Being a Part of the “Organized Jewish Community”

It’s the straw that broke the camel’s back … the tweet that pushed me right over the edge (or just to finally write this blog!):

If you are wondering why @buberzionist would even ask this question (I’m making an assumption), and why I would even respond the way I did, it’s because so many of the Jewish identity/engagement/participation/attachment studies in the Jewish world use certain checklists (survey questions) to determine how the Jewish population is behaving “Jewishly” and @buberzionist and I don’t fit neatly into these checklists.

Here are a few examples:

In A Tale of Two Jewries: The “Inconvenient Truth” for American Jews (2006) Steven M. Cohen writes on pages 6-7 about the “attachment to well-established Jewish organizations” and proceeds to share the statistics about belonging to Jewish organizations (other than JCCs and synagogues), Jewish Federation campaign giving. JCC memberships, synagogue memberships, and then moves on to ritual behaviors. On page 7 there is a table called “STABLE LEVELS OF RELIGIOSITY, 1990-2000”:

The 2008 study and report that Steven M. Cohen and Ari Y. Kelman authored entitled Uncoupled:  How our Singles are Reshaping Jewish Engagement was completed on behalf of The Jewish Identity Project of Reboot of the Andrea and Charles Bronfman Philanthropies.  Charts in this report continue to explore these similar themes of synagogue and JCC membership, Federation donorship, as well as ritual and holiday participation .

In the 2011 study and report Camp Works: The Long-Term Impact of Jewish Overnight Camp, Evidence from 26 U.S. Jewish Populations Studies on Adult Jewish Engagement, authors Steven M. Cohen, Ron MIller, Ira M. Sheskin and Berna Torr do a meta-analysis of 26 studies.  Here is a snapshot of one of their analyses which highlights behaviors a bit more diverse, but that still includes holiday candle lighting, synagogue membership, Jewish Federation giving, and synagogue attendance:

So why is this problematic?  Well, let’s just take me for example … if you were to judge my Jewish identity/engagement/participation/attachment based on the repeated characteristics in these studies, you would end up labeling me as under-engaged with a low identity threshold.  I don’t belong to a synagogue, I don’t belong to a JCC, I have not made a donation to a Federation in over two years, I don’t light Shabbat candles on any regular basis, I skipped Rosh haShanah services this year and Yom Kippur services the last two years (other than showing up for Yizkor), I typically forget to light Hanukkah candles and rarely attend synagogue services.  So for example, in the Camp Works graph’s High Impact section, I fail on three out of four criteria.

So why is this problematic?  Come on, my business is called JewishGPS and when people ask me what I do for a living I tell them that I’m a “professional Jew.”  I live/breathe/eat Jewishly 24/7/365.   So what criteria might be more appropriate to survey?  Here are a few suggestions:

  • Presence of Jewish art/artifacts in my home
  • Percentage of books with Jewish content in my home or office
  • Owns and consistently wears jewelry that is Judaic in nature
  • Jewish holidays/events on my calendar
  • Time spent in personal Jewish study
  • Sharing links to articles of Jewish content on the internet
  • Tweeting from or about Jewish events
  • Time spent teaching Judaism (in camps, schools, synagogues, programs)
  • Time spent as a volunteer in a significant leadership role in a Jewish organization
  • Time spent leading other Jews in Jewish behaviors (internal or external to a Jewish organization)
  • Observation of Kashrut on some level in and/or outside my home
  • Knowledge of Jewish communal resources available
  • Knowledge of Jewish practices of Jews unlike me (and the origins of those practices)
  • Participation in conversations that are Jewish in nature (politics, ritual, social, identity, etc)
  • Feeling a strong connection to a self-made community of Jews

So @buberzionist (and everyone else), if you are reading this … how would “rank” in this list of criteria vs. the ones that likely prompted your tweet?

