When it comes to living a meaningful Jewish life, what is the biggest problem, challenge or situation you are facing?
This is the question we asked in the Judaism Unbound Listener Survey in 2018. The results and details of the survey were published recently in an eJewish Philanthropy article, that I co-wrote with Estee Solomon Gray. You can read here.
The Judaism Unbound Listener Survey helped us identify 5 primary challenges that prevent people form living a meaningful Jewish life. In this post, we’ll take a deeper look at the five buckets, categories that together capture over 80% of the challenges shared by the respondents.
As practitioners of Mussar, our job is to, as Rabbi Ira Stone teaches, “bear the burden of the other.” These bucket descriptions do not capture the deep emotionality of the responses. As leaders and humans, we need to do better. For each bucket, there is a suggested Mussar practice to help us do just that.
Judaism Unbound Listener Survey Uncovered 5 Challenges:
1. Institution not working for me: My Jewish institution has a wall of no change, there are few people my age at events, or I am not taken seriously.
While there were people of many ages who fit into this bucket, there were so many people under 40 that we almost wrote “I am not taken seriously by the older generation.” It is not a secret that synagogue membership skews towards an older demographic, many of whom lament that more young people don’t join. The reality is that some younger people are just not connecting with the way things have been done, and when they make suggestions for change, they are not taken seriously.
One Soul Trait we can embrace to overcome this barrier is courage. Change is scary, and we should not let fear drive us to arrogant or dismissive behavior.
2. Minority within a minority: I don’t fit the shared criteria of what being Jewish is because of how I look, my gender identity/Queerness, my views on Israel or US Politics, or I just don’t feel Jewish enough.
There are really two parts to this bucket. Sometimes people feel like a minority because of what they believe, such as being the only Trump supporter in the conversation, or they are the only one who does not support Israel. The other people in this bucket are different because of who they are, a person of color or Queer. Yet the isolation and othering they experience is similar.
The solution to othering is to practice the soul trait of Honor. By focusing on the basic humanity of each individual, we can overcome differences that inhibit connection and community
3. Isolated: I am feeling isolated geographically, within my family, or as an unpartnered Jewish person.
This bucket was a bit of a surprise. Maybe it shouldn’t have, as there is a loneliness epidemic in the US. But because I live in an area with a large Jewish population and in a family where everyone is Jewish, this issue was not on my radar. Lex Rofeberg on the Judaism Unbound podcast is a big champion for people in small communities. For people in this bucket, perhaps the podcast is their biggest connection to other Jews. It has also made me recognize how many people come to the synagogue alone because their spouse or partner is not interested.
Note that the people in this bucket found that the isolation made it hard to live a meaningful Jewish life. As it says in the Torah “it is not good for a [human] to be alone.” (Genesis 2:18). The soul trait we can practice to help overcome this barrier is Generosity, giving our time to build relationships with people who are looking for community.
4. Entering or reentering: I am Jewish-adjacent, converting, or trying to discover what Judaism is about because I had a poor Jewish education.
So many people in this bucket said they did not feel Jewish enough. This is a terrible plague on our community. Another way this can come up is people feeling like they they are a “Bad Jew” because they don’t know something they think they should know, or because they do not participate in a ritual they think they “should” be participating in.
The reality is that Judaism is a practice of lifetime learning. The most learned Rabbi on the planet only knows a small fraction of what there is to know Jewishly.
The soul trait we can practice to overcome this barrier is Compassion. We want to remember what it feels like to be the one who doesn’t know what to ask. And similarly, we need to be compassionate with ourselves if we are concerned that we don’t know enough.
5. Multiple Jewish Spaces: My Jewishness is bigger than any label. I move in multiple Jewish spaces and sometimes feel caught between worlds. Even if I look and sound connected, I feel like I’m muddling along without community.
There are confusing times. Rabbi Benay Lappe teaches that Judaism is undergoing a crash; what has worked for a long time is no longer working. After a crash comes a time of wandering and experimentation. In fact, today is a golden age of Jewish experimentation. Many people are experimenting on the margins; some of whom in 100 years will be towards the center. I for one love to go to different Jewish spaces, but multiple spaces dilutes the opportunity to form deep community bonds at any of them.
The soul trait we can practice to help with this barrier is Gratitude. We can be Grateful for whomever shows up. And if we are lucky enough to have multiple spaces to occupy, we should “recognize the good and give thanks.” Recognizing the good in what we have opens the door to a greater openness to put down roots, even if each place itself is imperfect.
What do you think of the results of the Judaism Unbound listener survey? Which of these buckets resonate with you? What soul trait will you focus on?
Want me to do a survey for your organization? Learn more here.