By Barbara Sheklin Davis
Amos Oz and his daughter Fania Oz-Salzberger, in their book Jewsandwords, write that “We Jews are notoriously unable to agree about anything that begins with the words ‘we Jews.’”
These words resonate in the 21st century, an epoch rife with diversity, choice, customization, globalization, technological advancement and cries for authenticity and accountability.
In ages past, there were givens: defined bodies of knowledge, fixed boundaries of communities and nations, canons of law and custom. The individual was subordinated to the community, believed in linear, rational progress. and lived in a world of self-contained, closed systems. 20th century Jewish America created and joined congregations because that’s what Protestant America did and Jews acculturated their children to American values and the American way of life. The State of Israel was seen as a dream fulfilled, an almost invincible country, a moral leader and a nation dependent upon American Jewry for its survival. The Federation system attended to the welfare of Jewish communities both local and global and denominational institutions tended to their ritual and educational needs. All was right with the Jewish world.
Then came the new zeitgeist. For 21st century Jews, the beliefs, behaviors and boundaries that had guided the Jewish community for decades lost their grip. Intermarriage rates soared and divorce rates rose with them. Religious identification dropped along with synagogue affiliation. Almost a third of younger Jews described themselves as having no religion and many identified as Jewish only on the basis of ancestry, ethnicity or culture. Israel, the source of pride and unity in the 20th century, became a polarizing issue. A Jewish household, once seen as a heterosexual married couple with children, was redefined to include LGBTQ families, single adults and individuals living with or married to non-Jews. The Orthodox world slid to the right and the Conservative and Reform worlds just slid.
The American Jewish community today could be called “Jews Without Borders.” They see themselves as a new breed of independent thinkers, rejectors of the past and designers of a bespoke future. Even the ultra-Orthodox have redefined themselves. The reality is that beliefs don’t hold people; people hold beliefs – and they discard them when they no longer work. Jews today reject the ways of the past; they want to customize tradition, design new rituals, draw upon multiple faith traditions, make its observance more stringent or simply do without. Most American Jews today have American Jewish parents, not immigrant parents or grandparents who fled persecution. Jews in the news include some they don’t want to be associated with (like Bernie Madoff or Harvey Weinstein) and others who are Jewish in name only (like Michael Bloomberg and Bernie Sanders). Meaningful role models are lacking.
So what is authentically and crucially Jewish in this new paradigm and who gets to decide? If that power no longer resides with Jewish authorities, if it can come from anyone and anywhere, if people can decide for themselves – on what basis can people make commitments? To develop a new paradigm of being Jewish in the 21st century, to make being Jewish relevant and meaningful in a changed world, what do people need to know, what does Judaism have to offer, how we can make it work and fit the world we live in? What is it about Judaism that is still attractive? What can make Jews, the eternally dying people, still significant in the 21st century? What do Jews stand for? What do they have in common with one another? Can there be something worth holding fast to in the modern age?
The answer lies in connections. The 21st century is all about connections. We connect via Facetime, Skype, Instagram, Messenger, email, Twitter and text. We connect in ways we are not even aware of, through cookies, spyware and viruses. Connections matter. Most people seek to belong. Very few want to be isolated hermits, living in the wilderness or on a mountain top. Yet at the same time that we are more connected than ever through technology, we are very disconnected spiritually and to our faith.
You don’t have to be Jewish to do tikkun olam. We live in a world in dire need of repair on so many fronts, but there is nothing inherently Jewish about fixing these problems. If being Jewish is mostly or only about social service, there is nothing particularly noteworthy about it. Nor is being Jewish about what you wear. While many Jews define themselves by the length of their skirts, the kind of yarmulke they put on their heads or the degree to which their attire signifies their stringency, Judaism is not about clothing. Being Jewish is not about food. Bagels and lox, gefilte fish, chopped liver, even challah, delicious though they may be, are not indicators of Judaism. Anyone can be culinarily Jewish.