I am curious what other criteria readers of this blog might suggest be the foundation for assessing Jewish identity/engagement/participation/attachment. I have the pleasure of personally knowing a few of the social scientists mentioned in this blog and respect them for their brilliant minds and contribution to our Jewish community; I encourage them (and the others not mentioned) to consider how they might use these new criteria in future studies.

p.s. In the last decade (plus a little) the inclusion of social connections to other Jews, repeated trips to Israel, an emotional connection to Israel, and in-marriage have been included in these studies – which is an improvement I wanted to acknowledge.


28 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. RachelM
    Nov 25, 2012 @ 22:21:55

    We’re also looking at this issue at BBYO. I’m in the process of creating a set of indicators (toward our goals for Jewish identity creation through BBYO) that include things very similar to what you wrote – – wearing Jewish-themed clothes or Jewelry, having Jewish friends, understanding a range of Jewish practices, etc. I’ll share when I’m a little further along!


  2. erivel (@erivel)
    Nov 25, 2012 @ 22:50:08

    We have this conversation in Phildelphia as we talk about the impact of our outreach programs on the ‘connection’ of families with young children to community (and we purposely don’t say ‘the community’ because ‘the’ implies the institutional, formal, community). We ask questions about changes in their own practice, in trying new things at home, attending multiple programs, in enrolling in Jewish institutional programs (early childhood, camps, etc). But it’s the reality of who we are as a community these days.


  3. rfaintich
    Nov 26, 2012 @ 09:27:05

    Other replies that have come in to me via other social media:

    • resolved to only enter into committed relationships with other Jews (or already in a committed relationship with another Jew)

    • regular attendance at Jewish cultural events (i.e. Jewish concerts or music festivals; Jewish film festivals; Yiddish theater; Jewish themed theater)

    • if you have children, have a philosophy of sending them to Jewish pre-schools, summer camps and or/Jewish days schools rather than secular programs


  4. Sue Parker Gerson
    Nov 27, 2012 @ 18:02:32

    The applause you hear are coming from Denver, CO (and elsewhere, I’m sure). I often consider how many of these surveys are engineered by my peers (both social and professional); that is, in-married traditionally connected Jews for whom the go-to measurements circulate around paid affiliation and ritual behaviors. Kol hakavod on a well thought out response that I hope resonates with the next generation of surveyists. [For the record, as a Florence Melton School director I’d add “time spent in organized Jewish learning” to the category of “time spent in personal Jewish study”.]


  5. rfaintich
    Nov 27, 2012 @ 19:06:12


    Thank you so much for your kind support for the challenge I have posed! Feel free to circulate with the aforementioned peers. I would love their input as well.

    And, yes, I intended that both “organized” and non-organized Jewish study be a part of that criteria. I know people who study weekly with a friend, people who are a part of adult education offerings from organizations, and those who take it upon themselves to study privately and I believe all modes of on-going adult Jewish study should be recognized in future surveys.

    Again, thank you!


  6. Trackback: What Makes for Jewish Involvement? « CAJE
  7. rfaintich
    Nov 28, 2012 @ 12:00:29

    I received another submission via email:
    • the creation of Jewish-themed on-line content including podcasts, YouTube videos, blog posts, Vlogs, websites, apps, etc (including those that many might deem irreverent) .


  8. Ari Y Kelman
    Nov 29, 2012 @ 16:56:09

    thanks for contributing to a rapidly expanding and maturing conversation. I’m happy to have the chance to work with you on these and other questions. I think there are a few issues at play in your post which I think is generally right-on — we do need better ways of assessing or measuring the presence of Jewishness in peoples’ lives. But, for fairness and accuracy, there is a question that I have for you:

    are you just looking for a better checklist?

    I agree that some of the questionnaires are limited in what they ask for and limited in the way they frame behaviors and attitudes that demonstrate Jewish engagement. And I like some of your additions — some of which we incorporated in the questionnaire that led to “Uncoupled,” for example, but didn’t make the final report because we couldn’t find significant correlation between certain findings and the question we were most interested in at that point (about marital patterns). Just because its not in the final report doesn’t mean that (a) the report is useless or wrong, or (b) that we didn’t ask about certain things.

