosh HaShanah sermon this year. “Synagogues no longer necessarily hire rabbis, cantors or educators trained at the denominational seminary of their movement. Small congregations are merging across denominational lines. Congregants are not choosing synagogues by denominational ideology.”

This phenomenon also characterizes the Orthodox community outside of the New York area, which tends to be “far less observant ... much more fluid,” says Steven Bayme, director of the Contemporary Jewish Life Department at the American Jewish Committee.

The key today is choice — options for a Jewish lifestyle are available today in this country that weren’t in earlier years.

There’s less “brand loyalty” to established synagogues or denominations, especially during the recent recession, observers in the Jewish community say.

The change, they say, is evolutionary not revolutionary, but this year saw a continued increase in the number of independent, unaffiliated minyans across the U.S., an expansion in the Synagogue 3000 Next Dor initiative that brings Jewish programming to young Jews in non-synagogue settings, and the release of a Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life survey that reported that about 40 percent of Americans of all ages had either dropped their religious affiliation or switched to another affiliation.

In Jewish terms, this usually means changing to another denomination, or adding or subtracting various Jewish rituals.

“There is a much greater openness to consider all aspects of ritual practice,” says Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the Union for Reform Judaism.

 Is this Jewish fluidity good or bad for the Jewish community?

Bad, short-term; good, long-term, most experts agree. “A double-edged sword,” the AJCommittee’s Steven Bayme says. “It’s probably not good for [contemporary] institutional life,” says Gilbert Kahn, professor of political science at Kean University in Union, N.J “At the end of the day, it will be good for the Jewish community, because it will bring more people in, it will keep more people affiliated.”

He likens this to the havurah movement 40 years ago, which formed worship and study groups outside the denominational framework, bringing new blood into the Jewish community.

“To the extent that we are talking about people who are moving away from identification, observance, and affiliation of any kind, it is clearly bad,” says Rabbi Yoffie. “But to the extent that Jews are saying that they will no longer let their upbringing define their Jewish outlook, and want to consider all Jewish options, this is good for the Jewish community — even if it may be troubling in the short term for established institutions.”

Douglas Rushkoff, professor of media studies at New York University and an observer of American Jewry who wrote “Nothing Sacred: The Truth about Judaism” (Crown, 2003), says “I see the trend as good, since I am one of those who believes that Jewish continuity is defined by this sort of engagement.

“I feel that practicing by rote leads to the calcification of the tradition — that emptiness of unfelt and poorly understood ritual that sends people beyond Judaism for a sense of connection and meaning,” Rushkoff says.

Recognizing the increasing fluidity, several Jewish organizations have developed new programs to reach out to young, spiritually searching Jews.

The fall 2010 issue of Reform Judaism magazine describes several such programs conducted by Reform congregations around the country, including the “Sinai in the City” project of Temple Sinai of Roslyn Heights, Temple Shaaray Tefila’s JeTSeT (Jewish Twenties and Thirties at Shaaray Tefila) initiative in Manhattan, and the Next Dor DC activities coordinated by Rabbi Esther Lederman at Temple Micah in Washington.

Next Dor (dor is Hebrew for generation), under the auspices of the non-denominational Synagogue 3000 organization, is one year old, featuring one-on-one encounters like Shabbat dinners and holiday celebrations in such settings as cafes and restaurants and participants’ homes. The goal, according to the Synagogue 3000 website, is, “a network of synagogue engagement [that] connects young people not just to stand-alone social or cultural events …. but to the institution of the synagogue.”

“The goal is not to build membership, but to build Jewish community,” Rabbi Lederman, who formerly served at Congregation B’nai Jeshurun in Manhattan, told Reform Judaism magazine. “We’re meeting people where they are.”

“They’re not going to come to us,” says Rabbi Jonathan Blake of the Westchester Reform Temple, a Scarsdale congregation that this summer began running Next Dor activities, with the help of a grant from UJA-Federation of New York, for young Jews, former members of the temple or children of current members, in Manhattan.

“We’re changing the paradigm,” Rabbi Blake says. “We need to create a synagogue without walls for synagogue engagement. There are people who want to engage in Jewish life. They just haven’t found out how.”

When these 20- and 30-somethings start raising families, they plan to give their children similar religious choices, they say. “Expose, not impose,” says Ruvym Gilman, the son of émigrés from the former Soviet Union who works as legal and business affairs manager for Birthright Israel NEXT.

