Rabbi Rick Jacobs

Engaging the “Nones”



There is no escaping the challenging fact that there are more Jews outside the walls of our synagogues than inside. Social scientists such as Robert Putnam and Mark Chaves explain this as being part of a larger phenomenon in North America, where the most rapidly growing religious group is unaffiliated—the “nones.” While middle-aged and older individuals continue to embrace organized religion, exponentially increasing numbers of young people reject it.

Too often I hear Jewish leaders describing those who have no religious affiliation as people “who don’t know and don’t care.” I disagree. The 2012 Pew Forum on Religion survey, “‘Nones’ on the Rise,” disproves this notion, finding that many of these “nones” believe in God, seek spirituality, and pray regularly. They just do not relate to the world of organized religion. Seventy percent of “nones” reported that religious institutions are too focused on money and power, and reflect worldviews alien to their own.

That’s precisely why a major thrust of the new URJ is to “reach beyond the walls” of synagogues to engage those who have yet to join us inside of our congregations. Doing so effectively means discarding limiting assumptions such as, “they don’t know and they don’t care.”

In our new URJ Communities of Practice, dozens of URJ congregations are experimenting with a variety of compelling ways to engage young adults and young families, who will learn from each other and from our of URJ Faculty of thought leaders and expert practitioners.

Over the past 40 years, while the ranks of the religiously unaffiliated have been on the rise, the Reform Movement has been the fastest growing theologically liberal religious tradition in America. We have become the largest stream in North American Jewish life. This is due in no small measure to our openness to the full tapestry of Jews—gay Jews and straight Jews, intermarried Jews and in-married Jews, ritual Jews and cultural Jews.

The hallmarks of Reform Judaism—dynamism, openness, creativity—should make our Movement extraordinarily attractive to Jews worldwide who mistakenly view all organized religion as insular and out of touch.

I hope you will embrace the challenge of reaching beyond our synagogue walls to engage all those who are seeking a meaningful Jewish life. Let’s give them the opportunity to experience the beauty and power of our Reform Jewish community.

Originally published in Reform Judaism magazine

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Rabbi Rick Jacobs

About Rabbi Rick Jacobs

Rabbi Rick Jacobs is the president of the URJ. See his full bio and other writings on the URJ website.

2 Responses to “Engaging the “Nones””

  1. avatar

    As a “none” I will not pay my local synagogue between 2 and 3 thousand dollars a year for the privilege of not being a “none.” I have health care costs, a self-funded retirements plan, and an emergency nest egg. Its that simple. You can do all of the surveys, biennials, conferences, studies, that you want but it boils down to money.

  2. avatar

    Money is certainly a concern for many, but the alienation has to do with relevance and meeting of needs as well. I have two children in their early twenties in two different cities, who are passionately Jewish and unaffiliated. They have attended various temples looking for a home. They find the services out of touch and boring, the congregations tending to be functioning more like a business than a community, more concern placed on income and status than spirtual development, social action and volunteerism, the adult education scheduled during work hours and geared toward the elderly, and no meaningful social context for their age group within the Temples. They also feel that their is a strong movement within Reform Judaism toward handing down of dictates rather than fostering personal exploration and commitments. When we have our frequent family teleconferences, they often discuss such issues as well as discussing their world from the perspective of their Jewish outlook. If I were to identify the most frequently heard complaint, it is that the temples no longer feel like a community or a family. In their minds, the temples have become businesses instead.

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