    In a similar vein, two of the three projects you reference didn’t ask about tweeting and so on because tweeting didn’t exist when the studies were done. Is tweeting a good measure of something? I don’t know.

    Also, reporting on religious or ritual behaviors (which the first two studies you cite refer to explicitly), I think it is fair to limit those questions to the domain specified: That is: if we are looking for ritual behaviors of a religious nature, then the presence of a menorah or a prayerbook in ones home doesn’t matter to us as much as whether one uses them. the presence of those things does matter, and social scientists should ask about them, but they are not necessarily indicative of the presence of behaviors in which we were interested.

    Which brings me back to my first question: are you just looking for a better checklist? Would there be any checklist that would satisfy you? I can’t help but thinking of the Borges story about the king who had his mapmakers build a map on a scale of 1:1….. What would such a checklist look like? Or, are you looking for a post-checklist kind of Jewishness — and what would that look like?

    Finally, and more personally, do you really want a checklist that would account for your (and my) relatively ideosyncratic articulations of Jewish life? Is my behavior normative? I hope not. Is yours? do you want it to be?


  9. rfaintich
    Dec 02, 2012 @ 23:26:32


    I am so thankful for your response! You have given me a lot to think about (and I hope all the readers to ponder).

    I have really spent the last few days considering this question of a checklist … and the truth is, I think that is what I am trying to get us to move away from. I think that many Jews have a checklist in their heads of what makes them a “good Jew” (ugh! I hate that term!) or an “affiliated Jew”. Whether intentional or not, I think this checklist has evolved from the surveys/criterion that have been put there over the years.

    The questions that I originally proposed and those that others have added via the comments are intended to serve as a way to broaden the conversation about how adult Jews articulate/express their Judaism and their connections (communal and individual) to Judaism and to each other. So that many (it will never be all) of the idiosyncratic ways that adult Jews are living Jewishly are “counted” and subsequently that those individual Jews feel “counted.”

    I think we have many challenges as we consider this discussion including reconsidering how we define “ritual” behaviors as more Jews are created new rituals and how we define “membership” as more Jews are creating their own Jewish communities rather than opting into established ones.

    As I stated in the beginning – I am so thankful for your response and the dialogue. I appreciate being challenged to think deeper and I hope that we (you, me and anyone else who wants to join in) can continue to dialogue in order to help shape the future of the field of assessment and evaluation.

    Todah Rabah!


  10. rabbiadar
    Dec 03, 2012 @ 00:44:51

    I love this discussion! I teach Intro classes in the Bay Area of California, and am constantly challenged by the people who come to my classes. Some of them have very strong Jewish identities, but their Jewishness is very idiosyncratic. Many are resistant to membership in organizations (shuls, federation, other orgs) that they feel are not a good “fit” for them, but they care deeply about Judaism and living Jewish lives. It’s a big puzzle, and I think you are addressing an important part of it here.


    • rfaintich
      Dec 03, 2012 @ 01:06:51


      Thank you so much for your post.

      In my doctoral studies I have come to understand a difference between identity and identification. Perhaps this plays a part of what you are speaking about (and perhaps should impact this overall discussion).

      The briefest explanation is that identification is group-based and identity is individual-based. So for example, when we teach people t’filah skills, we are teaching them identification skills (group participation), but when we help them to create personal t’filah/ritual or help them to make personal meaning of t’filah, we are helping them to shape their identity.

      In reflection of this distinction, do you think that they have strong Jewish identification but that their identities are so idiosyncratic they have trouble figuring out how they fit into the group (or in this case, the “organized” Jewish community)? And, if so, how do you think that this impacts our overall discussion?

      Thank you again for contributing to the dialogue!


      • rabbiadar
        Dec 03, 2012 @ 01:55:39

        You’ve just blown my mind with that distinction; it’s so obvious yet I’ve never encountered it before. I’m already scrambling around in my head, sorting Intro students is on a grid, with Jewish identity on one axis and Jewish identification on the other.

