Amidst the Tot Shabbats, preschool Purim plays, and family-friendly movie nights, it’s difficult for many single, empty-nester or childless Jews who want to attend shul to feel 100 percent comfortable doing so.
There’s no arguing the fact that family is vital, if not central, to Judaism. The religion places a huge premium on marriage and parenthood. In fact, so many aspects of Judaism revolve around family and domestic life – the traditions, the customs, the ways of life – which form the strong pillars required to support the Jewish religion and culture throughout consecutive generations.
But that same strength easily turns into a weakness when the religion ignores the needs and emotions of those without family or spouse.
Going to Friday night services alone is scary and disheartening. Who will lend a hand when you single-handedly try to raise your sukkah’s roof? Are you really asking the Four Questions if there’s nobody else at the Passover table to hear them?
This was the case for Lanee Cohen, a single mother of three from Phoenix, who felt a sense of “otherness” when she attended services after her divorce. She often sat alone during services and felt like a third wheel when her married friends invited her to join them. She received a cursory greeting at the sanctuary’s entrance, but then was cast adrift into the crowded room.
“I was an other, not part of the traditional group. I didn’t fit in with the other families and couples,” says Cohen. “Growing away from our partners doesn’t mean temple should grow away from us.” Cohen is the organizer of a Meet Up group (meetup.com/Active-Jewish-Singles) that is active in the Phoenix/Scottsdale community. Composed primarily of single Jewish people ages 45-60, the group plans year-round social activities, as well as functioning as a chavurah.
Personally speaking, I was widowed at an early age and had two very young children to raise. While I did not specifically sense I was less welcome while attending temple, I did feel somewhat inadvertently overlooked as the emphasis was put upon traditional nuclear families and Jewish roles for mom AND dad, not mom OR dad.
According to the most recent Pew Research survey, only 22 percent of Jewish singles in America belong to a synagogue compared with 39 percent of married Jews, so there are a lot of prospective members to reach. A few congregations in the Valley have taken notice of this feeling of disconnect and aim to make their synagogues a welcoming place for Jewish singles, empty-nesters and those without children.
Beth Ami Temple in Paradise Valley is a boutique temple catering to those exact demographics. Composed of roughly 45 percent single Jewish adults, the members of Beth Ami Temple are too busy to feel ignored. Social clubs dedicated to a variety of interests such as hiking, dining out, travel, movies and tennis keep members of all ages and marital classification engaged and part of the community.
“Our congregation is very friendly and inclusive. We are focused on the empty nesters whose children are grown,” explains Beth Ami’s Rabbi Art Abrams. “That is when affiliation depends not on child-rearing and education, but on the real need for spiritual and communal motivation and experiences.”
Due to Rabbi Abrams’ mindset, Cohen feels at ease and welcomed at the small congregation. “I can’t tell you how good I felt walking into Beth Ami Temple,” says Cohen. In fact, she feels so welcome that she has brought her Meet Up group to High Holiday and Shabbat services at Beth Ami several times. (Beth Ami is having a wine and cheese open house and reception 6-7:30 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 10. Visit bethamitemple.org.)
Another congregation doing its part to make singles and people without children feel part of the makeup is Congregation Or Tzion in North Scottsdale. One of their temple groups, the Socialights, is composed primarily of empty-nesters ranging in age from the late 40s to early 70s. Some of the group’s past events have included wine tasting, picnics, scavenger hunts, square dancing and a luau.
“We find ways to make everyone feel comfortable and welcome, whatever their social, marital, or age category is,” says Or Tzion’s Rabbi Micah Caplan. “During Shabbat Services, we take a break from the service and have individuals introduce themselves to one another in a more intimate one-on-one environment.” (For more information, visit congregationortzion.org.)
It’s important for all congregations, if not all Jewish people, to make everyone attending their services feel like they are an integral part of the community. No single group or age category should be held above another in esteem.
There are several ways for synagogues to be more inclusive. Rabbis and temple committee members need to be more proactive, inviting those alone to all events – both social and religious – and seeing that they are recognized and greeted warmly and genuinely.
Organize communal meals and help those alone coordinate other activities. Finally, those who live alone by choice or by circumstance have the option to take matters into their own hand. Take the initiative to invite another single person over for Shabbat or to break the fast – or even just to watch the next episode of “Orange is the New Black”!
Whether you are family by blood or by congregation, remember that family relations do require effort and consideration, but, in the end, it is worth it.
Deborah Muller is the publicist for several Jewish organizations around the Valley, including the Greater Phoenix Jewish Film Festival, the Desert Gathering Jewish Music Fest and Beth Ami Temple.