His parents received no Jewish education in their homeland, so could not pass on Jewish traditions to him. A Birthright alum, Gilman has studied about Judaism; he will be able to give his children Jewish choices one day, he says.

Abby Sher, the mother of two infants, has the same philosophy. She has started to bring more Jewish practice, like Shabbat dinners, into her home.

The author of last year’s “Amen, Amen, Amen: Memoir of a Girl Who Couldn’t Stop Praying (Among Other Things)” (Scribner), Sher says her spiritual life is still a curve. As her children grow older she says, she will teach them about the Jewish choices she has made. “I hope I’m not dogmatic at all,” Sher says. “I hope they explore every avenue.”


Last Update:

01/05/2011 - 14:56
Abby Sher, Jewish continuity, Jewish life, Jonathan Blake, Judaism, Next Dor, Pew Forum, Reform Judaism
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As a rabbi of one of the Next Dor congregations (Temple Beth Sholom on Miami Beach) I'd like to share how much being part of the Next Dor experience has enriched our congregation. Our Next Dor-niks (otherwise known as The Tribe: are part of a grass roots effort of young adults to engage other young adults in Jewish (social/spiritual/cultural) living. Not only have the lives of the Next Dor-niks been enriched by The Tribe, but our congregation has been transformed and enriched by their leadership. While it's true that Generation F is fluid in affiliation, it is also true that they, like everyone, are seeking meaningful connections. If the synagogue can be a "home base" for young adults to connect, then Generation F may just stick around.
Rabbi Siegel: Yes, but. I have no argument with your assessment, but I do think that one has to actually *do* something specifically Jewish, whether or not that's belonging to a congregation. Particularly, I think that the Jewish "something" needs to be done as part of a Jewish community, however that's defined. I don't mean just playing cards with Jews, but rather doing something *as" a Jew in community, whether that's going to shul, doing some sort of community service project or studying something Jewish *with* other Jews or davening in some sort of community, even if it's in someone's living room or office. In my experiences as part of a tiny minority, I've found that Jewish life doesn't work well as a solo act.
Generation F The Jewish Week (Generation F, Steven Lipman, December 28, 2010) carried an interesting, thought provoking article about the generation of Jews in their 20’s and 30’s who seem to be in search of their Jewish identity. Profiling a young mother, a Park Slope resident, Sher, was interesting although nothing revealing or earth shattering struck me. As a matter of fact, not all that long ago, the young alienated Jews 70’s and 80’s, struggled with the same issues. Then as now young people, beginning their own households were in search of a direction by which their families would be defined Jewishly. Then, they were referred to as “seekers”. And they were! It was the age of the Jewish Catalogue and other self-help books on discovering Jewish traditions and how to “do” Shabbat etc. While there is nothing groundbreaking in this article it does give a new appreciation to the opening line of Ecclesiastes “ein chadsh tachat hashemesh”, there is nothing new under the sun. What is revealing is the realization that there are so many Jews out there who are still Jewish, in spite of their parent’s generation (seekers); a somewhat lost generation searching for Jewish meaning. With all the good intentions the article is flawed. It typifies the way institutional Judaism, such as federations and the denominations understand Judaism, and how people like Sher define herself through the prism of Judaism. For Sher as for Institutional Judaism, Judaism is defined as a religion like any other religious faith based group. As those religions offer the possibility of spirituality so too is Judaism expected to do the same. Denominational rabbis, in particular the reform and conservative pattern themselves in the same way, even referring to their work as a “ministry”. Judaism however, isn’t faith based, nor is it a religion, nor is its foundations spiritual. Judaism is peoplehood and covenantal. We are a nation, which happens to have folded within it rites and ritual by which we can express our fealty to god (for those who believe in god) and community. Up through the mid 19th century Judaism was accepted and understood universally not as a religion but as a nation. The Reform movement seeking entry and acceptance to the world at large, redefined Judaism as a religion, as any other religion. By doing this, they denuded Judaism to little more than synagogue worship and ritual, and in so doing removed the thorny issue of dual loyalty from the concerns of the overall gentile community. One doesn’t have to believe in god to be a good Jew and a pillar of the community. One doesn’t have to believe in or attend synagogue to be a good Jew and an upstanding member of the Jewish community. One only has to read nineteenth century Jewish thinkers like Simon Dubnow, Asher Ginsburg and Isaac Peretz who argued the merits of cultural Judaism as the sin qua non of Judaism. Unfortunately, people like Sher have been taught to believe that