A Continued Evolution in Jewish Peoplehood

[This essay is from The Peoplehood Papers, volume 8 – Nurturing Jewish Peoplehood in the 21st Century – What Should We Do Differently? – published by the Center for Jewish Peoplehood Education.]

by David Cygelman

In thinking about Jewish peoplehood in the 21st Century and comparing it to our past, there are several trends that clearly present themselves as major shifts in our community. Globalization, and the shrinking distance between cultures and countries along with the changing demographic trends of lifespan and stages, has deeply impacted the Jewish community. Although the core values and traditions of the Jewish people have stayed fairly consistent over the past few decades, the way that we connect and relate with one another has decidedly changed. As a result of this continual global evolution, the Jewish community must also adjust its approach to serving its constituents around the world. Despite a growing global population, the world is becoming a much smaller place. Whether considering online communication or increased travel, there is a permeating interconnectedness that is rapidly increasing, not just in person but also over the web. Further, demographic trends are shifting as people live longer and marry later than in previous generations, creating entirely new phases of life that provide a rich opportunity for promoting a deep and meaningful Jewish impact.

As we grow and change globally, there are three major components to nurturing Jewish peoplehood that we should all take into consideration when examining the current state of the Jewish community and its potential future directions: (1) recognizing that new methods for community building, learning and engagement must continually be developed; (2) acknowledging the influence that globalization and interconnectedness are having on our communal landscape; (3) finding ways to address the lack of true leadership development for young adults. Analyzing these issues will help us adapt to the changing times and serve our community as effectively as possible.

Revisiting Jewish Communal Engagement

The future of the global Jewish community depends upon engaging and empowering young adults who will become the leaders of tomorrow.

The way that young adults connect with Jewish community in the 21st Century is proving to be notably different from in the past. With the average age of marriage sharply raising from the early 20’s to, now, the mid 30’s, the large community infrastructure that dominated the landscape twenty years ago can work for families but by in large, is not reaching young adults. There is a dramatic shift happening across the board as people yearn for micro communities that fit their lifestyle rather than large, macro communities. Smaller groups are often able to cater more effectively to the needs of their members, making Judaism, Jewish community and culture more accessible and appealing to those who would otherwise be unengaged or unaffiliated. This approach of building many tents instead of one massive tent positions the Jewish community to become considerably more approachable, relatable and desirable to Jewish young adults. Even twenty years ago, without the social networking that exists in the 21st century, this simply would not have been a reality. The fact that word of mouth can spread without ever actually talking to someone, allows for these more micro communities to grow and flourish.

Envisioning the Future on a  Global, Jewish Scale

We have seen that with the increasing permeation of globalization, the needs of Jewish young adults have become more universally uniform across borders. Non-Orthodox Jews are marrying later, and focusing more on their careers or travel than on starting a family. Significant cultural shifts can be felt all over the global Jewish community. For example, in Latin America, the insular Jewish communities of the past are expanding. Like in other parts of the world, young adults are moving from their parents’ home before they are married and are looking for a Jewish community to call their own. Meanwhile, in Eastern Europe and the FSU, we have seen the largest growth of young adult Jewish life and many residents of these countries have discovered their connection to their Jewish heritage in just the past ten or so years. There is a significant yearning for learning and training and the largest demand for new Moishe Houses comes from this region. In other places of the world, such as China, the growing ex-pat community of young Jews moving for business opportunities is growing and the requisition for meaningful Jewish experiences is becoming increasingly acute.

It is clear that the needs of the young adults of today are very different from those of prior generations, and we are seeing the convergence of these needs from young adults around the world. Therefore, it is no surprise that new models are flourishing that speak directly to the new demographic characteristics of this population.

Envisioning a Strong Global Jewish Community

As Jews enter adulthood, they are faced with the choice of connecting with Judaism and Jewish community or drifting to the periphery of engagement. If we want young adults to find their place in a Jewish community that works for them, we must be able to develop hand-in-hand leadership models that actually work. This includes going beyond the traditional staff member/participant model of engagement for young adults in the Jewish community, and seeking more innovative ways to grow and strengthen networks and relationships.

The peer-to-peer engagement model is key for building Jewish community. Given this need, we now must focus on training young leaders to be effective in their roles. Moishe House, for example, is leading a series of immersive learning retreats to give young adults the knowledge and resources to be comfortable and knowledgeable in their peer- to-peer engagement. Since August 2011, we have hosted four Jewish Learning Retreats that have helped more than 125 Jewish young adults create personal connections to Jewish rituals and traditions. In the coming year, we will hold at least eight. The demand is here, the question is: are we ready to fill it?

How Do We Move Forward?

Given the changing demographics and growing interconnectedness, we now have the opportunity to create a variety of approaches to community that are accessible to Jews from different backgrounds and varying levels of religiosity. We have the chance to empower the future Jewish leaders through innovative programs and ideas that allow young adults to explore their own personal Jewish identity and cultural connection while facilitating this same opportunity for their peers and not losing the immense tradition of our people.

Jewish peoplehood is staring us in the face: just look at Facebook or the ROI community built by the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation. We are at a unique juncture where we can embrace and grow our global Jewish community by giving young adults the opportunity to create and build rather than just accept and follow. Good ideas spread fast and have no borders. The current demand, for example, of young adults wanting to open Moishe Houses still outweighs our ability to support the program. I hope our institutions and community will be able to react fast enough while listening to the young adults’ needs rather than suggesting what they should be doing. This will be critical to the continuation of a strong, international, Jewish peoplehood.

David Cygelman is the co-founding director of Moishe House.

This essay is from The Peoplehood Papers, volume 8Nurturing Jewish Peoplehood in the 21st Century – What Should We Do Differently? – published by the Center for Jewish Peoplehood Education.