What Do You Do When You've Out Grown Your Religious Upbringing?
With every growth spurt I’ve gone through, both vertically and horizontally (sigh), there’s been a physical mark left it its wake. Marble brown lines lace across my hips as a permanent sign of the changes.
What marks are left behind when that outgrowing is intangible? When we cast off rituals or social expectations that don’t feel good, or match who we’ve become, while rejiggering the pieces that do?
I had the opportunity to discuss this question with Danya Shults, a woman who’s been on the quest to answer this conundrum for herself as well as for others she has seen searching for community. Below are her thoughts on her Jewish childhood and her struggle to reconcile the traditions with her adult life, her marriage to a non-Jew, and the process that lead to a new purpose and career path:
I grew up in New Haven, Connecticut. I grew up pretty Jew-y -- went to Jewish Day School, Jewish summer camp. My family was Conservative Jewish. We kept kosher. We observed Shabbat, which meant that we didn't use electricity on Saturdays, although there are a lot of work arounds for that which my non-Jewish husband justifiably thinks are ridiculous (you can have timers to turn on your lights, and he's like, “No, that’s definitely cheating”).
I love how I grew up. It was a great community. Our synagogue was pretty special, community-led, and also pretty diverse. There were a lot of people who were converts, gay couples -- mostly white, but some people of different racial backgrounds who had either converted or were part of a Jewish marriage. Down the street was a community for people with disabilities who came to our synagogue.
When I went to college, I was like, “Oh My God!, the world is my oyster, I can do anything! I can eat ANYTHING off of this buffet!!” I took little steps away from what I grew up with. I started eating non-kosher chicken...because it basically looked and tasted the same as kosher chicken -- but I wouldn't eat shrimp! There was a hold out on bacon until this year, but now -- I'm converted.
I couldn’t put two and two together at the time, but I now see it was hard to reconcile the lifestyle that I wanted, which was this cool, intellectual, art school life, and the Jewish community. The struggles came because those two worlds are basically separate. There were some cool people in the Jewish community, but going to Hillel didn't feel cool to me. I would rather have gone to an art school party on Friday night, where we were all dressing up in some costume and being weird, you know? My priority was to explore all these other things, and I also felt really Jewish. I was still very identified as Jewish, but my primary community and habits and practices kind of stopped being the more traditional Jewish ones.
After I graduated from college, I moved to New York and the world seriously was my oyster. There were all these interesting people, and I was dating. I tried going to synagogues, young professional groups, Jewish organizations. I was actually on the board of a Jewish non-profit, but it still felt separate and different from my actual life, and it wasn't working for me.
Finally, I met the guy that I ended up marrying, and, of course, he was not Jewish, because that's just how life works. My type of guy had always been short, dark, and handsome, a.k.a. a Jewish guy. When I met my husband, who is tall, white, blonde, and not Jewish, he was not my typical type. He's outdoorsy and from California -- I didn’t know that life. But, we did end up really seriously dating, and, from the very beginning, he knew it was important to me to be Jewish.
In the early days of us dating I was trying to shock him a little bit to see if the Jewish thing would scare him away, so I said, "Just so you know, it's really important to me to raise Jewish kids and have a Jewish life. I don't even care if you believe in it (which totally wasn’t true!) but I just want you to know it's a financial commitment. My parents, who are not extremely wealthy, have probably spent a million dollars in their lifetime on their children’s Jewish Day Schools, Jewish summer camps, bar mitzvahs, bat mitzvahs, trips to Israel...” And he was like, "Uhhhhh, why are you telling me this?" It was like our third week dating!
We ended up having lots of very philosophical, often teary, conversations about why it is so important to me, and what does being Jewish mean for family and kids. That's a really tough set of things to talk about when you're in a developing relationship, but you don't want to wait to talk about it, to get all the way down to the end of the road and then realize you're not on the same page.
We worked it out -- around the time we were talking about getting engaged, we started looking to see if there was a synagogue we felt comfortable going to for Rosh Hashanah, or if we just happened to want to go on a Shabbat. We tried out all of these things, these kind of hippy dippy synagogues in Park Slope, Brooklyn, and they were too woo woo, new agey. Then we tried out the big traditional ones, and that was so not the right vibe. We just couldn't find anything we wanted to do.
Luckily, the world conspired to make something possible. I had just left a job at a start-up, and I was doing some consulting while figuring out what I wanted to do next. I had this whole concept swirling around in my head of what could Andrew (my husband) and I do that would make sense for both of us to connect to Jewish culture and Jewish life.
We started this pop-up restaurant called Pop-Up Shabbat. It was a pop-up restaurant inspired by Jewish culture, open to anyone. We did it with our friend Melissa, who is also not Jewish, so I was the token Jew of Pop-Up Shabbat, and it was awesome. Lots of non-Jews came, and if you were Jewish, you got to tell your mom you had a cool Shabbat dinner deep in Red Hook, BK, but you also had a cool pop-up restaurant experience. If you weren't Jewish, you probably read about it on Eater and you were like, “Cool, this sounds really interesting and maybe it will be a cultural experience.”
