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 â€œat all costs.â€ 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.