Searching for God in the 7 Cities: Judaism

Jews Account For Less Than 1 Percent Of Our Region’s Population But Have A Remarkably Strong Presence In The Community

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Phil Walzer, Searching for God in the 7 Cities: Judaism
Phil Walzer

The primary challenge that Jewish synagogues face today—or the Conservative and Reform synagogues, at any rate—is declining membership due to changing attitudes among millennials.

Phil Walzer, a former president of Temple Israel, sees this phenomenon in the attitude of his own sons.

“They have no interest,” he said. “I think each of them would identify as Jewish, but they don’t attend synagogue. Retaining millennials is a real challenge.”

Then again, Walzer, a native of Brooklyn, never imagined when he was their age that he would eventually become so deeply involved.

“If someone had told me when I was in my 20s that I would become president of a synagogue, I would have told them they were crazy,” he said. “There was a strong sense of Jewish identity in my family when I was growing up. My father was born in Poland, but because of the intense anti-Semitism that he had experienced there before the war, he never identified as Polish.” In spite of this, he added, his parents did not attend synagogue often.

After moving to Norfolk for a job at The Virginian-Pilot, Walzer and his wife joined Temple Israel. Gradually he felt more and more drawn to it.

“It’s a good community, with a strong emphasis on social action,” he said. “And I really respect Rabbi Panitz’s efforts to reach out to other religions.” Moreover, he said, Judaism in general expresses “values that I want to embrace, and that I want my sons to embrace.”

While Walzer did not seem overly concerned that his sons have no interest in organized religion, the loss of millennials came up again and again in conversations I had. The challenge certainly isn’t unique to Judaism. It’s a problem for Christian churches, as well, particularly traditional denominations.

“Judaism in America, like every other religion in America, is a non-established religion,” Rabbi Panitz noted. “People affiliate as they wish to. But churches and synagogues are bricks and mortar institutions with institutional needs. And the way in which they try to meet their needs is usually to have a model of membership. That idea of being a member of an institution seems to be less resonant among millennials.”

Because of this, Panitz tries to remain flexible when talking with young Jewish men and women. He mentioned, for example, a 33-year-old named Danny Rubin, who grew up attending Temple Israel but didn’t attend as often when he became a young adult.

“When Danny was first married, he said that if he and his wife do anything [in the way of religious observance] it’s inviting people over on Friday night. So I said, ‘fine—why don’t you make that the norm of how your week goes.’ What I was looking for was religious engagement to become a norm in their lives—whether it’s in this building or not. There are different ways of getting there.”

Danny Rubin, Searching for God in the 7 Cities: Judaism
Danny Rubin

Rubin told me more about his own journey during a conversation at the Simon Family Jewish Community Center in Virginia Beach, an institution with which he is deeply involved. 

“It’s hard to separate my identity from Judaism. I wouldn’t say I’m particularly religious. I don’t follow strict customs of kosher food, for example, and I don’t pray morning noon and night. I do it in my own way. But I do know how to lead a lot of the prayers, which many people don’t—or haven’t since their bar mitzvah. I try to participate in that side of it when I can.”

Rubin concentrates much of his effort on bringing the Jewish community together in social activities, for both fellowship and raising money for various Jewish organizations.

“People want to feel anchored to something; they don’t want to feel like they’re adrift. I think the reason the Jewish community has survived is that we care so much about where we came from and what came before us. We will carry on certain traditions during holidays that have been done for thousands of years. It’s unbelievable to think about that. To be Jewish is to be a student of your own history and to feel like you’re a part of that history. Everyone who grows up in that takes pride in it and wants to own it in some way.”

When he does bring people together the common ground is Jewish heritage, not one branch or another.

“Recently, we organized a bowling outing,” he said. “We had an Orthodox Rabbi, a guy who had converted, some who were Reform, and some Conservative. It doesn’t matter to me. We’re all Jewish, and we should know each other. We should socialize, do business together, spend time with our families together. We just need to be tight-knit as a Jewish people. At least in our community, it’s small enough that we need to pool our resources.”

As I reflected on Rubin’s deep commitment to the Jewish community, it occurred to me that he may represent the future of Judaism in Coastal Virginia and, indeed, across the country. Synagogues and the services they offer will survive, no doubt, albeit with some changes in institutional structure and worship style. But in time they may become less important than they once were. Indeed, after talking with Rubin, I was reminded again of Rabbi Mandelberg’s comment that it is less important to her what people believe or how they pray than it is how they live. Rubin brings the values of Judaism into his everyday life and feels called to help others do so.

“I just want this community to be here for my children,” he said, “and for me to feel like I played a role in keeping that flame burning.”


Read more about religion in Searching for God in the 7 Cities: Muslims, Christianity, Part 1 and Part 2Buddhism and Transcending Religion.

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