By Rabbi Joshua Fenton
My first Grateful Dead Concert was in 1989. I was in the 7th grade and there was no turning back. I was hooked. When I was 15 I ran off with the band for the first time, much to my parent’s chagrin. When I was 17 I dropped out of high school to follow the band around full time, and today I continue to consider my Grateful Dead family as among my closest friends and community, and the music – the music of my soul.
So the recent article written by my friends and colleagues at Upstart titled Engaging With Empathy, published here on eJP caught my eye. First, because it began with a quote from a favorite Grateful Dead song of mine and then because of how I felt it misunderstood that song, and its relevance to the world we Jewish educators work in, and the struggles we face in adapting to a new engagement reality.
The article explored some of the ways in which we might more effectively engage young adults (the holy grail of engagement) in Jewish life. It posited that us Jewish professionals, our programs, and organizations are often confused, lacking focus as we try to “respond to the needs of an ever evolving community…” It went on to explore what might be at the heart of this phenomenon, touching on some recent cultural and sociological trends like the DIY culture and a growing discomfort with particularist identities, concluding with a couple suggestions for how “institutions” might respond to these challenges – human centered design and an evolved understanding of membership and affiliation that provides for the fluidity these new “consumers” are looking for.
Yes – young adults (and just about everyone else) have evolved into more sophisticated consumers. In order to successfully create and sell more and more products, businesses need to do just what the article is calling for. Design products that speak to real needs of users and structure the engagement experience of each of those products in such a way that enables customers to opt in and out as they see fit. This is the consumer culture.
But I don’t think that’s the lesson to be learned from the holy words of Robert Hunter nor do I think those are the lessons to be learned regarding engagement with Judaism and Jewish community.
In the for profit world, I could imagine the conversation taking the tone of an ever changing marketplace, one of fickle customers with no brand loyalty. Generations have grown up in a remote control world which made changing the channel as easy as pushing a button and channel surfing, a metaphor for the never ending search for the next best thing, for an upgrade.
But community works differently, and ultimately that is what we offer. In a variety of shapes, flavors, and sizes, Judaism and engagement is all about community. And community is not a commodity. While we might switch gym memberships or cable providers or cell phone brands on a whim, depending on our ever changing needs and interests, we don’t engage with community in the same way. Community is where I look for meaning and relationships, and the choice to engage or disengage is a profound one. The transactional relationship we have with things is not the kind of relationship we look to form with community, quite the opposite.
While we are more particular about how we spend our money and who and what we choose to affiliate with, “renting experiences” is not the metaphor we should be using to better understand how community does and doesn’t form today. Burners don’t typically jump in and out of Burning Man. One time participants might, but those engaged in the co-creation that is essential to the Burning Man experience do so because of a deep sense of connection and commitment to the vision. They are not renters. They are Burners.
But perhaps the best example of this can be learned from the Grateful Dead themselves, and their extended community. I am a Deadhead. It is the music, the culture, the society and it’s values that drew me in years ago and it was my feeling of kinship with other deadheads that inspired me to “co-create.” There was no renting. There was only deep engagement, and those weekend warriors who had the sense to stay in school and out of trouble knew they were only scratching the surface of something their souls longed for.
Now I run a Hebrew immersive afterschool program in Berkeley called Edah where we serve a number of families with a variety of needs and interests. I talk to parents all the time about what they want for their children and more specifically, what they want their children to get out of their Jewish education. While some parents talk about Hebrew language, others about Jewish practice, and others still about spirituality and prayer, the common denominator is always a desire for their children (and family as well) to find community. That’s why we call the program Edah. Jewish life and learning is fully realized in community, it’s what our constituents, participants, members, and students long for, and the deep engagement we’re looking for hinges on the promise that a meaningful connection to community is possible.
Community is the authentic expression of individuals who come together as a group and then identify membership to that group as an expression who they are as individuals. It requires engagement, results in relationships and is fully realized as kinship. But it’s only as good as the effort and engagement it’s members put into it.
As Robert Hunter wrote and as Jerry Garcia sung, “Won’t you try just a little bit harder, couldn’t you try just a little bit more?” The quality of one’s experience in community is entirely dependent on that. The challenge is not to create an ever expanding body of programs, experiences, and products to meet shifting trends. The challenge is to work with individuals in either connecting them to, or helping them realize new expressions of Jewish community, and then inspiring them to engage deeply, to try a little harder, to try just a little bit more.
Rabbi Joshua Fenton is Executive Director of Edah and Studio 70.