Source: Journal of Modern Jewish Studies
Membership in Jewish congregations seems to be declining and modern society has been described as a challenge to Jewishness and to the future for Jews as a people with shared characteristics and traditions. Activities for children and teenagers have gained increasing attention, since such activities might be a reassurance of a future Jewish life. To arrange such activities is, however, demanding and individuals who commit themselves to voluntary work are essential. In this study, six members of a Swedish Conservative congregation, who were committed to voluntary work with sporting activities for children and teenagers, were interviewed about the way in which they perceived their voluntary work.
A thematic analysis was conducted. The volunteers concluded that everyone should feel included in the activities. They had a nuanced view of Jewish identity and also welcomed those who were not considered halakhically Jewish. Moreover, they wanted to support a positive Jewish identity in the new generation. Their work was perceived as meaningful even though they said that congregants who felt that the activities should adhere to Halakhah had criticized them. It is proposed that congregations should support voluntary workers and facilitate their efforts, otherwise experiences of misrecognition might evolve, experiences that are counterproductive for a vital congregational life.
Taken together, the volunteers in this study had an inclusive perspective, and endeavoured to create a sense of community and make a meaningful contribution to current and future Jewish life. The volunteers appreciated religion but felt that halakhic perspectives should not have self-evident prominence over other perspectives. They described occasions in which they and their voluntary work had been questioned or criticized for not being observant enough. The volunteers advocated a pluralistic approach to Jewishness and congregational life, and tried to acknowledge varying religious perspectives and levels of observance while simultaneously arguing that religion is one of many aspects of Jewishness. Their narratives illustrate that congregants are capable of making contributions and continue with time-consuming work that needs social skills, perseverance, and commitment. Congregational life is indeed inter- mingled with, and even dependent on, voluntary work. It thus seems advisable to support congregants who commit themselves to voluntary work, and empower them to frame the activities as they find appropriate, rather than pressure them to accommodate to what others find appropriate. Moreover, congregations need to acknowledge that an important purpose of theirs is to generate meaning and a sense of community among the congregants. If committed congregants are trusted and seen as active participants, and if it is accepted that congregants might have different perspectives on Jewishness and how future Jewish life could be supported, it is reasonable that congregational life might become vitalized. This is especially important in "Unity congregations" with their varying versions of faith. A little provocatively, it could be suggested that giving prominence to voluntary workers regarding congregational decisions and activities could assure a future Jewish life. It has been argued that religious pluralism, social activities, as well as informal activities for children and teenagers are important for strengthening the affiliation to congregations. Therefore, when congregants express meaning and purpose in non-religious contexts, as the volunteers in this study have done, this should be acknowledged and valued as important by their congregations.