The start of a new year is an apt time to think about the implications of David Bryfman’s recent study of non-Orthodox Jewish teenagers. He summarized his glimpse of the Jewish future in America here on eJewish Philanthropy a couple of weeks ago in a thoughtful and important essay.
His conclusions have the ring of truth. “For many Jewish teenagers,” he writes, “being Jewish is only as important as the context allows it to be and very rarely will be at the expense of other identities.” Indeed, “inter-marriage [is] accepted as a fact of life – even a source of pride for some because “halvsies” are seen as lucky to get to know about more than just one culture. […] This also means that one can be positively Jewish in a non-Jewish framework and with non-Jewish contemporaries.”
Many young Jewish adults – the cohort that is ten or twenty years older than the teenagers described by this study – are also acting in ways that are consistent with these findings. They, too, are less likely to be interested in “Jewish only” activities, preferring to engage in social-justice issues together with non-Jews. Biking for the environment, marching to find a cure to a disease, or volunteering to build housing for the homeless are the ways that many younger Jews now express their Jewish identity.
Older American Jews spend most of their time in activities outside Jewish life as well, and their Jewish identities are based more on their personal attitudes than on their behavior. This is increasingly true as each succeeding generation becomes more distant from the habitual Judaism of their immigrant forebears, and as the Shoah and the founding of the State of Israel recede from living memory into history. Without those kinds of direct, powerful Jewish experiences, Jewish identity becomes less specific and more a matter of making the world a better place.
How do we respond to these realities? If the goal is to produce short-term results, Jewish agencies might react simply by devising programs where Jews can express their Jewish identities in non-Jewish contexts with non-Jewish peers. From a strategic standpoint, however, the key question is what kind of programming will be sustainable over the long term given the emerging trends.
More specifically, since most young Jews have plenty of opportunities to interact with non-Jews through school, leisure activities, and increasingly through their non-Jewish relatives, what does the Jewish community have to add? And if Jewish communal organizations evolve towards more involvement with the wider American community, how do they make the case for donations when they’re competing with a Breast Cancer Foundation, Greenpeace, or Amnesty International?
As American Jews become more like other Americans, Jewish agencies can preserve their special roles by offering what the wider marketplace doesn’t offer: Jewish learning, Jewish culture, Jewish values, Jewish practice. We may present programs in venues that are not identified as Jewish, and we may serve audiences of Jews and non-Jews alike. Yet our success will depend on our using our core competences to continue to offer identifiably Jewish services in an environment where they are mingled with non-Jewish options.
The inexorable sociological changes in American Jewish life, like so many things, can be seen as a threat and as an opportunity. They do threaten a style of communal life that is already declining. They also offer the chance to reaffirm the enduring place of Jewish culture in a multicultural world, and to provide future generations with new ways of incorporating Jewish values into public life. It’s an opportunity we should seize.
Bob Goldfarb, the president of the Center for Jewish Culture and Creativity, earned his MBA at Harvard Business School. He is a regular contributor to eJewishPhilanthropy and lives in Jerusalem.