40 Plus and Screwed: More on Less Young Adult Engagement

Building a sustainable community can’t be just about paying for buses full of young people in hopes they will make Jewish babies.

by Michal Kohane

You might ascribe the following comments to my advanced age, shifting moods, raging hormones. I admit. I am not a “young adult” by any current official definition of the term. At the same time, 4 of my 6 children are still in that age bracket, so I do have a vested interest in their Jewish connectedness, and anything we do in that realm of “young adult engagement”.

I started writing this piece a while back but doubting its political correctness, (yes, and my moods), left it. Then last week, I sat at yet another meeting and someone, proudly sharing all the young adult activities their organization features in a big, respectful Jewish community, said to me, “And after 40? What can I tell you. After 40 you’re screwed”.

And I have had it.

I’ve had it with the constant song and dance around “young adult engagement” as the only promise of any Jewish life anywhere ever at all. I know, I know. How dare I. Look at Birthright. Look at Masa. Look at the service opportunities programs. Look at so many groups swarming the Land every summer. Look at the grants, requests, waiting lists! Don’t you know what research shows? Didn’t you read the studies? Here, let me show you the numbers.

Yes, I have seen it. In fact, some of these programs have been directly or indirectly run from my office. I’ve sat in countless meetings trying to figure out new, innovative strategies and solutions to just these challenges I am deeply aware of and genuinely care about. And yet, I‘ve had it.

I’ve had it with smug young people who bring little to the table short of age, whose presence leaves no room for anyone else, and the fact that they are 20 some, or 30 some does not make it cute. And surprise! Contrary to some belief, clueless dinosaurs did not roam the earth a few decades ago. There was always promise in young age. That is nothing new. But there was always more. It seems that now we have lost the “more”.

We. Yes, “we”, the “older generation”, we who placate to those younger than us and still willing to glance at us, say hi to us, never mind respond to our nagging – begging repeated requests and reluctantly agree to sit on one of our prestigious boards. We, who like young parents, bend over the carriage, cooing and making stupid faces, and when we chance a smile, just melt. We, who wait like an obedient puppy with a leash in our mouth, unable to contain the wagging tail. Oh, how wonderful it is that someone half or quarter of our age might take us out for a walk so finally we can see a glimpse of “the real world”! We, who wrote ourselves out of relevancy.

Time magazine just recently called the milennials “narcissistic, overconfident, entitled and lazy”, and you know what? I can live with it that young people are a little self-centered, a little self-focused. Also contrary to some belief (and anyone’s memory), we were like this too! It’s impossible not to. It’s what makes one travel from childhood to adulthood, from a narrow “me” to a greater “us”. What is not ok is that we let them stay there; that we allow this to become our ideal, our new god we bow down to.

Now, don’t get me wrong: being 26 or 36 is great fun. Then again, so is being six. Or 66, provided you have good health, good care and – let us not ignore – a good attitude. The rest is up for grabs. I know a 99 year old man with a witty sparkle in his eyes and a sharp mind that many 19 year olds would – and should – envy. I know 20 some and 30 some who seem more misplaced, tired and lifeless than my dead ancestors.

Because one can be young and hammered by the realities of low job opportunities, mortgage, relationships with spouse, children, parents. And one can be “old”, and much freer, able and available, professionally and spiritually, with lots of energy, insight, wisdom and knowledge about life, but guess what. If that’s who you are, the Jewish people don’t need you anymore. Oh, wait, I’m exaggerating. They do need you. You’re welcome to pay dues. And memberships. And support the never-ending campaigns. And we will call on our various phonathons, because young people need to party. And travel. And explore their identity. And you? you’re already 50, maybe even 60. Seriously? You haven’t been to Israel?? and you still date?? But that’s one leg in the World to Come! So we are not going to invest in you. Please, step aside, and hand over the keys. And your check book? Thanks. Because that is the only role we left you. You are “40 plus and – therefore – screwed”.

Yes, I’m exaggerating, but not much. At a recent meeting about the millennia generation, someone – over 45 – dared ask, what can any of us, “alter kakers”, do. Alter Kakers by the way is not a nice thing to say, but no one corrected the derogatory term. One “millennia child” answered quickly: “You can listen”, he said. Another joked: “there is really nothing you can do”. The audience nodded with pride.

And I sat there wondering.

We, the People who brought to the world “honor your mother and father”, “glorify the elderly” and “rise (in respect) before the aged”; We who value life as a long journey of endless growth and learning, honored in all its stages; We who speak about each person like a whole world, and each member of the community as a critical part of the puzzle; We who teach about Abraham, hearing God and traveling to a promised land when he was 75; Moses and Rabbi Akiva, finding Judaism in their 40’s and mastering it in their 80’s; We, who have an 89 year old youthful, forward-thinking Israeli president; what happened to us? when did we sell all these eternal, G-d given values and buy into the youth worshipping, giddy culture around us, placing money and chutzpa before wisdom, respect and kindness?

Over Pesach we read about Rabbi Azaria, one of the heros of the Hagadda: “Behold I am like a 70 year old”, he says. “Like” a 70 year old? The commentaries teach us that he was appointed as head of the Sanhedrin at a very young age, and a miracle happened: overnight his hair became white so he looked elderly and distinguished, thus gaining respect among his peers, most of them older than him in decades.

But we are living in a society that assigns old people to old people’s home, which often look worse, smell worse and are budgeted less than our prisons. We equate old age with lack of productivity, because we equate productivity with materialistic actions and achievements. We’ve been told we should all look “forever 21”, and we can’t get enough of it. When we grow up, we want to look like our kids! And what should our kids aspire to look like when they grow up?

It’s time to reverse the spiral and create a much more holistic story with a more comprehensive agenda. We should introduce programs based on content, not age, where all those participating realize the value of each person around the table; where people are not assigned “mentorship roles” by the color of the hair or the amount of wrinkles they haven’t had a chance – or the financial means – to get ironed, but rather, by what they contribute to the conversation. There should be opportunities for meetings, traveling, partying and yes, dating for those over 50, and there should be Birthright for those over 50 who never went to Israel before. It’s their birthright too.

Building a sustainable community can’t be just about paying for buses full of young people in hopes they will make Jewish babies. If anyone offered me a free trip to Germany, where my parents came from, I’d take it, and I’m sure I’d have a great time. I might even fall in love with a blonde-blue-eyed handsome German, but will that ensure my German identity? I so hope our conversation with our young adults can be deeper than that. Because don’t think they can’t see through our gimmicks. After all, we know how smart and wonderful they are, and they know that, once again, we’re trying to buy them. Like we did when we wanted them to get on the potty, or do homework, or come home early, or get the car, and even they, yes, “even they” want more than that.

We need to be what we’ve always been: a family. A whole family. We need to make sure the babies we want have respected, active, well-integrated grandparents, uncles, aunts, and nowadays, great-grandparents too.

Above all – we need to leave our young adults with a clear message, that after 40 – you’re not screwed, because they too, like us, will reach that noble old age one day, and they should know that Jewish life isn’t over then; in fact, we’ve only just begun.