Unaffiliated Jews are hungry for more than Judaism lite

The most popular denomination for Jews in the Bay Area — and the fastest growing group — is “unaffiliated.” Not a terribly promising demographic trend for Jewish continuity. Jews who go to synagogue often joke about the synagogue “they don’t go to.” The next generation of the unaffiliated has neither, and won’t even know what they are missing.

Not surprisingly, a lot of institutional attention is paid to this group. One can discern that along with some concern for the potential loss of so many Jewish bodies, there is also sincere concern for the loss of so many Jewish souls.

One approach, driven somewhat by market thinking, is to give people almost anything they might find anywhere — as long as it is done in a Jewish context. This has long been the approach to programming in Jewish community centers. But now one sees the same approach in synagogues. The headline of a story in a recent edition of the New York Times was “With Yoga, Comedy and Parties, Synagogues Entice Newcomers.” It seems that if people like mah jongg, then let’s play it in the synagogue. If they like to meditate, then there’s a night devoted to that. Or a night of comedy.

As I said, these efforts are often well-intentioned. The hope is that, eventually, Sarah Silverman will lead to Jackie Mason, who will lead to “Fiddler on the Roof,” which at least touched on Jewish issues in the modern era. With enough ingenuity, we can move people from too much egg nog during the holiday season to seeking the perfect etrog.

That’s one approach. It’s like trying to coax children to eat nourishing food by giving them candy first.

At Emek Beracha in Palo Alto, and in other places, there’s another approach. We don’t see the fact that Jews have wandered off in New Age directions as a sign that they are indeed hungry for exotic things. It is a sign that they are hungry, period. And we have a hunch that they are hungry for the one thing that even an affluent generation never really had growing up, which is Judaism.

We don’t mean mandatory religious training or attendance requirements at meaningless services in order to qualify for a bar mitzvah photo-op. What is missing, and can satisfy the hunger, is just Judaism, plain and simple — a sense of intellectual challenge, of a moral calling, of a responsibility for one’s choices, even if that means the sometimes bitter taste of owning up to poor decisions; of a chance to make a spiritual difference in this world.

At Emek Beracha, and many other synagogues with outreach activities, we offer straight out what we think is the real prize — regular Judaism. This could be called the “whole food approach.” We’re saying, “Try it as it is, with no frills, to find out it’s much more tasty than you thought, and makes you stronger too!”

Knowing that so many unaffiliated Jews feel out of place in a traditional congregation, we’ve developed some ways to introduce them to Jewish practices and lore in a way that will meet them as they are. On Shabbat morning, we have a learner’s session that runs parallel to the main service. It has an edgy, unvarnished touch, inviting the most basic and controversial questions, mostly due to the fine talents of Rabbi Yisroel Gordon of the Jewish Study Network.

Recent questions include, “Who needs the prayerbook; what has the prayerbook ever done for the Jewish people?” And, “Why do the Jewish people think taking a day off for Shabbat is a good thing for society — we know that crime rates go up on weekends, and even the story of Adam and Eve shows that not working got the first humans into such trouble that their creator kicked them out of the Garden of Eden and gave them jobs!”

Gordon loves such questions. A master teacher both at Kehillah Jewish High School and at Congregation Kol Tefillah in Santa Cruz, he brings the great themes of the Torah into sharp focus each Shabbat. Participants find it engaging, funny, and, most importantly, authentic. We’re in synagogue, after all.

In addition, starting 7 p.m. Friday, May 26, and continuing on the last Friday of each month, we’re launching a Jewish “Thank God it’s Friday” exuberant celebration. It will be a Carlebach-style Kabbalat Shabbat service, with Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach’s classic songs (not iTunes but ThouTunes) giving special life to welcoming the Shabbat. For attendees, we will offer old-fashioned hospitality in the form of home-cooked Shabbat meals. Our Shabbat morning service is always followed by a Kiddush, and there are invitations for Shabbat meals then too.

The unaffiliated are certainly all around us in our communities. Their disaffection comes for many reasons, but one of them should not be an obscure or insipid experience of Judaism in synagogues. As long as there are Jewish souls, there will be a hunger for the intellectual vigor, the moral challenge and the emotional sustenance of Judaism. Many of our fellows may be used to eating candy, but we think offering the regular menu is a better way to satisfy their hunger.

Rabbi Yitzchok Feldman is the spiritual leader of Congregation Emek Beracha in Palo Alto.