Becoming an Unaffiliated Jew: Why I Left My Synagogue
There were a lot of little reasons I was unhappy. But ultimately, I realized I didn’t need to belong to a temple to feel Jewish.
I wrote the email on a late June day. I rewrote it. Again. And again. Then I walked away from it.
I looked at it the next day. And the next. Then I hit “send.” And I had done it. I had left my synagogue.
After 20 years of mixed feelings and more than eight months of discussion and debate with my husband, we had walked away from the place where our babies had been named, welcomed, and bat mitzvahed, the place where we had celebrated countless holidays, volunteered hundreds of hours, and—not to mention—spent thousands of dollars.
The monthly newsletter, chock full of information about lectures and events and Hebrew school news and births and weddings would no longer come to my house on the first of every month. The August brochure, detailing the year ahead, would not show up just as we were making back-to-school preparations. My husband wouldn’t stay up with the youth group until 3 a.m. helping the homeless, and we would not go to one more youth-group pasta fundraiser dinner to eat undercooked spaghetti and listen to teenagers play bad music on the electric guitar.
We hadn’t come to the decision lightly. In the eight months of debate—and maybe even for years before that—we’d been feeling dissatisfied, like we were missing the essence of belonging. We didn’t feel particularly connected to the other members or that we were getting much out of it. Or, I should say, I felt that way. My husband seemed to manage it all better than I did.
Since we left, I feel relieved in some ways. Certainly, it’s easier financially not to belong to a synagogue, and I don’t miss the 20-minute drive each way. But there are other areas in which I’m struggling. We always believed in being affiliated Jews, and I wonder sometimes if being Jewish and being part of a synagogue must go hand in hand. I still feel as Jewish as ever. But am I as Jewish as the person who is a member of a synagogue—or not?
Twenty years earlier, we were newly married and knew few young people in our area. So, we went temple shopping. We knew we wanted a Reform congregation; my husband had been raised Reform. We both liked the equality for women, the laid-back style, and the warm, family feel of a Reform synagogue. (I had been raised in a Conservative synagogue with an Orthodox rabbi, where the girls weren’t equal to the boys, and I refused to ever be a part of something like that again.)
When we met the synagogue’s senior rabbi, who’d already been at the temple for 20 years at that point, he had a magnetic personality with an easy smile and made us feel comfortable. We signed up.
We wanted to be active. We volunteered on a few committees but often left feeling they were disorganized or poorly run. So, we joined a program called Chavurah, where young couples and families came together to form close circles, like extended families, for both Jewish and secular events. We started off really liking it; we felt like we had a home and a nice group of friends at last. But soon, it began to feel like a chore. Members fought over who would bring what to events. Members sided with each other in petty disagreements, and gossip was rampant. We were one of only two couples without young children. We felt left out of things. We left the Chavurah.
Still, we were part of the synagogue as a whole. We noticed that the rabbi had a lot of power over the congregation. There was always an assistant rabbi who was closer to our age, right out of rabbinical school, and that’s who we spent more time with as a young couple. We hoped that as the older members passed the leadership baton to the younger members, things would equal out more between rabbi and congregants. In the meantime, we continued to pay our dues, to try to go to things that felt right and comfortable to us. I became pregnant with our first child, and people were happy for us. Now things would fall into place, I thought.
And for a while, they did. The Hebrew school was excellent. The teachers tried hard to engage the kids, and there were youth groups for ages 10-18. Our older daughter got really into it, attending all the events, eventually sitting on the high-school youth group’s board. She went to Israel for the spring semester of her junior year in a program our synagogue not only encouraged and endorsed but helped to fund.
Nonetheless, I always felt sort of distant at the temple. I tried various volunteering opportunities, adult education, services. I came away from each experience feeling I hadn’t found my people or place, even when they seemed, outwardly, to be a good fit: writing assignments (since I was a writer by trade), for example, or working in the library (since I love to read). It was disconcerting. I felt … awkward. Was it them or me? I was an active volunteer in my children’s public school, had friends there, felt good about it. What was not working for me at the synagogue?