        For some students, identity is very strong but their identification is fuzzy – they WANT to be part of Am Yisrael but can’t see anywhere they fit. For others, it’s projection: they assume that because they have misgivings about Israel, or brit milah, or something else, that they will not be acceptable in any Jewish community, so they haven’t tried, and my class is their first real community. On the other hand, I’ve got a few students with strong Jewish identification whose Jewish identity is unformed. These are the individuals whose parents belong to a synagogue in another city, who hated religious school, refused to do anything Jewish after bnei mitzvah, and come to Intro because either a rabbi required it for a wedding, or their spouse wanted to learn about Judaism and insisted they come.

        You’ve given me an interesting way to sort out the curriculum, too. I need to go lie down, put a cold cloth on my head, and think this all through. Very exciting, thank you! Where can I read and learn more about the identity/identification distinction?

  11. rfaintich
    Dec 03, 2012 @ 02:41:11

    My first encounter of the distinction was in this book: H.A. Alexander’s Jewish Education and The Search for Authenticity: A Study of Jewish Identity and then I saw it again in Simon N. Herman’s Jewish Identity: A Social Psychological Perspective.

    As I said, I recently came across this in my doctoral studies (just earlier this year) and immediately saw how important it was to make that distinction (it blew me away, too) and how we (Jewish educators and communal leaders) have been mis-using the term “Jewish identity.”

    As I reflect on most Jewish education encounters, I’ve come to believe that we spend most of our time doing “identification” work and not “identity” work.

    In fact, here is an excerpt from a reflection paper I wrote about this:

    When I reflected on Alexander’s work, I wrote that this was the first time I had read about a distinction in identity and identification. But, right on page 1 of Herman’s book there is a section entitled “Identification and Identity.” He writes that we need to “draw the important distinction … between the act of Jewish identification, the process by which the individual comes to see himself as part of the Jewish group, and identity, what being Jewish means in the life of the individual, the content of his Jewishness,” (pg. 2).

    This is similar yet nuanced to Alexander’s writing, “A person’s identity is that which distinguishes her from others,” (p.2) and that “Identification, therefore, is about how an individual is related to a class of concepts or people outside of herself ,” (p.3).

    Herman takes to task the field of literature that exists in Jewish “identity” study. He writes, “Almost any study of Jewish attitudes is pretentiously called a study of Jewish identity. A glance at most studies of Jewish communities in the Diaspora shows that they are at best studies of Jewish identification. They may deal with the process by which the individual comes to see himself a part of the Jewish group and the form the act of identification takes, or they may describe the extent to which and the circumstances under which the Jews in a particular community are prepared to stand up and be counted … But very few of them are studies of Jewish identity, of what being Jewish means, of what kind of Jew and what kind of Jewishness develop,” (p. 28).

    When I re-read what I wrote months ago, perhaps this should have been included in this original blog post!


    • Michael Rabkin
      Dec 10, 2012 @ 06:42:36

      Robyn – a very stimulating conversation. Thanks for introducing the identity/identification distinction. You have given me a framework to think about these ideas more coherently. I think the peer-to-peer engagement strategy we use in Hillel helps break the mold of identification-based Jewish education. I have also heard Irwin Kula speak on this theme. You may want to dialogue with him about these ideas if you haven’t already.


  12. Jonathan Woocher
    Dec 10, 2012 @ 09:09:00

    Robyn, glad you have put the issue of how we understand and “measure” Jewish identity on the table through your original post. We are caught today between “essentialist” and “existentialist” conceptions of Jewish identity: The former identifies a set of behaviors and attitudes that have historically been associated with Jewishness (and may add some new ones) and asks to what extent individual Jews manifest these. (This is the “checklist” approach). The latter asks what individuals do, think, and feel that they see as an expression of their Jewishness. Bethamie Horowitz talks about the two questions as: “How Jewish are Jews” and “How Jews are Jewish.” I believe a case can be made that “identities” in general are becoming more idiosyncratic in the contemporary world as individuals mix and match behaviors and attitudes, drawing on diverse sources within and across sub-cultures. Some people do appear to behave in “normative” ways, but even there, unless we ask, we can’t really be sure what these behaviors mean for them — and the meanings may change over time even when the behaviors do not, or vice versa. One of the reasons why many of us in Jewish education are becoming more interested in adapting “design thinking” to our work is because it places an emphasis on empathy — understanding the situation from the learner / user / consumer’s point of view — as the starting point for being able to design effective programs. I believe that it’s critical that we go beyond a “checklist” mindset in exploring the Jewish identity of those with whom we work because we’re likely to miss the most important dimensions of that identity if normative behaviors are all we look for. This doesn’t mean that those behaviors are unimportant, or should never be explored. But we can’t stop there.


