By Rabbi Seth Goren
This is a season of transitions. Having started a new Jewish year, we are on the verge of rolling back the Torah for another read-through. Many of us are just settling into new jobs or schools, while in nature, this week’s autumnal equinox heralds the end of summer and the beginning of fall. Appropriately, the Book of Ecclesiastes, which is traditionally read during Sukkot, recognizes in its first verses that “one generation goes, another comes” and has as a dominant theme the transitional nature of any one era.
In today’s organized American Jewish community, there seems to be a crisis of confidence as we transition to a new generation and seek to preserve Jewish continuity. Statistics that purport to show declining affiliation rates and a general fall off in Jewish identity among 20-somethings have raised eyebrows and alarms across the country. In Pittsburgh specifically, an estimated 70 percent of young Jews have, at best, minimal connections with Jewish institutions.
Sensing the scorn often aimed at them, many young adults suffer a serious lack of Jewish self-esteem. It could flow from any one of a number of common criticisms: their reluctance to go to synagogue, their dating practices or their connection to the State of Israel. Regardless of why, the result is a growing cohort that was educated to associate Jewishness with after-school unpleasantness and ultimately taught to define themselves as “bad Jews.”
Emotions on all sides range from frustration to anger to fear to apathy, but they all point to one thing: conventional methods of outreach and engagement largely are failing. No matter how passionately some may try to persuade young adults to be “more Jewish,” neither pressure nor pleading has been particularly successful in getting them to go to synagogue, join established Jewish organizations or date “within the tribe” more frequently.
I would suggest that ensuring Jewish continuity and a successful transition of leadership require not guilt and disapproval, but a concept of “radical engagement.” This entails moving beyond the condemnation and clichés that typically are offered to Jewishly marginalized young adults, and focusing instead on gaining a better understanding of where Jewish 20-somethings are today.
Central to radical engagement is taking time simply to ask young adults about their perspectives and to listen to their responses. Questions like “When you say you’re proud of being Jewish, as the vast majority of Jewish young adults do, what aspects of being Jewish come to mind?” or “What dimensions of Jewishness and Judaism are you most interested in exploring?” are more likely to elicit constructive reactions than a reprimand does.
Radical engagement is not for the purpose of persuading someone of the error of his or her ways. It necessarily entails doing our best to listen without preconditions, judgments or criticism. It invites us to set our personal feelings and agendas aside and hold back on accusations that masquerade as questions, such as “Why don’t you go to shul more often?” or “Why don’t you care more about Israel?”
Any successful effort to engage young adults must be broad in whom it attempts to survey. Surprising as it may sometimes seem, the majority of younger Jews are not doctors or lawyers. We do everyone a disservice, ourselves included, when we fail to acknowledge the Jewish bookstore employee, plumber, waiter or musician.
The latter, too, are our collective sons and daughters and have a right to be valued and honored for their potential contributions, whether monetary or otherwise.
At times, this means having difficult interactions with people whose views you consider incomprehensible or abhorrent. It means sitting down and listening to the passively anti-Zionist progressive, the moderately disaffected gay man and the non-Jewish husband of a tenuously connected Jewish woman. Doing so is not, in and of itself, an endorsement of their views or feelings. Rather, it indicates our awareness of how much we have to learn and our desire to build an inclusive, welcoming and robust Jewish community that connects people to Jewish life in a meaningful, personal way.
Of course, all of this begs the question about what Jewish continuity looks like and how it is maintained. To what extent are interfaith relationships a challenge to North American Jewry’s continuing existence? Is there an optimal way to blend individual spiritual exploration, wherever it may lead, with Jewish ritual and belief? How can a relationship with the State of Israel balance universalistic humanity with particularistic pride? Radical engagement does not provide answers to these very real debates. What it does is begin a conversation in which
everyone has a voice, giving all of us a say in how the American Jewish community follows Ecclesiastes’ words and transitions forward into the future.
(Rabbi Seth Goren is the director of J’Burgh, a new cooperative initiative of the Hillel Jewish University Center and Shalom Pittsburgh that works with graduate students and young adults in the Pittsburgh area to build community and provide Jewish programming.)
This op-ed was reprinted from the Sept. 20, 2007 issue of the Jewish Chronicle and was written in response to: J'Burgh Seeks to Make Inroads with Grad Students.