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Forget Orthodox Or Reform. “Just Jewish” Is The Future Of American Jewry

There’s been a lot of hand-wringing about the future of the American Jewish community, both in Israel and in the U.S. A 2013 Pew Research Center found that the largest number of Jews identified as Jews of no religion, or Just Jewish, which launched tens of opeds lamenting disappearing Jews.

This is a terrible approach. “Just Jewish” young adults acknowledge their Jewishness, and it is often important to them. But because they feel uncomfortable in synagogues or Jewish organizations, they have difficulty incorporating Jewishness into their lives. They perceive a lack of viable alternatives, while Jewish communities are often unaware of them as they are difficult to spot and difficult to define. They are often dismissed as “cultural” or “assimilated” Jews.

Unfortunately, such labels define their distance from Judaism rather than their different connections to Judaism. Dissociated from the formal obligations of the Reform, Conservative, or Orthodox denominations, they often find themselves adrift in a secular sea.

Instead of lamenting this group of Jews, the Jewish community should be learning about them, understanding them and celebrating them. In ignoring them, the American Jewish community is hastening its own decline.

My first brush with Jews who didn’t identify with any main stream of Judaism came in 2016, when I was serving as an IDF soldier accompanying students from Brown University on a Birthright trip to Israel. Many of the students on the trip had rejected the traditional Jewish denominations and defined themselves as “Just Jewish.” My interest was piqued.

Since then, I have met lots of “Just Jewish” young adults, many of whom I interviewed for my undergraduate thesis. And through these encounters, I have come to grasp the breadth and depth of this substantial group. Not only should they not be a source of hand-wringing, but it’s high time the Jewish community recognized their importance to the future of American Jewry.

The term “Just Jewish” has appeared in Jewish population surveys since 1979. But it has become more substantial in recent years. In the 2013 Pew Research Center Survey, “Just Jewish” Jews made up fully 27% of all U.S. Jews. But that number almost doubled for Jews between 18 and 29 years of age, to 41%.

“Just Jewish” was and remains by far the largest group of young Jewish adults, and it is expected to become even larger in the future. Whether American Jewry grows or shrinks likely depends on the Jewish involvement of these young adults, their choice of spouses, and the education of their children.

This is not to say that they are uniform. The “Just Jewish” young adults I interviewed came from a wide variety of backgrounds. Typically, they had minimal Jewish practice growing up. While they celebrated Hanukkah and Yom Kippur in some form, most did not practice Shabbat or keep Kosher.

Others, however, were more unusual. Some started out ultra-Orthodox and are now secular, while others began secular, but currently keep Shabbat and Kosher as young adults, yet still chose the “Just Jewish” definition because their mother is not Jewish, which is required by Jewish law.

Despite their differences, all these different kinds of Jews considered themselves “Just Jewish.”

The Jewish community needs to stop seeing Just Jewish Jews as a problematic category. Quite the opposite is true: “Just Jewish” is a denomination unto itself. Rather than seeing “Just Jewish” as the abdication of Jewish identity, we need to start thinking about these Jews as possessing a unique form of Jewishness.

Especially for those concerned with Jewish continuity, it is essential to learn about and embrace this denomination in an active way, and not only because is it the largest denomination.

Research shows that Jewish choices tend to wane over time if they are not cultivated. A 2015 Post-Birthright Survey by Brandeis University noted a substantial decline in Jewish choices by Birthright alumni over 30. Topics such as Jewish practice, a Jewish spouse, and Jewish children were much less important for Birthright alumni over 30 than for Birthright alumni who were under 30.

The alumni over 30 were most similar to those who had never attended Birthright, while those in their mid-twenties were most connected to Judaism and to Israel, a connection which could potentially grow, if nurtured, and will wane if it isn’t.

And yet, there are few cultural spaces set up to do this nurturing.

Take for example Suzanne, a 23 year old who lives in Massachusetts and defines herself as “Just Jewish.” She was not raised Jewish and had no early Jewish education. She began her Jewish studies on her own in high school and continued in college. She went to Israel with Birthright, had her Bat Mitzvah in Israel. But after graduating college, she has struggled to find a Jewish home for herself.

“It has been a struggle for me to find a Jewish community and a synagogue,” she told me. “When I am in Israel I feel so much more connected, but it is hard to connect here when most of my friends are not Jewish.”

Or take Sam, a 25 year old who lives in North Carolina. Sam also participated in Birthright, and also defines himself as “Just Jewish.” And he also struggles to find a Jewish institutional home.

“As someone who lives in the Bible Belt, it takes a lot of work to find Jewish communities,” he told me. “I think there is a disconnect between what these institutions think young adults want and what our real motivators are.”

He noted that the Chabad House had arranged local events to attract “Just Jewish” young adults, like himself, with social gatherings in restaurants and uptown bars, which he preferred, rather than religious services.

“Just Jewish” young adults often explore and develop an interest in their Jewish identity in college. This generally occurs after being targeted by Birthright for the free 10-day trip to Israel to learn about Judaism and Israel. This experience is often reinforced upon their return to campus. Some participate in Shabbat dinners and Jewish learning, even expanding their religious practice by marking Shabbat in some way. Some participate in Israel activities which often attract them to additional programs in Israel such as Onward Israel, Masa or study abroad programs. In addition, these Jews will often find their Jewishness in things such as Israeli TV shows, documentaries or even being in touch with an Israeli.

The “Just Jewish” Jews I spoke to told me that experiences they had in Israel strengthened their connection to the Jewish nation and heritage, inspiring a search for their own Jewish connection. After graduation however, they told me that they were often distracted by secular influences and they regretted the loss of the Jewish community and engagement they had enjoyed on campus. Sam and Suzanne are typical examples of this phenomenon.

Were Jewish institutions to target the “Just Jewish” young adults, they would likely preserve much of this generation as Jewish and expand the future Jewish population of the U.S. While it is easy to engage those who are already affiliated with a Jewish community, the sustained growth and endurance of American Jewry will depend on the choices of the “Just Jewish” denomination. Without engaging them, they will become assimilated and the American Jewish population will greatly decrease.

Jewish organizations should continue engaging “Just Jewish” young adults through non-denominational events such as Shabbat dinners, along with Jewish and Israel-related lectures, which attracted them in college, using the networks of Birthright Israel, Onward Israel, Masa, and Jewish campus groups. In addition, opportunities for post-college young adults such as career development or singles events would engage these young adults in relevant activities after they leave college.

The key is focusing on the “Just Jewish” denomination and their needs, as Orthodox, Conservative and Reform individuals are already engaged by their existing communities. Such gatherings would facilitate the growth of “Just Jewish” communities, keeping this rapidly growing population Jewishly engaged and guaranteeing Jewish continuity in the U.S.

Netta Asner is an American-Israeli senior at Hebrew University majoring in Jewish history and Contemporary Judaism.

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