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HERITAGE FLORIDA JEWISH NEWS, JANUARY 7, 2011 PAGE 19A By Steve Lipman New York Jewish Week 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 obser- vance (or non-observance) dur- ing 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 Re- form 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 Conserva- tive." 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 obser- vance or practice. According to statistical and anecdotal evidence, manyAmericanJews. 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-denomi- nationalism 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 think- ing about Jewish identity and the pervasive influence of the Internet--suggests a deepen- ing of the trend, so that today the nature of community itself is undergoing a vast transfor- mation. 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 at NewYork 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 disinclina- tion to categorize at all." Rabbi Elie Kaunfer writes in "Em- powered Judaism: What Inde- pendent 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 be- come multipleand fractured," says Rabbi ShmulyYanklowitz. a founder of the Uri L'Tzedek Orthodox social justice move- ment who now serves as semor Jewish educator at the Univer- sity of California at Los Angeles' Hillel chapter. Rabbi Daniel Brenner. who last month moved from his position as executive director of Birthright Israel NEXT to direc- tor of Initiatives fo!r Boys and Men at the Philadelphia-based Moving Traditions organiza- tion, 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 thinkingaround move- ments is a product of multiple factors." he says, including "the rise of Chabad." the chasidic sect that offers a nonjudgmen- tal. 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 educa- tion. 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 Birth- right Israel, which introduces the Jewish state and intensive Jewish life to young American Jews in a non-denominational setting. Others point to the differ- ences between their formative years and their parents' or grandparents'. The earlier gen- erations, products of the De- pression 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 ex- periment with what makes you comfortable," says 24-year-old Rachel Cahn. who works as a program associate for Birth- right Israel NEXT. "i can be comfortable in a variety of [Jewish] settings," says 27-year-old Jake Wilken- feld-Mongillo, a Connecticut native who was raised Conser- vative 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 them- selves are, to varying de- grees, redefining themselves. embracing practices that represent a break from their collective past or from the Jewish lives lived by many of their members. The rabbini- cal association of the Reform movement recently published the first Reform guide to the Jewish dietary laws. stress- ing the kashrut laws' ethical importance for congregants who largely do not follow them. The Conservative movement's Jewish Theological Seminary is putting an increased em- phasis 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 percent- age of Orthodox Jews in this country fromabout 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 po- rous." Central Synagogue's Rabbi Peter Rubinstein said in his most recent Rosh HaSha- nah sermon. "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 char- acterizes the Orthodox com- munity 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--op- tions for a Jewish lifestyle are available today in this country that weren't in eadier years. There's less "bnnd loyalty" to established syragogues or denominations, especially during the recen recession, observers in the wish com- munity say. The change, hey say, is evolutionary not reolutionary, but this year saw t continued increase inthe nunberofinde- pendent, unaffiliated minyans across the U.S an pansion in the Synagogue 30 0 Next Dor initiative that brngs Jewish programming to 7oung Jews in non-synagogue, ttings, and the release ofa Pe v 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 der~omination, 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 c )mmunity? Bad, short term; good, long term, mostexperts agree. "A double-edged sword," the AJCommittee's Steven Bayme says. "It's probably not good for [contemporary] institutional life," says Gilbert Kahn, profes- sor of political science at Kean University in Union, N.J "At the end of the day, it will be good for the Jewish community, be- cause it will bring more people in, it will keep more people affiliated." He likens this to the ha- vurah 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 identifica- tion, observance and affiliation of any kind, it is clearly bad," says Yoffie. "But to the extent that Jews are saying that they will no longer lettheirupbring- ing define their Jewish outlook, and want to consider all Jewish options, this is good for the Jew- ishcommunity evenifitmay be trdubling 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 continu- ity 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 connec- tion and meaning," Rushkoff says. Recognizing the increasing fluidity, several Jewish orga- nizations have developed new programs to reach out to young, spiritually searching Jews. The fall 2010issue of Reform Judaismmagazine describes several such programs con- ducted by Reform congrega- tions around the country, including the "Sinai in the City" project of Temple Sinai of Ro- slyn 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), undertheauspices of the non-denominational Synagogue 3000 organiza- tion, 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," Leder- man, who formerly served at Congregation B'nai Jeshurun in Manhattan, told Reform Judaismmagazine. "We're meetingpeoplewhere they are." "They're notgoingtocome to us," says Rabbi Jonathan Blake of the Westchester Reform Temple, a Scarsdale cOngrega- tion that this summer began running Next Dor activities, with the help of a grant from UJA-Federation of NewYork, for young Jews, formermembers of the temple or children of cur- rent members, in Manhattan. "We're changing the para- digm,"Blake says. "We need to create a synagogue without walls for synagogue engage- ment. 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 gmigrgs from the former Soviet Union whoworks 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 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: Mem- oir 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." Steve Lipman is a staff writer for the New. York Jewish Week, from which this article was reprinted by permission. 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