Affording teens the unique opportunity to explore their Jewish identities by exposing them to the diversity of Jewish expression and experience which is today’s reality is to invite them to venture on a collective Jewish journey.
[This essay is from The Peoplehood Papers, volume 10 – Peoplehood in the Age of Pluralism – published by the Center for Jewish Peoplehood Education.]
by Tal Gale
What will be the future of the Jewish People? This question remains unresolved in a time when there is more freedom and choice than ever in history to express Jewish identity individually and collectively.
Ironically, today’s freedom to be Jewish, a constant aspiration of the Jewish People, now presents itself as one of the greatest challenges facing us. How can the opportunity to connect to Judaism through diverse channels threaten the future of the Jewish People?
Young Jews today are asking themselves: What does it mean to be Jewish? Who is a Jew? And even, why be Jewish? These questions are not new; similar self-questioning characterizes Jewish history and are a defining character of the Jewish People. In fact, asking these questions is critical to perpetuating the Jewish People.
Our current challenge is not how to answer these questions but in what context. Today these questions are being answered not by the Jewish People as a whole but in isolated groups with diverse defining features including different streams of Judaism, geographic and socio-economic realities and others.
Having worked so hard to create communities that support different ways of Jewish life, Jewish leaders are reluctant to engage in dialogue. Why this reluctance? One reason may be demographics. In his essay, “American Jews in the New Millennium,” Jonathan Sarna writes, “In the 21st century, it is safe to predict, the American Jewish community will shrink both absolutely (the number of Jews will decline) and also relatively (the percent of Jews within the total US population will also decline)”. He continues to note that “the Jews of England have already witnessed such a decline.”
With this decline, communities fear losing members and becoming irrelevant. This fear, real and understandable, endangers the future of a united and strong Jewish People.
An extreme example lies in the understanding of Jewish life in America and Israel, whose collective Jewish population is more than 80 percent of world Jewry. Jack Wertheimer, author of A People Divided, writes: “The international solidarity of Jews will suffer as Judaism in America and Israel, the two largest centers of Jewish civilization today, diverge, making it harder for Jews in those two environments to respond sympathetically to each other.”
The ability to engage in dialogue and respond to each other sympathetically and empathetically is critical to ensuring the future of a united People. This dialogue does not imply that individuals and communities need to forgo their identities and beliefs, rather that this dialogue can strengthen the larger community of Jews worldwide.
The Diller Teen Fellows Program offers a unique, pluralistic platform for dialogue about the future of the Jewish People. The Program’s participants are emerging teenage leaders identified by 16 participating communities in the United States, Canada and Israel. Each community selects 20 teens with strong leadership skills and interest in issues of Jewish life in their communities and the potential to inform future Jewish life in their communities. The goal is that each teen group represent the diversity of Jewish life of their community including different schooling (secular versus religious), degrees of religious affiliation (Orthodox to unaffiliated) and ethnic, socio-economic and geographic backgrounds.
Most of these teens, motivated to take on leadership roles in their schools, synagogues or youth movements, come to the program having experienced Jewish life through the lens provided by their immediate surroundings. Brian Greene, Executive Director of the Westside JCC in Los Angeles and Supervisor of the local Diller Program writes, “In our community the Diller program has been instrumental in establishing a sense of Jewish Peoplehood and pluralism. It is the only program of its kind that attracts a diverse cross-section of the community and creates an environment of respect for participants’ differences. The program gives teens a chance to emerge from their Jewish “box” and explore what it means to be a part of the Jewish People.”
During the 15-month program, teens are challenged individually and collectively to better understand different expressions of Jewish life in their community, their country and globally. Intentional and comprehensive study of the diversity comprising modern Jewish life is critical in their development as leaders. However, it is their “experience” and “exploration” of this diversity that differentiates the participants from their contemporaries. This is accomplished by diverse means including celebrating Shabbat together, experiencing other Jewish communities and international Peoplehood experiences. Smadar Bar-Akiva, Executive Director of the World Confederation of Jewish Community Centers, notes, “The Diller Program represents a wonderful opportunity for connecting teens from North America and Israel. Diller teens and young adults get to participate in a program that brings them together and creates a common agenda in a very intensive, long-term, thoughtful and meaningful way.”
Affording teens the unique opportunity to explore their Jewish identities by exposing them to the diversity of Jewish expression and experience which is today’s reality is to invite them to venture on a collective Jewish journey. Doing so requires courage on their part. If this approach is successful, the next generation of Jewish leaders may break down today’s barriers and help redefine a Jewish People strengthened by diversity.
Tal Gale is Co-Director of Diller Teen Fellows, North America / Israel.
This essay is from The Peoplehood Papers, volume 10 – Peoplehood in the Age of Pluralism – published by the Center for Jewish Peoplehood Education.