I ended up getting a full-time job in venture capital, and, in two years, we retired Pop-Up Shabbat. It was a passion project and not a business (you know, when it costs you money and you still do it). That's when I started writing The Ish, which is a weekly digest of all things Jew-ish. It was just a Gmail email that I sent to friends and family who would not ask me to stop emailing them. It got shared around, and I turned it into a real newsletter that you could subscribe to. I'm still doing it, but about 6 months ago, I really decided there was something bigger to tackle, that Pop-Up Shabbat and The Ish kind of both spoke to, which is, “How do you care a lot about being Jewish, but also not want to participate in the more traditional communities or observances?”
There was a study done a couple years ago about American Jews by the Pew Research Center. There's a lot of insightful data in there that scared a lot of the traditional institutions because it said things like, “No one's keeping kosher”, “No one's belonging to synagogues,” “50% of people who identify as Jewish are not married to a Jew.” So, the problem to solve comes down to -- how do we make the non-Jewish partners of Jews feel included in the Jewish community? Also, how do we create new traditions that honor and respect non-traditional Jews and people who are not Jewish who are a part of the Jewish community? That's a big question, and I don't think anyone has figured that out, but that's what I want to do.
I've spent the past 6 months working on Arq, which is a lifestyle brand and community that helps people connect to Jewish life and culture in a more modern way. We do that through content like The Ish, but also through events similar to Pop-Up Shabbat, and soon, products.
On Building Arq:
When I was at the venture capital firm, I sat in the boardroom every week, hearing what the VCs thought made a valuable company, and it's not just about the market. It's about the founders, it's about the popularity of the concept, all of that stuff. When I left the venture capital firm where I was working, I decided I was not going to build a VC-backed company, even though that was the kind I knew the most about.
First, diversity is a real issue in the VC world. To put it simply, a lot of VCs are middle-aged, multi-millionaire white dudes. It doesn't mean they are bad people or have bad ideas or make bad decisions, but they have blind spots. Also, on a practical level, the way that venture capital works is that it's best for rapidly scaling, fast-paced companies, and that doesn't mean that companies that aren't like that aren't worth investing in, it means that it's not worth it for a VC to invest in. So, when I started Arq, I made a very conscious decision to bootstrap it, and thank you to my venture capital job for giving me savings for the first time ever to help with that! I also wanted 100% creative control, which is also why I didn't look for an investor or a co-founder in the beginning. I didn't want to debate with anyone about my vision, about the values of this company, about what it would look like, all of that. When you take someone else's money, you are beholden to those people's opinions, and preferences, and advice. I wanted to be able to, at least for the first year or so, grow this on my own terms, learn at my own pace, and not be forced to hire or partner.
I am coming from a pretty privileged place to be able to do this. It was a hard decision for me to decide to build this company full-time, even with my savings, but I'm also married and my husband has been emotionally and financially supportive throughout the process. I don't know what I would have done differently if it had just been me. I have such a hard time not being 100% financially independent, since I always was before I got married. Andrew asks me, "But, would you do the same for me?" And I'm like, "Of course! I love helping people! If you wanted to quit your job tomorrow and be a furniture maker and I was still working in VC, I totally would be your sugar mama!” I'd be so proud to have my furniture maker dreamy husband.
Something we do not talk about enough in the start up process is money. What does it take to start a business, to fulfill a dream? I know what my story is, and it's certainly very privileged, and every day I'm so grateful for being able to focus on my business.
There are so many Jewish philanthropies and grants and non-profits that want to give money to people who are doing innovative things in the Jewish sphere. I see lots of people taking that money to create things, but I made a decision that I wanted to be a for-profit company. I don't want to be a non-profit that depends on fundraising. I also wanted to be independent from the traditional, institutional Jewish world for starters, since I’m building something new and different.
I was always a community person -- a member and a builder before that was a popular term. For me, personally, people are everything. I think best when I'm thinking out loud to another person. I get my energy from being around other people -- I'm a true extrovert in that way, but I think even if you're an introvert, community is so, so crucial. One thing I've learned, because Arq is a lifestyle brand, is there's no one community. That's how it used to be, that is the old model. I find myself as part of multiple communities and I also come in and out of those communities as my life changes.
I think what was so appealing with Pop-Up Shabbat and The Ish and now Arq is that it's not beholden to any of the expectations or requirements of the traditional Jewish world. I don’t care if you're Jewish. If you come to an event, I can host couples and you can be married to a non-Jew, and I want to know that demographic info because I love data and I want to understand my audience, but I'm not going to send you a follow-up email about a conversion class or a kosher event. I don't have an agenda other than to bring people together around Jewish culture.