  13. drdanaviv
    Dec 10, 2012 @ 09:27:04

    You experience what I have written about in _End Of The Jews: Radical Breaks, Remakes and What Comes Next_. We are all ready for a new metric.


  14. jaynie
    Dec 10, 2012 @ 09:46:38

    Perhaps this is overly simplistic, but I wonder how many studies ask people to decide for themselves whether they feel a part of the Jewish people. If so, what are they first things that come to their mind in that identification. If not, what are those same factors?


  15. Sacha Litman
    Dec 10, 2012 @ 10:10:33

    Hey Robin,
    Nice piece. I could not agree more. We have been discussing this issue with a foundation that funds our GrapeVine project, trying to get them to rethink what is “affiliated” because none of the traditional definitions work. Check out GrapeVine on the iphone store, which is intended to start changing all of that by allowing the Jewish identity journey to be self-defined by the individual instead of by the community. Have you seen it yet?


    • rfaintich
      Dec 10, 2012 @ 15:23:45


      Thank you for your comments.

      I certainly knew you were embarking on the project but was unaware that it was “live.” I downloaded the app ( and began to create an account. Seems that NYC is live and I look forward to hearing when more cities roll out.

      I am very curious for the readers to weigh in on the categories that a registrant must check as they enroll. I think that conversation overlaps with this one as well. Here are some screen shots:

      I assume that parts of your discussions with your funders revolve around evaluation of the app and therefore your team is trying to assess how people get “connected” to these events and their organizations.

      I am wondering if there is a way for self-organizing Jews to somehow also post events to GrapeVine (either now or in the future)?



  16. michael shire
    Dec 10, 2012 @ 10:31:21

    I would add the aspect of a dynamic and changing Jewish identity to this debate. This is something that is discussed by Tali Zelkowicz and Stuart Charme in the International Handbook of Jewish Education (2011) Ed. Miller et al, Springer. Our inner perception of connection, self-expression and loyalties changes in both quality and quantity daily. That is why I asked Robyn how her identity was today?
    Maybe it will feel differently tomorrow. Now how do you quantify that in a checklist?
    Michael Shire


    • rfaintich
      Dec 10, 2012 @ 10:39:54

      I don’t have the piece accessible right now, but I remember Tali writing that identity could change many times over a course of a day depending on different experiences a person may encounter through a day and if we were to truly do comprehensive measurement it could be done hourly.

      When I get back to my computer I can find the source and post a direct quote.


      • rfaintich
        Dec 10, 2012 @ 10:59:30

        Charme, S., Horowitz, B., Hyman, T., & Kress, J. S. (2008) Jewish identities in action: An exploration of models, metaphors, and methods. Journal of Jewish Education, 74, 115-143.

        “What if Jewish education researchers were instead willing to use the methodological equivalent of a movie camera, which could collect data and represent dynamic processes in motion? This movie camera exists, of course, and it is called ethnography. Increasingly, ethnographers of American Jewish life are using this powerful qualitative tool to investigate flux, conflict, and tensions; in short, ongoing daily, unfolding cultural processes at work in identity formation. As Stuart Charmé has described, we are sorely in need of careful longitudinal studies, but here I refer to weekly, even daily and hourly unfolding and emergent processes,” (p 124).

        In addition to examining the method – as Michael (and Tali) suggest – I still encourage us to examine the questions we ask during that process.

