You Don’t Need to Believe in God to Be a Part of These Synagogues

Last Friday night during a Shabbat service at Romemu, a Manhattan-based temple for “spiritual seekers and skeptics alike,” I marveled at the energy of an old man wearing a colorful yarmulke atop his gray ponytail as he danced through most of the service. Closing his eyes and swaying his arms, he stood alone toward the rabbi’s podium when the evening began. About three minutes in, others started to stand up and sway — mostly women at first before more gray-haired men, and then some younger community members, joined in.

The service, filled with a diverse crowd in terms of age, home-base, and ethnicity, offered many opportunities for dance. At one point, the congregation engaged in a massive hora around the seating area. Standing and clapping in the middle of the dancers, I looked up to see the rabbi’s podium vacant. Just as I wondered where she had gone, I turned around to see her dark, curly hair bouncing as she danced behind me, holding hands with two congregants.

Romemu is one of several Jewish communities in the US offering an alternative to the temple-going experience many of us millennials had to endure when we were young. “Endure” may be an unfair characterization for everyone, but for me, it fits. I remember mostly suffering through what felt like day-long services during the High Holidays as a kid, fidgeting in my seat, being forced to sit when I wanted to run and stand when I wanted to sleep, and escaping — if I was lucky — to the coat room to play cards with other 11-year-olds.

The rabbi at my Reform temple growing up had charisma and twin daughters my younger brother’s age. The cantor had a fabulous singing voice. What bored and bothered my childhood self was the non-optional part of my attendance. I was forced to be there, forced to learn to read Hebrew I didn’t understand (a skill with which I’m now pleased), and forced to see religion in the particular way my temple interpreted it. Never totally sold on the idea of “God,” this made going to temple unappealing and, frankly, not my speed.

Today, “God-optional” temples seem to be becoming more common — or at least more widely available. There’s Lab Shul in New York City, which explicitly makes its “God-optional” status known on its website, but others explain their fluidity when it comes to a deity in less straightforward terms. Kol Shalom in Portland, Oregon invites members “who are not afraid to question tradition, work out their own beliefs, and want to create something that’s authentic for them.” Kavana Cooperative in Seattle, Washington is non-denominational and “welcomes individuals and families with many approaches to Judaism.” The Kitchen in San Francisco “practice[s] irreverent reverence” and makes “room for many expressions of serious Jewish living and a collective power to do good.” Washington, DC-based Sixth & I’s website looks more like the landing page for a music venue. It identifies itself first as a “center for arts, entertainment, and ideas” and secondly as a “synagogue.”

In her book titled God-Optional Judaism: Alternatives for Cultural Jews Who Love Their History, Heritage, and Community (2001), Judith Seid writes, “If you’ve found a home in religious Judaism, you are a minority in American Jewish life.” She’s speaking to the fact that fewer American Jews seem to belong to religious congregations. Meanwhile, the number of Jews in the US who believe in God has declined. In a study from the Pew Research Center, 41 percent of US Jews were “absolutely certain” about their belief in God in 2007, vs. 37 percent seven years later (the most recent statistics available). In 2007, 10 percent firmly did not believe in God, while 17 percent didn’t in 2014.

Interestingly, there was an opposite trend when it came to “importance of religion in one’s life.” In 2007, it was “very important” to 31 percent, which increased to 35 percent in 2014. Furthermore, attendance at religious Jewish services went up in that same seven-year period, from 16 percent of those surveyed attending at least once a week in 2007 to 19 percent in 2014. (The Pew Research Center’s study surveyed a sample of 35,071 Jews, 26 percent of whom identified as “millennials.”)

Anecdotally, I can safely report that strong belief in a traditional “God” is uncommon among the millennials I know. In fact, organized religion overall seems to mystify and elude many of my peers. (I also live in a major metropolitan area, New York City, where the “traditional” tends to give way to what’s “outside-of-the-box.”) Of my friends and many former co-workers (I’ve held down a decent number of jobs in my six years here) of all denominations, I can only think of one who goes to any kind of religious service regularly (church), while a few others make appearances on important holidays (Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Christmas, Easter).

Before my Jewish friend and her Catholic (who’s considering conversion) fiancé attended Romemu’s service with me last Friday, their respective coworkers expressed… confusion, for lack of a better word. Espousing that typically urban millennial disinterest in organized religion, my friend’s teacher colleagues raised their eyebrows at her choice, finding it odd that anyone would opt to spend her Friday night that way (for the record, she got a sense they’d be less bemused if she’d said she were attending church).

Those teachers, who work at a Manhattan public school that serves immigrant, English language learner students, probably wouldn’t have thought her choice was so “weird” if they’d attended the service with us. After all the singing and dancing, Romemu’s rabbi gave a sermon about the president’s hateful, xenophobic policies leading to the separation of immigrant children from their families, connecting them to stories from Midrash and history when Jews have faced similar treatment. At the end of her talk, the rabbi recommended ways to provide aid to the immigrants being mistreated at our country’s borders today.

In addition to its progressive, practical messaging, Romemu has a non-traditional approach to God, similar to Kol Shalom’s and Kavana’s. The prayer translations we read during the service often used the term “Goddess” or “Breath of Life” in place of Adonai, and outside of the prayers, I don’t recall any mention of this usually male-identified holy being. The community doesn’t call itself “God-optional,” but as someone who feels “God-optional,” I also felt perfectly accepted.

Modern Jewish communities like these come from a movement known as Jewish Renewal, a type of Judaism that came out of the ‘60s and ‘70s “hippie” culture that the older man dancing at the start of the service looked like he walked straight out of. The aim was to appeal to cultural Jews who also identified as “seekers,” who wanted to study traditional beliefs under a newer, freer-loving microscope (and maybe wanted to substitute the four cups of wine at Passover with four tokes of weed).

In addition to older hippie-types dancing the hora at Romemu’s Friday night service, there were a good number of those who appeared to be millennials holding hands and bumping playfully into those dancing all around them. They seemed to be there of their own volition, I marveled, just as I remembered that I was there by choice, too.

To be honest, I can’t say going to this colorful, lively service made me want to go to more. Regular service-going just isn’t for me, as the whole experience remains too steeped in my negative synagogue experiences as a child. My friends, however, may be going back to spend more time with a religious Jewish community that doesn’t require all the usual trappings of religion, that is perhaps more tailored to the attitudes of people in a certain pink-and-avocado-loving age group… but I’m not here to generalize.

Image via Flickr/Captain Peroxide

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