by David Bryfman
Over the last few years I have begun to uncover one of the most startling paradoxes in Jewish communal life – that many of the most committed and passionate young Jews appear as statistical zeros in Jewish communal surveys. How is it possible, I ask myself, that these dedicated individuals have come to be known as the “unengaged” or the “unaffiliated”?
The answer is that they actually are unengaged and unaffiliated, but not from Jewish life. They are however not connecting to ‘typical’ Jewish institutions and communities – the ones that many of our surveys and demographic studies are most inclined to ask about.
This should not be interpreted as young Jews not caring. As evidenced by the extraordinary number of young Jews involved in service projects, active in a variety of global causes, traveling to Israel etc these young Jews do care – they just might not be showing it in traditional ways of connecting with the traditional Jewish community.
Together at the upcoming Jewish Futures Conference we will see that what is taking place in the Jewish world today is a direct reflection of general society. Young people in particular, but also many adults, are finding meaning in their lives by belonging to communities that were not even on our collective radar even a few years ago. And while it is true that many of these communities are virtual, or more accurately manifest themselves in a digital space, they often exist in tandem with concrete Jewish institutional life.
There are now countless examples of young Jews around the world developing Skype relationships with one another, encouraged and often curricularized by their teachers. Jewish knowledge communities are forming through countless blogs, wikipsaces and list serves. Jewish ritual life is exponentially increasing in virtual worlds and live streamed services. Jewish popular culture is becoming increasingly pervasive as more and more young Jews participate not just in its consumption but in the production of thousands of viral videos and podcasts and their attached communities of ‘commenters’. And for a generation of young people often accused of being self-indulgent and narcissistic, their involvement in on-line causes through Facebook, Twitter and the like, in numerical terms at least probably exceeds the number of Jews committed to the largest number of causes at any other time in history.
In a Facebook age notions of community, belonging and affiliation mean something very different to when most Jewish communal institutions today were initially established. There now exists, alongside a community of ‘bricks and mortar’ an emerging, yet robust community in the cloud. The cloud is a term, popularized by Apple and others referring to this amorphous space where connections are made, new ideas are generated, and change is made.
The cloud might not be the community that you or your parents once belonged to. But it is the community being found by many young Jews today – who clearly don’t count as statistical zeros.
The question that the Jewish community must ask ourselves, and one that will be the focus of the Jewish Futures Conference on June 4th in New York is, “what happens when the bricks hit (or at least meets) the cloud?”
With less than 50 places remaining please go to jewishfutures.net for last chance registration. Can’t join us in person? Join our live-stream! Live streaming will begin June 4th at 3:30pm EST (12:30pm PST)
David Bryfman is the Director of the New Center for Collaborative Leadership at The Jewish Education Project , who together with JESNA’s Lippman Kanfer Institute and the collaboration of UJA Federation NY is sponsoring this year’s Jewish Future Conference.