My husband had found a home more than I had, just slightly, when he helped the youth group or cooked at the annual membership breakfast. His parents had been active temple volunteers, and synagogue had been an important part of his life growing up.
I had become more discomfited with the temple over several years. My younger daughter refused to go back to Hebrew school after her bat mitzvah; she had a very tough class of kids and wasn’t learning anything. When I’d approached the head rabbi about talking with her, he had taken a pass. He told me simply to force her to go, or else I wasn’t being a good Jewish parent. I felt dismissed. We knew other parents who felt the same way, and we’d seen a few people leave. We heard grumblings among other parents who stayed, but there weren’t a whole lot of options for Reform synagogues in our area, and everyone there was committed to the best possible Jewish education for the children, which was vitally important to us.
The rabbi, the dynamic man with the warm, easy smile, made all the rules. Even as the younger members assumed leadership roles, I felt like the congregation was following whatever the rabbi said, without really thinking about whether a policy or procedure he came up with made the most sense or worked for the families. And frankly, I began to think people were scared of him. Either that or they just didn’t care as much as I did.
Then there was the financial state of the temple. It sometimes felt like we were throwing good money after bad. Directly following a multimillion dollar renovation that included adding a stadium-style seating auditorium and a brand new sanctuary and Hebrew school, the temple suddenly announced that the roof was bad and needed $1,000 from every family to build a new one.
We were about to send our older daughter off to college and though we’d saved, of course it hadn’t been enough. So, late one fall night of her senior year, I said to my husband, after looking at our finances, “Maybe we should quit the temple when she graduates.”
My husband’s initial response was no. His mother had recently died, and she’d left a last letter to her sons, telling them to make sure they stayed connected to their Judaism. (Oy! The guilt!) The reality was, I argued, we were barely using the temple, but paying a lot of money every month for membership. Once our daughter left for college, with the younger one completely uninterested, how much would we go there, then? My husband’s youth-group participation would likely stop, and he was only involved in one or two events a year anyway. I was never going to temple. Services were very long, I often got bored and itchy when we did go, which was rare, and I wasn’t feeling connected. A few years back, the temple president had done a huge, anonymous survey of the members to find out what we would like to see handled differently. I had hoped that would spur some changes, but nothing had changed. I’d already tried so many volunteer activities and not found my place.
We talked all that winter. We’d go back and forth—sometimes I would want to quit, sometimes (though less often) he would. Sometimes we would agree to stay for another year. What would we do if we quit? Would we join another synagogue? We didn’t like the other options in our area. So, we focused on whether or not to stay, not what we would do next. That spring, we agreed, though reluctantly, that the best thing to do was leave. So, I began working on the email.
It was one simple line. We were leaving the temple. We thanked them for their years of service to us. Still, it hurt to hit send.
I felt sick for a couple of weeks after that. Then my husband got a phone call at work from the rabbi. He told my husband that we were making a mistake, that if we didn’t stay with the synagogue, there would be no one to bury us when we died. He said that he was putting aside our request to leave the temple (could he even do that?) and that we would stay.
The temple kept sending our bills. I chose to ignore them. Eventually, they stopped coming.
We still talk about where else we can join, but we haven’t found the place, a place where we can volunteer comfortably and go to adult education classes and where everyone knows who we are and we know who they are, and we feel like we fit in. There are geographic obstacles, too—synagogues that sound good but are just far enough away that we know we wouldn’t go.
Then again, we may never find that place, and may never join another synagogue. I’ve come to realize that it’s OK if we don’t. I’m as Jewish as I was the day before I sent the email releasing us from our old synagogue. I still celebrate the holidays; I still make Shabbat dinner. I’m just unaffiliated.
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So much of the Talmud is about working the land, and the rules that govern labor, profit, and loss