prayer (personal, private or otherwise) is the means of expressing one’s Jewishness. That simply isn’t the case! To be committed to the Jewish community and to identify with worldwide Jewry is to epitomize a wholesome Jew. To identify with the values of the Jewish community is to find expression as a Jew. To educate one’s children in the history, art, literature, Hebrew language and customs of Israel and the Jewish people is to be a committed Jew. Attending synagogue, praying in language and style that doesn’t resonate renders the worshiper restless. Praying to an objectified god as though He was in the business of doling out and calling in favors must leave one wondering if this is what Judaism is all about. Defining ones Jewishness by synagogue affiliation and membership invariably leaves one in the state of perpetual search. The perpetuation of the myth that Judaism is a religion of faith serves no one but those directly benefiting from it: rabbis, cantors and synagogue administrators. It is no wonder that Chabad is so successful in their work: they have reduced synagogue worship and membership to one facet of living Jewishly. It is no wonder that Shlomo Carlebach z”l, in his time was so successful in generating as generation of Jews that saw and felt the larger picture. We are a people, a nation with half of us living in Israel, and the rest of us living in the Diaspora. We aren’t exclusively seekers of things spiritual, but also of things cultural, social and political. There are those seeking and not finding spirituality in Judaism turning to other practices such as eastern meditative practices, Buddhism and Hinduism. That needn’t exclude these same people from staying within the Jewish community identifying totally and wholesomely with all things Jewish. Generation F is no different than the flower children of the 60’s and their spin-offs, the “seekers” of the 70’s and 80’s. Seeking and searching, because they had been robbed of their birthright: understanding that being Jewish was something greater than anything religion had to offer.
Sure, being a Jew is expensive. But every synagogue I have encountered has a venue for those who can't afford to pay full dues. It's not unusual for the administrator or the executive director of a synagogue to adjust dues down to $100 or $200, or even $36. You may have to disclose your personal financial information but that's the only way the administration can balance real need against those who have money but make synagogue membership a low priority and would therefore try to get away with a small donation. They would ask for reduced dues because "we don't use the temple". Meanwhile, the rabbi's salary is is in the 6 digit range as is the cantor's usually, and those salaries have to be paid. I've seen it time and again that people who are marginal members want to get a great experience on the High Holy Days, as if just coming ought to be enough participation to feel some kind of spiritual experience. The analogy would be to go to one opera a year and then be upset that you don't understand the meaning of the show. I urge you to sit down with the synagogue administrator and have a heart-to-heart talk.
Cafeteria Judaism has been around a long time. The Reform movement really is cafeteria Judaism on its face. After all we're not talking about fluid Masorti or fluid M.O. We're talking about yet another Reform or secular Judaism telling us to give them permission to incorporate and discard whatever they like whenever they like it. But that's not a new thing. What is new though is that they care what the rest of us think. It probably has something to do with how easy or difficult it is to formerly join a congregation less fluid than they are.
I don't think you can apply a very rigid binary of good vs. bad when you're talking about fluidity. It's incongruous, and makes you sound old. Just deal with it!
If you're searching for something that doesn't require membership fees or denominational identification, while at the same time, hungering for the authentic, with substance and meaning, try the following on for size: and Enjoy the surf!
Fluidity is not new. My paternal grandfather (who arrived on these shores from the Pale of Settlement in 1881) was an atheist. His son, my grandfather, rebelled and became Modern Orthodox. My parents, who raised me and my siblings as Reform Jews, now consider themselves atheists. Like me, my wife was also raised in Reform Judaism, but we have been Conservative Jews for the past quarter century and occasionally attend an egalitarian liturgically very traditional independent minyan where most of the worshippers are 20-30 years younger than we are. Two nephews and two nieces became bnei-mitzvah in Conservative synagogues. Maybe the pendulum has reached equilibrium in the middle.
I can relate to Anonymous who explained how it is too expensive to be a practicing Jew. This was my experience as a child, during the Depression, and it did affect me. However when I married and had four children, we made an effort to join a Conservative Temple and our children experienced that but not much more. Our older daughter was confirmed, the younger had a Bat Mitzvah, both sons had Bar Mitzvahs. Only the younger daughter remained interested in our religion and is raising her two daughters that way. Both sons prefer to be "main stream Americans" and our older daughter, married and childless, is placid about religion. Our younger daughter attended Jewish camps, on scholarships, which she loved and that may have influenced her positively. I never felt we could afford to pay for the others to attend Jewish camp, since we were saving for university for all four. They did go to Girl Scout, Y and city camps, all more affordable but non-religious.
