The Unaffiliated Jew

The Unaffiliated Jew


Up until the eighteenth century, the greatest challenge to the survival of the Jewish people was the enmity of the non-Jewish world, expressed in periodic massacres, pogroms, and expulsions. Beginning at the end of the eighteenth century, however, the Jews in various countries were granted civil emancipation, making them citizens. It meant they could leave their ghettoes, both formal and de facto, and participate more freely in the economic, social, and political life of their country. This new freedom, however, has been accompanied by another challenge to Jewish survival. Detachment from close-knit Jewish communities has meant that Jews are free to choose to remain closely affiliated with other Jews, in either formal or informal structures, or to disassociate themselves from any affiliation at all. The openness of American society at the close of the twentieth century has led to a situation in which, according to research by Dr. Egon Mayer, 55 percent of American Jews have no affiliation a synagogue or other Jewish organization.

It was this concern with the crucial issues of Jewish survival and Jewish identity that led the International Institute a for Secular Humanistic Judaism to devote the first of its biennial colloquia on critical issues in the Jewish world to the topic, The Unaffiliated Jew. The International Institute is the educational arm of the International Federation of Secular Humanistic Jews, an umbrella organization that unites secular Humanistic Jewish communities throughout the world. By bringing together scholars, creative artists, writers, and community leaders to exchange ideas, it was hoped that the resulting discussions would lead to some fresh insights and new ways of thinking about the critical issues in the contemporary Jewish world.

From October 12 through October 15, 1995, some 250 people gathered in the Pivnick Center for Humanistic Judaism at the Birmingham Temple in the Detroit suburb of Farmington Hills, Michigan, for Colloquium ’95. The keynote address on opening Night was given by Shoshana Cardin, national vice chair of United Jewish Appeal, who underscored the need for pluralism in the Jewish community. In the next three days, eleven speakers gave prepared talks on the topic of the Colloquium, in each case followed by a dialogue with seven faculty members of the Institute. The audience was also invited to ask questions.

In addition to the speakers, there were several artistic events: an opening night photomural exhibit, ”Jewish Representational Art: the First 3,000 Years,” curated by Felice Pazner Malkin, a faculty member of the Institute and an artist who resides in Jerusalem; a poetry reading by Yehuda Amichai, Israel’s greatest living poet, on the second night; and a tribute to Joan Micklin Silver and a screening of Hester Street, the movie she directed.

The Colloquium topic, The Unaffiliated Jew, was divided into three segments, each dealing with a different aspect of the overall question. The first, “Who is the Unaffiliated Jew,” was addressed by Yehuda Bauer, Egon Mayer, Jenna Weissman Joselit, and Bernard Reisman. Dr. Bauer, Holocaust scholar and faculty member at Hebrew University, affirmed that the secular movement welcomes pluralism in Jewish life. Many of the unaffiliated have failed to find something of interest in Jewish organizations. The secular movement, he said, hopes to create programs to appeal to them.

Dr. Egon Mayer, director of the Jewish Outreach Institute at the Center for Jewish Studies at the Graduate School of the City University of New York, provided statistics on the unaffiliated Jew. The largest number of unaffiliated are those under thirty-five years of age; the most affiliated are those who had nine or more years of Jewish education. The single most defining factor in affiliation is intermarriage; the percentage of nonaffiliation where both partners are Jewish is 44 percent, for those in mixed households the number rises to 81 percent.

Jenna Weissman Joselit, a faculty member at New York University, gave a paper on “The Unsynagogued,” an historical look back to the early twentieth century in New York. Even then, Jewish leaders fretted about the loss of Jewish identity, especially when synagogues needed to hold their Yom Kippur services in hired hall because of the large numbers of Jews who attended service that one time in the year.

Dr. Bernard Reisman, professor in Contemporary Studies at Brandeis University, reported on his research among Jews who have moved to Alaska. Because they are few in number, they show a distinct need to create community with other Jews. Dr. Reisman asserted that Judaism, to continue, must concern itself with the feelings of isolation, hyper-individuality, loss of autonomy, and need for meaning experienced by modern Americans.

The second question for Colloquiums speakers to address was “Why be Jewish?” The respondents were Joel Feinberg, Norman Cantor, Anne Roiphe, and Andre Aciman. Dr. Joel Feinberg, Professor Emeritus of Philosophy and Law at the University of Arizona, defined the reasons some Jews have for affiliation and explained the different degrees of non-affiliation. Some Jews remain affiliated, he said, out of a sense of duty to the past. He suggested that Jews need a shared myth to sustain their identity.

Norman Cantor, historian from New York University, was the most controversial speaker, suggesting that Jews constitute a race. There were three reasons, he said, to be Jewish: the biological, the cultural, and the personal. He proposed that the Jews have contributed to twentieth century modern thought in disproportionate numbers because they possess a certain way of thinking that propels them to be especially analytical.

Anne Roiphe, novelist, essayist, and commentator on Jewish issues, answering the question in personal terms, detailed both her own wrestling with the question and that of her brother. In the end, she confessed, she needed to find some meaning to existence, basically a non-answer to the question. André Aciman, professor of French Literature at Princeton University, also spoke in highly personal terms. He attributed his disaffiliation from the Jewish community to his upbringing in a secular Sephardic community in Egypt. He faced the dilemma of the exile, he declared, needing to remember the past but not feeling it to be an integral part of his life.

The final topic addressed at the colloquium was Perspectives on the Twenty-first Century. The speakers were Egon Friedler, Yaakov Malkin, and Sherwin Wine. Egon Friedler, a distinguished journalist from Uruguay, felt it was important for the secular movement to reach out to the unaffiliated Jews and show them that it has a message that is relevant to their lives. Yaakov Malkin, a prominent Israeli scholar and Dean of the International Institute in Israel, proposed that Jewish identity is sustained not only by our history, our culture, and our sense of kinship, but also by the positive satisfaction we derive from being part of a community and of acting responsibly. Sherwin Wine, founder of the Society for Humanistic Judaism, founding rabbi of the Birmingham Temple, and Dean of the International Institute in North America, suggested a number of ways in which the secular Jewish community could serve the needs of the unaffiliated, such as counseling services, intensive weekend events, and magazines. The unaffiliated, he pointed out, are not homogeneous, and different segments need to have their own special requirements addressed.

The participants in the Colloquium, as well as the observers, expressed great satisfaction with the achievements of the weekend. There had been stimulating dialogue, important questions raised, and some provocative answers proffered. In fact, plans were already under way for Colloquium ’97.

The Institute has prepared this publication to enable of those who were not able to experience Colloquium ’95 first hand an opportunity to read some of the papers presented. We have included a selection of those speakers who had written out their talks in a form that could be readily put into print. We hope that you will find the talks that follow to be informative and provocative.