So I was perusing Jewschool, as I often do when I am procrastinating, and I came across an interesting post (imagine that!). The blog post, titled “PLP Attendees: Your Establishment Sucks” quoted from an article about a recent conference in LA, called the Professional Leader’s Project, aimed at encouraging Jewish young adults to pursue carreers as Jewish communal professionals. The conference was sponsored in part by The Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation and the Michael Steinhardt / Jewish Life Network – the same people that brought you birthright israel. This conference was meant to familiarize the select group of 150 participants with the organized Jewish community. It was also meant to provide the community with insight into the the thoughts and aspirations of the often underserved “Generation Yers.”

The title for the Jewschool post, PLP Attendees: Your Establishment Sucks, I guess is meant to paraphrase the concerns voiced by the participants about the organized Jewish community. If I were writing the post, I would call it Man. We are so screwed.

Jewschool chose to quote the first 2 paragraphs of the Jewish Week article:

The Jewish community is obsessed with continuity and survival, worrying endlessly about attracting the younger generation to Jewish life, especially since polls show that Jews in their 20s are less committed than their parents to affiliation with synagogues, organizations and Israel. Who, the elders wonder, will be the communal leaders of the future, both lay and professional?

Ironically, but not surprisingly, a select group of 150 Jews in their 20s who took part in a unique three-day conference here last week voiced concerns that they lacked access to and were being ignored by the very community that seeks to attract them.

While that’s a good intro, I found the following more germane:

The sense of disconnect between the organized community and the younger generation was palpable throughout the conference … But even though these young people were far more committed to Jewish life than an average cross-section of Jews their age, many were either baffled by or turned off to how the organized community operates … A young woman from New York questioned how she could work for the Jewish community when she is made to feel that she must support Israel “at all costs.” A young man from the Midwest wondered what was being done to improve efficiency among Jewish defense organizations that seemed to have overlapping goals. A number of participants complained about being made to feel they must pay their way into the community, from synagogue dues to day school tuitions. Others described rabbis and Jewish leaders as intolerant of those with non-traditional beliefs. And several warned not to assume that they were opposed to intermarriage; indeed a significant percentage of the participants were the product of such unions.

See, what the article didn’t really mention, was the subtext of all these efforts – the desire to appeal to the large chunk of the US Jewish population that considers itself secular. What is remarkable is that for the most part, the organized Jewish community, ie the federations and the foundations have always been secular. This conference was a discussion between unrepresentative secular Jewish kids and predominantly secular Jewish leadership. The Steinhardts and the Schustermans want to create a new generation of Jewish youth made in their own image. What they don’t understand is that these kids are already in their own image.

Assimilated, intermarried youth, apathetic and uninterested in what the secular Jewish community has to offer them are the logical product of a secular Jewish organizational structure. I mean of course these people are uninterested in Judaism! If I were taught the same Judaism that they were, I wouldn’t want to be Jewish either. I mean what has non-religious Judaism always emphasized?

It has emphasized a Judaism that is defined by its detractors – a Judaism that only manifested itself in response to the existence of or the perceived threat of anti-semitism. A Judaism that existed in theory but was not part of its adherents daily life. A Judaism that demanded nothing significant of its followers but yet made unreasonable demands – “Why shouldn’t I marry a non-Jew? I’ll still watch Seinfeld and eat bagels.” Of course these people are offended by concepts like choseness. In the Judasim lite that was passed on to them choseness seemed less like a mission of tikkun olam and more like chauvinistic and yes, racist and undeserved entitlement claimed by a Jewish people who went to great pains to be no different than their non-Jewish neighbours.

Jewschool also cited an article in the New York Press by Douglas Rushkoff titled The self-imposed death of institutional Judaism. In that article, he almost gets it right. His criticism of the organized Jewish community is spot on, but then he fails to take the next logical step … As a self described “latent Jew” he displays a bias that shares much with the secular Jewish life that he has in common with the self same Jewish community leaders that he criticizes. Both are in fact quite similar to each other.

I think the Rushkoff article merits a separate treatment (This is one looong ass post). Let me just say that Rushkoff has it wrong on many levels. He’s right that Judaism is not a race. He’s wrong however when he cites notions like matrilineal descent as being “racist” and not Jewish. He states that “this whole matrilineal descent business isn’t part of Judaism, at all, but a remnant of the Roman census conducted in the second century.” He’s wrong. Look at Sefer Devarim (Deuteronomy) chapter 7 verse 4. Similiarly, in the same section you see restrictions against intermarriage. These have nothing to do with race either and everything to do with fostering an environment that is most conducive to continuity. Rushkoff goes on to say that “Assimilation has always been the Jews’ best strategy. Our mandate in Torah is not to protect ourselves from others, but to “share our light” with them.” The problem is of course, that assimilated Jews have very little “light” to share. Therein lies the rub.

While the participants in the PLP conference are undoubtedly very involved and or interested Jewishly, and while there is no doubt that Rushkoff shows a remarkable interest in the Torah and Judaism, these secular Jews are the exception rather than the rule. The majority of young unaffiliated Jews display an ignorance of even the most basic tenets of Judaism – cultural, historical or religious – that is breathtaking. I don’t know what Jewishly unique things they can possibly contribute to their surrounding society (I won’t even get into his whole Israel spiel. You can read the article and figure it out yourselves. Suffice it to say that I disagree with his take on that too).