@Anonymous on Wed, 12/29/2010 - 13:52 I can't believe you are actually required to pay to attend Jewish services! What kind of blasphemy is that? I work at a Jewish university and had absolutely no idea. Willful tithing is one thing (and a great thing it is!), but that just seems wrong. At my place of worship everyone has been more than willing to buy my family groceries, offer significant help with bills, and even gave my mother a car for free once! I'm not sure if what you described is normal, but you should be looking for another community to be a part of; perhaps entirely different from what you're used to. Deuteronomy 15:7 "If there is among you a poor man of your brethren, within any of the gates in your land which the LORD your God is giving you, you shall not harden your heart nor shut your hand from your poor brother" Deuteronomy 15:11 "There will always be poor people in the land. Therefore I command you to be openhanded toward your brothers and toward the poor and needy in your land." May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing
Dear Anon.: Things may be different where you live, but out here in Flyoverland, one doesn't have to pay to attend Jewish services, at least not in any congregation with which I'm familiar. Becoming a synagogue *member* brings with it an obligation to pay dues; neither synagogues nor churches run on air. But to walk in and pray? Who is going to demand to see a membership card on any Friday night or Saturday morning? Large synagogues in my metropolitan area issue tickets for Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur services. Members get them free; non-members are expected to pay. (Tickets are a way to assure that members can get in on the crowded days, that there's a reasonable balance of attendance among the several services, and, sadly now, for security.) My Conservative congregation has an expected amount of dues per membership (the building has to be run, the staff has to be paid, and dues help assure an ability to create a budget), but it is quick to say that no one is denied membership because of inability to pay. Those for whom the expected dues are a hardship or impossible can have a confidential session with the executive director for an adjustment. We *want* people to affiliate and to attend services. So do the other synagogues in this metro area, and I'd be willing to bet that every single congregation has apolicy similar to that of my shul.
If only it didn't cost so much to join a synagogue. My financial situation does not allow me to join and even calling to explain the situation to them they still require a fee for the high holidays, which I cannot afford. The more I miss, the further I feel from Judaism and the further I am from observing and remembering. I'd love to bring my daughter, but we only have one synagogue within a 50 mile radius of our town (so different from where I grew up on Long Island) and they succeeded in making me feel even further from my roots. It is too expensive to be Jewish and the way everyone talks I feel like I am the only poor Jewish person out there. My daughter will most likely not be able to attend Hebrew school like I did and everything she knows about Judaism will come from our small celebrations at home, when I have to Google stories and customs because I have forgotten so much.
Did you try calling Chabad? They will not charge you.
I can relate to the notion of fluid identify, base on my own personal experience growing up loyal to Refom Jewish summer camp, pluralistic BBYO youth group experience, Shabbatot at Hillel, and then deepening my Hebrew and Jewish knowledge living in Israel. Now I affiliate with three different prayer communities, a Renewal congregation, a traditional egalitarian minyan and a Reconstructionist shul. Beyond my personal experience, as a professional I head Mayyim Hayyim Living Waters Community Mikveh and Education Center in Newton, MA. ( We are committed to "open source" Judaism. We warmly welcome visitors from across the spectrum of Jewish life for a personal, private ritual. By prioritizing the values of inclusiveness and welcome along with kashrut and halacha, Mayyim Hayyim can successfully provide a meaningful, Jewish experience with integrity and sensitivity. Our volunteer mikveh guides are trained to meet the needs of whomever enters our building, and through social media and national conferences we are able to meet people who need our services elsewhere. The result is that the younger people described in the article come, as do their parents and their children. When the experience offered is a high quality, personally meaningful one, people take advantage of it. Mayyim Hayyim provides the space, the pool and the welcome, our visitors are empowered to own the experience. That makes them want to come back.

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