What’s in a name? In this fast-paced, brand-managed, Tweeting world, the answer is: EVERYTHING. That’s why we Jews need to come up with a solid one for the members of our community whose beliefs and practices fall outside of the well-known denominations – Reform, Conservative, Orthodox, etc. (I’m not talking about people who are completely secular or otherwise removed from Jewish life by choice.)
Before we pick a name, we need to understand who these Jews are and why a label is useful. Here’s the deal: Jews in theirs 20s and 30s are less likely to affiliate with a movement than their parents and grandparents did in generations past. They’re also less likely to join a synagogue. “The powers that be” call these Jews-who-cannot-be-named or confined into one label “post-denominational Jews.” In The Jewish Week’s December 28th, 2010 article “Generation F,” staff writer Steve Lipman, referred to the same slippery group as – you guessed it – “Generation F.”
With apologies to Lipman, I don’t see the term Generation F spreading anytime soon. And the much-too-broad term “post-denominational Judaism” lacks the slick marketing appeal of something precise and descriptive like Modern Orthodox or Humanist. (Sorry to the Conservative Movement, but the attempted switch to “Masorti” is hopeless.)
I’m aware that trying to shove these wandering Jews into a box misses the point of post-denominational Judaism. But whether we like it or not, leaders in the community have been using the phrase “post-denominational Jews” for a long time. If we don’t coin better options soon, then that mouthful and eyesore of a name is going to stick. And “post-denominational” tells us where people don’t belong, not where they do.
Why do I care? What’s my stake in the game? Well, I’m a post-denominational Jew, but calling myself one doesn’t help me find others with similar practices. Isn’t that why we join movements anyway? To find people who share our beliefs and values?
Check out my rap sheet:
- I was raised in an enormous Reform synagogue where A-K came to High Holiday services at one time, L-Z came next, and few came on Shabbat. Despite winning an attendance award at Hebrew school (I’m serious), I never learned to read, write, or speak Hebrew above a second-grade level.
- I made friends in college who came from youth group, day school, and Jewish camp backgrounds. I was the only one who didn’t pound the table during birkat hamazon. (I didn’t know the words.) When I spent my junior year abroad in Chile, I lived with a religious Catholic family who had many questions about Judaism I couldn’t answer, making me painfully aware of the holes in my education.
- I married the poster boy for Camp Ramah Wisconsin–the very Jewish camp affiliated with the Conservative movement that bore no resemblance to the camp in Wisconsin I attended for eight years, which was full of Jews, but not remotely Jewish. (We ate bacon there. On Saturdays.)
- I did not visit a mikvah before our wedding in 2000. Neither my husband nor I knew about the custom. But since early 2007, I go every month. (That story is here.)
- Shabbat: My husband and I host big dinners on Friday nights. I light the candles, but rarely at the right time. We do Havdallah, but never at the right time. We forbid birthday parties or T-ball games and spending money on Shabbat. But we’ll drive to shul, turn the lights on and off, and run the dishwasher.
- The house is kosher, but not up to the highest standards (i.e. our dishwasher is mixed). I’ll eat chicken at restaurants.
- We belong to a Conservative synagogue where our kids attend nursery school. However, my husband and our kids go to Chabad on Saturday mornings. (I stay home with our youngest and relish the relative quiet.)
Now I’m one mixed up Jew. People tend to call me Conservadox, but I don’t think that’s intellectually honest. Somebody truly “Conservadox” (perhaps a potential sub-section of post-denominational Judaism) wouldn’t sneak a call on her cell phone on Shabbat when the kids are napping. Plain ol’ Conservative doesn’t fit either. Wouldn’t the average conscientious Conservative Jew feel “offended” by a mechitza and perhaps even the mikvah in a way I just don’t?
What about Reformadox? I’m thinking Reformadox captures my desire to fit as much traditional observance as I can into my modern life, but on my terms. Of course I realize some will balk at me treating our theology like a customizable iTunes playlist. But the truth is, if you tell people it’s all or nothing, many will choose nothing – no playlist at all. Maybe Reformadox Judaism can capture that middle ground. I’ll bet others like me exist – they’re simply not sure where to send their monthly dues.
Are you also a Jew who doesn’t identify with the current movements? How do you find other people who practice the way you do?