By Max Weisman
There are some aspects of Judaism that will remain constant: the B’nai Mitzvah Torah chanting will always coincide with the most awkward time of puberty, our holiday observances will bring the Jewish community together while simultaneously opening the door to a plethora of questions from our non-Jewish coworkers, and my mother’s matzah ball soup will always be better than yours.
Judaism is a religion that thrives on the constant of ritual and tradition while seeking to reinvent itself for the times. This constant evolution gave us understood changes such as the birth of Reform Judaism while providing more complicated changes such as the move away from brick-and-mortar synagogues.
I consider myself an affiliated and proud Jew: I was Bar Mitzvah-ed, I went to Jewish sleep-away camp at Camp Galil, I lived in Israel for a gap year, I was on the Hillel board at Temple University and even married a nice, Jewish woman. As a child, I attended synagogue with my family and, when in formal institutions as a young person, was happily active in Jewish youth programming.
As an adult, my affiliation is steadfast for me, but may seem complicated from the outside. I married a Jewish woman in a fairly traditionally Jewish ceremony, the majority of my close friends are Jewish and I even make a point of going home for the occasional Shabbat dinner with my parents and in-laws.
But I don’t go to synagogue.
This isn’t because of a millennial rejection of my “parent’s Judaism” but my generation’s longing to create and customize. We see the popularity of a startup economy and subscription box businesses just as we see the decline of big-box stores and department-style outlets. While older generations feel comfortable in the wheelhouse of tradition, my generation wants to reinvent it.
My parents and their synagogue friends love that their synagogue has its unique tunes and its tailored outlook on Jewish values. They also like that if they venture to another synagogue, be it in Brooklyn or Bangladesh, the tunes may be different but there is a commonality and familiarity with the prayers and the values.
For me, this commonality feels confining. I grew up learning the words and prayers of the Torah, understanding why our ancestors read them and their significant place in Jewish history. These feel like important words but not my words. I had been taught from a young age to be proud of my Jewish heritage and to do so I need to feel ownership over this heritage.
I do this by living an inherently Jewish life — one without prayer or synagogue — but with values and customs. Synagogue always taught me to treat others with respect, to help those less fortunate and be openly proud to be a Jew. The prayers, which I learned and know but do not connect with, taught me to believe in a higher power, to honor those who came before me and to recognize the contributions of the communities that made every aspect of my life possible.
I will admit that attending synagogue regularly makes it easier to remember and live out these values — but that’s not to say I cannot do this in my non-synagogue life.
I help those with less privilege than myself, I donate to causes that align with my Jewish values (not exclusive Jewish causes), I remain knowledgeable about Judaism so I can answer questions about our community and I openly and proudly celebrate my heritage.
Although a nontraditional Jew, I feel wholly and unapologetically Jewish.
Max Weisman is a senior associate at Ceisler Media and lives in Philadelphia.