One of the most important professional lessons I have learned in my decade in the rabbinate is that words matter. Whether it be the language used in a sermon or speaking to someone in a time of great distress, the choices we make in our words is of the utmost importance. The commonly used refrain, “Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me,” is blatantly false. Words have the power to both destroy and rebuild, depending on how they are used. Yet, we continue to often use the same language without thinking about what those words mean and what better terminology may be possible.
Within Jewish life, there are a number of good examples of terms that are used regularly that don’t represent what it is that we are actually trying to present. Calling a Jewish communal organization a “non-profit” is an accurate description legally of what the institution may be, but poorly represents the character of the organization. It describes what the institution isn’t rather than what it is: an organization singularly focused on repairing the world rather than advancing its own financial interests. What would it mean to refer to our Jewish communal organizations as “for a cause” or “community-minded” rather than simply referring to it as a non-profit?
Perhaps my least favourite term that is used in relation to Jewish life is “unaffiliated.” That word is often used to describe people who are not members of a synagogue, who in the Christian world would be referred to as the “unchurched.” While we refer to these individuals as unaffiliated, they may still have a very deep relationship with their Judaism. They may still send their children to day school or religious school. They may be members of the Soloway Jewish Community Centre or support Jewish Family Services. They celebrate Chanukah, Passover, and other Jewish holidays with family members and friends. These people are not unaffiliated. They feel a very deep connection to their faith, but it manifests itself in the most meaningful ways for them. We are belittling their connection to their people and their religion by calling them unaffiliated.
I believe that anyone who is a participant in a Jewish communal organization should be considered affiliated with the Jewish community. Donors to the Jewish Federation of Ottawa, supplementary school parents, and synagogue members are all affiliating with Jewish life in some way. People who choose not to join synagogues are “un-shuled” but that is not the only way to access meaningful Jewish life.
All too often, Jewish communities are convinced that their institutions are the singular path to meaningful Jewish engagement. We see the value in our participation and cannot understand why others are not following suit. A 21st century Jewish institution cannot expect everyone to come to us or even attempt to bring everyone within their organization. We need to follow the teaching of the Divine, who found Ishmael “where he was” (Genesis 21:17) and meet people where they are. Rather than expecting them to live up to our expectations, we need to do a better job of living up to theirs. Then we can truly do our work of reaching and inspiring those within our community, rather than being concerned about whether they are affiliated or not. Let us bring Jewish life to them.