Anyhow – I guess I ought to conclude by stating that continuity is always going to be a problem for secular Jews. As I’ve said before, an interest in Jewish literature and culture in and of itself is like a quirky little hobby and hobbies do not lend themselves to cross generational continuity. Judaism is a way of life that manifests itself on a daily basis, from the moment one wakes up till the second one goes to sleep. Judaism is a pain in the ass. A rewarding and enriching pain in the ass, but a demanding pain in the ass nonetheless. And when there is no pain, there is no gain.

About the author

ck

Founder and Publisher of Jewlicious, David Abitbol lives in Jerusalem with his wife, newborn daughter and toddler son. Blogging as "ck" he's been blocked on twitter by the right and the left, so he's doing something right.

10 Comments

  • This reminds me of this very last week, when a higher-up from the Jewish Federation of Greater New Orleans visited my Modern Judaism class in an effort to convince us young Jews to consider a career in North American Jewish organizations.

    What got me was the underlying sense of desperation, and also the lack of focus in his entire spiel. I would say, more than secularization itself, the problem may be polarization: when he tried to give us a reason to want to devote ourselves to the North American Jewish community, he couldn’t give us anything more than a vague “it will help the community” circular logic rationalization. Why? Because by catering to the secular Jews in class, he would have alienated the religious, and by catering to the religious, he would have alienated the secular.

    So instead of trying, he mostly talked about how it paid pretty well, it gave you something to do after you were done with school, and that you got off both Jewish and federal holidays.

    And, really, that’s not nearly enough of a reason for anyone to decide to devote their lives to helping the community–there certainly are good reasons, but the fractured nature of the Jewish community precludes using them.

    When Jewish federations lose the ability to speak for a reasonably large percentage of the Jewish population, they lose their relevance. But I guess that’s more or less what you were saying.

  • At my school we had a table where parents of incoming Jewish freshmen would come to ask questions. Something I really felt ashamed to do was I explained to them how there weren’t any orthodox people at my campus, like it was a bad thing to have religious students. It made them feel much more at ease that there were other kids like theirs. How did being an observant Jew get such a negative connotation?

  • Beautiful post Ms, uhhh, whoever the hell is running this blog. Having spent 5 years working for Fed. CJA in Montreal, you’ve nailed down many of the issues plaguing the “organized” Jewish community. Oh, and how do you know about the ghetto shul? Do you live in Montreal?

  • Mike,
    I think it has to do with the fear of ‘losing’ their kids to the ‘dosim’.
    Reminds me of something I heard before I made aliyah 10 years ago. It seems that parents at my old day/high school (the one that was torched in VSL) were complaining about the ‘high’ level of torah/tenach/talmud/hebrew study and how it was too demanding for today’s needs. Even now looking back, I think that it was challenging, but not really too high.
    The school was religious, but frankly very few kids were, or from religious families themselves.
    I suppose parents don’t want to lose their kids and deal with hassles such as more stringent kosher demands, and heaven forbid a shomer shabbos kid. Risking assimilation seems prefered.

  • Good point Josh. Especially when you consider that say, Michael Steinhardt is an avowed atheist. I mean he’s a good, well meaning man and all, but Judaism divorced from divinity is like a nice idea and all, but not worthy of sacrifice and commitment.

    I mean imagine this. Let’s say you were a uh… fatalist. You lived your life based on the idea that all outcomes were pre-determined. And then one day, someone comes along and says reject your fatalism or I will oppress and kill you and your family. What do you do? You give up all outward manifestations of your belief in fatalism. I mean fatalism is a nice idea and all but do you really want to risk your family’s physical integrity over some idea? Of course not.

    And yet, Jews throughout the ages have made tremendous sacrifices for their Judaism. In fact Michael Steinhardt and all those who identify as Jews today are the beneficiaries of these sacrifices. No one risks their immediate well being for a greater good unless that greater good is worth it. Judaism is worth it because its more than just an idea. Or some cool stories. Or some nice books by Mordechai Richler and Saul Bellow.

    Judaism is a way of life – at least it ought to be if you care about it enough to want to keep it alive and pass it on to your next generations. And it’s a way of life that was given to us (or imposed upon us, whatever) by G*d. Take away the “way of life part” and take away the “G*d” part and you’re left with very little of any significant substance. I mean there are scholars who study Judaism passionately in China. I sure as heck don’t count on them for continuity….

  • I thought that Michael was, quite reasonably, giving up the god part but retaining the ‘way of life’ part. Why shouldn’t one commit themselves to a way of life they find valuable and worthwhile, even wonce they come to realize that the belief in god is, well, ridiculous at best? Plenty of atheists have been willing to sacrifice for things that they found important. And as for my fam, if someone threatened them with a gun, i’d give up outward forms of judaism too even if I believed in God.

  • Stenis le menace,
    The “way of life” part, absent a discernible spiritual component, is not sustainable – that’s the primary lesson of 350 years of Jewish-American history. It’s that simple. As for your opinion on the belief in God part being ridiculous, I can just as easily state that not believing in God is actually what is really ridiculous. I never said that atheists are unwilling to sacrifice. But what are YOU willing to sacrifice for? I don’t mean to attack you or anything, but what value does Judaism have for you? When was the last time you dated a Jewish woman? I mean you’re here so you must have some interest. But what it’s like a hobby or something, no? I mean if someone put a gun to my family and said “give up your train set” I’d be like, ok. Someone tries to prevent me from practicing my Judaism any way I see fit, well… they’ll have a bit of a fight on their hands… 🙂

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