  17. Rabbi Laura
    Dec 10, 2012 @ 12:03:43

    What a great conversation!
    As I read through it, I was brought back to my first pulpit as a 2nd year rabbinic student at HUC-JIR. There was a woman in the congregation who was living a Jewish life, clearly and strongly identified herself as Jewish, but had not yet finalized her process of conversion. She sadly became terminally ill and passed away before completing her “formal” conversion. From her hospital bed, she and I discussed whether or not she could have a Jewish funeral and burial. Our conversation together revolved around what about her life, her beliefs, her sense of self made her Jewish. It was not about how much she had donated to the local Jewish community. It was not about how often she attended Shabbat services (though she did, when she was able), or how many Jewish organizations she was counted as a member, or even whether she had sat before a beit din or gone to the mikvah. She was Jewish in her heart, in her neshamah (soul, inner being), in her values and her beliefs. Would she have “passed the test” of these various studies? I don’t know. But could she be buried, mourned and remembered as a Jew. Yes!

    Checklists run the risk of placing us in boxes. Can we find ways to measure Jewish identity in qualitative and attitudinal ways rather than quantity of Jewish behaviors?


  18. Beth Cousens
    Dec 10, 2012 @ 17:48:26

    Great points about the “organized” Jewish community. I argue that a relevant understanding of “belonging” asks for a subjective measurement, not something that can be measured through affiliation anymore (i.e. “Do you feel that you belong to a Jewish community?”).
    You suggest a great list of Jewish behaviors that signify identification, and I certainly agree that they might comprise someone’s understanding of their identity manifesting in day to day life and of identification. But (I write without judging this as good or bad) what about the Jewish religion? I look at your list and think about Judaism as a civilization. Judaism was (is?) a way of life that was expressed through religious practice.
    Sometimes, we want to measure this practice. At other times, we want to measure a lot of things, and we want to include religion. Certainly, I would hate to leave it out.
    take good care.


  19. Norman Kabak
    Dec 10, 2012 @ 22:14:59

    I find much food for thought that is applicable to our community which is far from the mainstream of communal Jewish living. Can anyone suggest specific ideas for a Jewish community that has in its entirety less than 1,200 admitted Jews in a country of less than 7,000 admitted Jews. Wellington, New Zealand has just closed its Jewish Day Schoo and we are adrift trying to reorganise. Any assistance is more than welcome. Please contact the writer at MORIAHSCHOOLNZ@GMAIL.COM Thank you and wishing you a happy Chanuka. N Kabak


  20. Florence Broder
    Dec 11, 2012 @ 03:28:24


    Amazing post! Go you. I love the new parameters you suggest for measuring Jewish engagement.


  21. jewishedlab
    Dec 11, 2012 @ 20:59:54

    Interesting discussion! Here’s my question: What’s the difference between a Jew and a Judeophile? I’m thinking about someone who would be a Jewish studies professor, for example, and not Jewish himself. This person might have books, jewelry, artwork, and knowledge related to Judaism. This person might spend a lot of time talking about and teaching Judaism. This person would have a lot of awareness of the Jewish calendar and Jewish resources, and would spend time studying Judaism. This person might even have a positive impact on the lives of many Jews. But, this person would not be Jewish.
    The only two items on your list that to me matter in terms of Jewish identity are keeping Kosher on some level (since you are accepting a criteria that other Jews accept) and “Feeling a strong connection to a self-made community of Jews,” although as a researcher, I’d be more interested in how you manifest that feeling.
    Another analogy: I once knew a veterinarian (a good one, actually), who knew all about animals and their bodies and health. He was very good at taking care of the animals (and their owners) who walked into his clinic. He didn’t really like pets, though, and had none. He had an academic and business interest in the subject, not a personal one.
    Now, I’m not asserting that the researchers don’t need to revise what it means to be a meaningful participant in the Jewish community or to identify as a Jew. But don’t we want to think seriously about what those criteria are so that they are meaningful to more than just ourselves?


  22. Trackback: SEEING, ELEVATING, COUNTING, INCLUDING, REPRESENTING Jews of Color (aka “Be an Ally”) | JewishGPS

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