April 13, 2000
Cultural, unaffiliated and dot-com Jews: They all seek a meaningful connection
The trendy trappings of the new "cultural Judaism" are fun, but they cannot stand alone without another important element: connection.
And it's a search for connection that ties together young Jewish activists with the unaffiliated -- about whom so much has been written and for whom so much money is being spent.
This search for connection was the common element between both the core group of dedicated young Jewish leaders and unaffiliated spiritual seekers at a recent United Jewish Communities Young Leadership Conference in Washington. A singles scene mingled with political activism, last month's conference was where the established American Jewish leadership continued its attempt to speak the language of the young.
The stakes, as most involved American Jews have memorized by now as a mantra, are nothing less than the rescue of American Jewry from assimilation, intermarriage and apathy.
Conversations with the future American Jewish leaders at the conference, and with those on the fringes of Judaism, uncovered one common desire -- to connect their personal philosophies and lifestyles with their spiritual lives.
What they really want, they say, is to be connected with Judaism in a meaningful way. Some rediscover the wheel, going the scenic route by way of Eastern religions, "eco-Zionism," "cultural Judaism" and then back to the Judaism of their grandparents, but reshaping it to fit their needs.
For many, Jewish rituals, music, synagogue services, methods of raising money, even the way Jewish singles meet one another, will never be the same again.
To Stephen Solender, president and CEO of United Jewish Communities, the organized community's central fundraising and social service organization, the Jewish communal world needs to continue its discovery of what motivates younger Jews to feel connected, and open up the system to them.
"Their enthusiasm is contagious," Solender said, adding that it's up to the established leadership to channel that enthusiasm and ensure they become leaders in their local communities and integrate them into the UJC system.
What can unify the younger generation of Jews, Solender said, is the "collective satisfaction of being Jewish," and that can be achieved through shared cultural experiences spurred in part by the Jewish leadership.
These are individuals who grew up in a society where no doors were closed to them, with little anti-Semitism, he said, and their identity as Jews are both defined and threatened not by defense against attacks from the outside, but from cultural enthusiasm and constant questioning from within.
Almost universally, negative experiences in synagogues and supplementary religious education seem to have been the source of their rebellion.
Linda Freedman of Los Angeles used to go AWOL from Hebrew school when she was growing up. But now that she is in her late 30's, she is exploring Judaism again because, after many years studying other cultures, she can understand her own faith in a deeper way.
Like many, she's not looking to become more observant, simply more knowledgeable.
Although her journey of Jewish rediscovery has been gradual, what abruptly brought her to think about Jewish political activism was last summer's shooting at the North Valley Jewish Community Center in suburban Los Angeles, when a white supremacist opened fire on children attending a Jewish day camp.
She realized that there is a lot of work that needs to be done that doesn't involve her intense job at an Internet company, that she sees it as an integral part of her identity as a Jew to fight for things like stronger hate-crimes legislation.
Judaism "is a part of who you are, it's your essence, who you belong to, but not to the exclusion of being part of humanity," Freedman says.
Connection is also what the latest Jewish phenomenon is all about: the explosion of Jewish dot-coms.
"A lot of people are looking for a connection with the Jewish community and not finding it," says Harry Nelson, 32, CEO of allthingsjewish.com, an e-commerce site.
That, he says, is where the Internet has successfully stepped in, to help younger Jews stay connected with Judaism outside the federation and synagogue world, which has little meaning to them.
"What do they want?" asks Nelson of Washington. "They want more passion in their Judaism. They don't want a bloodless Judaism. They want a Judaism of song and dance."
Of course they also want someone with whom to share their newfound Jewish passion.
"Virtually every unmarried Jewish person I meet is using a dating site," Nelson says.
Although many may not admit it.
At a packed session on Jewish singles, panelist Jory Rozner, founder and CEO of the Jewish portal and dating site Zipple.com, asked for a show of hands on how many have placed or answered an online Jewish personal ad. Some nervously looked around the room to see if it was safe for them to raise their hands.
"Oh, I know you, you are all email@example.com," said Rozner, prompting knowing laughter.
Philip Raclyn, 46, who lives in the New York area, isn't ashamed of his online life.
Not only is he the president of JMates.com, he's also a client. He chats with Jewish women online and travels to far-flung parts of the world just to meet them, in case they're "the one."
Aside from its usefulness as a global singles bar, the Internet, he says, is what is making the Jewish community a community again.
The previous generation became dispersed, and lost their Judaism along the way, he says, adding that with the Internet, "all of a sudden we really are a tribe again, and I'm a part of it."
The problem, says Rozner, is that many have only a vague notion of what it means to be a member of that tribe. Many call themselves cultural Jews, but have little knowledge of Jewish culture.
She started Zipple because she thought it would be a cool way for Jews worldwide to stay connected. She soon learned that the Internet is more than just about dating, but about gaining inspiration and ideas from the way other Jews express their Judaism.
But Rabbi Jack Moline, spiritual leader of Congregation Agudas Achim in Alexandria, Va., warned that too much shopping around on the real or virtual worlds will ultimately remain unsatisfying.
If you think of the search for a Jewish mate as a salad bar -- a little of this and a little of that -- all you get is other people's germs, Moline said.
"But rabbi," complained one delegate at a singles-related forum, "why do I make bad choices?"
Moline replied, "Because you're spending too much time online."