Jewish orgs. should value friendship the same as 'traditional' family - opinion

The Jewish community at large has a lot to gain from new models and norms, ones where we center on friendship and other caring relationships.

 A SMALL GROUP meets at GatherDC’s immersive retreat Beyond the Tent, which brings 25 Jews in their 20s and 30s to explore their connection to Jewish life and helps build relationships to help them live out that Jewish life. (photo credit: Gather, Inc.)
A SMALL GROUP meets at GatherDC’s immersive retreat Beyond the Tent, which brings 25 Jews in their 20s and 30s to explore their connection to Jewish life and helps build relationships to help them live out that Jewish life.
(photo credit: Gather, Inc.)

It’s (past) time for Jewish organizations to treat friendship with as much reverence and priority as we do “traditional” marriage and procreation. We must invest in opportunities that expand the fundamental ways that Jewish people can live full adult lives.

Right now, if someone who is single shows up to most Jewish institutions, we have no idea what to do with them. There’s not a path for them in what we have built. Is there one at your organization? If not, are you ready to create some, so that they might feel included and welcomed rather than alienated or othered?

In GatherDC’s earliest days, we defined our audience – Jewish 20- and 30-somethings in the DC area – as “post-college, pre-family.” As if those are the most important and accessible milestones; as if we all agreed on what defines “family”; as if those are everyone’s biggest two priorities.

Back then, some of our offerings explicitly invited people to come and connect with potential significant others, from happy hours and a literal dating auction to the “Jewish Guy and Girl of the Week” profiles we published on our blog.

While some people loved us, as we met more people and the zeitgeist shifted, we began to realize that our approach wasn’t so fresh after all. Including some meant excluding others – and confronting that exclusion was hard.

 A WEDDING canopy is seen against the backdrop scenery of the Mediterranean Sea. (credit: MENDY HECHTMAN/FLASH90) A WEDDING canopy is seen against the backdrop scenery of the Mediterranean Sea. (credit: MENDY HECHTMAN/FLASH90)

And so in the years since, we’ve deliberately shifted and adapted in many ways to make a more welcoming, inclusive environment for all. We now spotlight Jewish people of the week, from a bar owner to a death doula to a multi-instrumentalist. It’s a small adjustment, but in making it, we’re refusing to reduce people to just their job, gender identity or relationship status.

We also offer more experiences that center, nurture and value friendship for friendship’s sake. The goal isn’t centered on helping find a partner; it’s on helping to deepen one’s Jewish identity as a whole person, with the opportunity to make new friends and social connections to support this full identity.

What else might it look like for Jewish organizations and institutions to raise friendship to the level of holy and to measure success accordingly? Can we develop new friendship rituals; support people through friendship breakups; measure the number of friendships we build through our work, in addition to simply the number of couples and babies?

Centering friendships in this way, instead of romantic partnership and nuclear family models, comes with its own challenges. We’ll need to find ways of investing in and understanding multiple ways to procreate both within and outside of monogamous marriage – and we’ll also need to let go of our fear of decreased fecundity, and of procreation as the end goal of Judaism.

Making this shift will also demand that we create new infrastructure to support, nurture, recognize and measure friendships as valuable and powerful in their own right in Jewish institutions. In a world driven by data, metrics and measurement, how do we translate this to our formal and informal spaces? (Instead of measuring couples or participation, might we measure connections between individuals? Fulfilled friendships over time? Embeddedness in community?)

None of this is easy. But the Jewish community at large has a lot to gain from new models and norms, ones where we center on friendship and other caring relationships. We know from GatherDC’s recent five-year Impact Study that young adults feel alienated from Judaism when they are forced to choose “a place,” such as a synagogue or JCC, to formally identify with. Instead, they want fluid and inclusive spaces and opportunities to experiment, grow and change.

People engage with Gather because our holistic relationship-based engagement model supports this. Participants make friends and discover models for Jewish life that are relevant to their lives. These ingredients are a recipe for an emotional connection to Jewish life.

There are myriad Jewish organizations and projects that center social connection in a deep way. All are thriving, and all prove that relational work is doable, measurable and joyful. The growing pains may be real and inevitable, but they are worth it.

If you’ve got a great example to share, or you’re still struggling with what this all might mean for your own organization, please reach out: [email protected] 

The writer leads Gather, Inc., a new project that grew from GatherDC, with her colleague Jackie Zais. Their mission is to train change agents in the Jewish community to bring a relationship-centered approach to every aspect of their work.