Forum for the Future: Fitting In
by Kate Bigam

Age: 28

Profession: URJ Social Media and Community Manager; freelance writer and blogger

Jewish Childhood and Early Adulthood Experiences: The child of a Jewish mother and a Christian father who was not religious, I was raised as a Jew, became a bat mitzvah, and was confirmed at a Reform congregation. As the only Jew at my school in a suburban Ohio city, I sometimes experienced antisemitism: In the first grade, a girl told me that she couldn’t be friends with me because I was Jewish and Jews burn in hell.

I was not Jewishly engaged in college, preferring to focus on my schoolwork and my sorority. Then in my junior year, my high school boyfriend committed suicide by hanging himself, and I fell into a deep depression. My childhood rabbi, a pillar of support, suggested I leave Ohio for the Religious Action Center’s Machon Kaplan summer work/study program for college students in Washington, D.C. In 2006 I was accepted.

At first I felt out of place at the RAC. Unlike many other participants, I’d grown up without a real connection to a larger Jewish community. I was ashamed and embarrassed when others discussed Jewish history and current events of which I had no knowledge, and felt alienated when they recited prayers such as the Birkat Hamazon, which I’d never heard before. I spent our first group Shabbat near tears, wondering how I could call myself a Jew when I knew so little about Judaism. But I stayed on and, after graduating from college, was accepted as a RAC Eisendrath Legislative Assistant, working alongside five brilliant and very Jewishly knowledgeable young people who made me feel that I belonged.

Perspectives on Engaging 20s and 30s: Sometimes I still feel estranged from Judaism, partly because my Jewish vocabulary remains so limited. I’m not sure I’ll ever want to read from the Torah or become engaged in Israeli politics. Yet, seeing how strongly and passionately my colleagues feel about fostering meaningful Jewish experiences for young Jews like me, I also know that I am “Jew enough.”

Someday I’ll join a synagogue, but at this point in my life it doesn’t feel right for me. Jews my age aren’t typically active in synagogue life unless they already have children, which I don’t. My boyfriend is not Jewish, and I’m loath to attend services and congregational events alone. I’m scared away by the prospect of encountering overly welcoming congregants who see visiting young adults as fresh meat, of being asked to serve on committees that don’t speak to me, of having to field unwanted questions about my boyfriend’s faith and the future of our relationship, of getting too involved in any Jewish organization when I don’t know where and when I’m settling down—I’ve lived in five states in five years. I’d prefer to follow and donate to Jewish organizations that don’t require in-person involvement, attend independent minyanim, interact on social media with rabbis and other engaged Jews about topics that matter to me—like feminism, civil rights, and pop culture—and ease into congregational life by being a wallflower for a while.

Sometimes I worry for the future of organized religion. Social media and technology have made faith more accessible for people, and synagogues are liable to suffer unless they can find ways to change, grow, and thrive in this new era of beyond-the-walls Judaism. Still, there’s a lot of opportunity for partnership, and when our Movement joins these beyond-the-walls conversations, we become more appealing to 20s and 30s. And with Rabbi Rick Jacobs now at our helm, I believe we’re on the right path.

Union for Reform Judaism.