What makes Judaism relevant to the 21st century are meaningful connections. Connections to other Jews. Connections to the Jewish past. Connections to Israel. Connections to Jewish knowledge, the Jewish calendar, the Jewish lifecycle. How can we reestablish these connections for the Jewish community of the 21st century, a community that is different from every Jewish community that preceded it?
There is a blessing that is recited whenever Jews gather is huge numbers: “Baruch ata Adonai, Eloheinu melech ha-olam, chacham harazeem. Blessed are You, Lord, our God, King of the Universe, knower of secrets.” The Talmud tells us this blessing is recited because God “sees a whole nation whose minds are unlike each other and whose faces are unlike each other, and He Who knows all secrets, God, knows what is in each of their hearts.”
The ancient wisdom of the past applies stunningly well to the diversity of the present. The fact is that Jews have always had minds unlike each other and faces unlike each other and secrets in their hearts that are unique to them. When Jews today declare themselves atheists or nonbelievers, when they are people of color, or neurodiverse, or gender fluid or Haredi or feminist, on or off the derech, doubting, challenging, rejecting or committing, they are no different from Jews of centuries ago, “whose minds are unlike each other and whose faces are unlike each other.”
I live in a small Jewish community, of perhaps 8,000 Jews. Once there were 11,000. There are four synagogues; once there were twice as many. Many Jewish organizations that once were thriving (ZOA, Na’Amat, Jewish War Veterans, Hadassah) are no more. A young woman in the community recently created a new group. She called it NYMS. The acronym stood for Not Your Mother’s Sisterhood. This is the world we live in today. None of the rabbis in our community grew up in the denominations they serve: the Orthodox rabbi was raised in the Conservative movement; one of the Conservative rabbis was raised Reform and the other was once Orthodox; the Reform rabbi was Conservative. Chabad Houses are springing up like mushrooms – three this year alone. This is the 21st century: norms have changed, preconceptions are invalid, lifestyles have changed.
But the reality is that this is nothing new. As Rabbi Jonathan Sacks points out, “No small people is more diverse, ethnically, culturally, attitudinally and religiously [than the Jews] – and the more religious, the more diverse. There was hardly a Jewish settlement in the Middle Ages without its own minhagim and piyyutim. In the eighteenth and nineteenth century each hassidic group and yeshivah had its own style, its own niggunim, its own derekh ha-limmud, its own role models, its own spiritual tonality. The way of Ger was not that of Chabad; that of Volozhyn not that of Mir.” We think that our way of being is new and different, but the fact is, as Kohelet tells us, “What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done, and there is nothing new under the sun.”
But the unique and wonderful thing about my Jewish community in the 21st century is that all of the rabbis are sending their children to the Jewish community day school – Orthodox, Reform, Conservative and Chabad, joining with other Jews to establish connections and teach their children about their common heritage of faith, culture, language, prayer, values and rituals, so that they all connect to a Jewish future. This is the template we need to follow. We can be individuals. We can be unique and we can be different. We don’t all have to do the same thing, wear the same clothes, eat the same foods, worship the same way or not worship at all. We don’t have to look alike. We don’t have to have like minds. Only God need know our secrets.
But we can have connections. As Rebbe Menachem Mendel Schneerson wrote about the mitzvah of ahavat yisrael, the love for a fellow Jew, “Every Jew, wherever he or she may find themselves, even a solitary Jew in the most remote corner of the earth, must remember that they are part of the whole Jewish people and representatives of the entire Jewish people – the one people ever since the Torah was given at Mt. Sinai, until the end of time.”
Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel taught that the Sh’ma, the existential prayer of Judaism, contains “the message of our faith, the wisdom of our tradition, the legacy of the generations of our people: The universe is one. Humanity is one. We are one. And God is found in that oneness.” An echo of that sentiment may be heard in the Reform movement’s assertion that “in all our diversity we perceive a certain unity and we shall not allow our differences in some particulars to obscure what binds us together.”
Modern sages have expanded those sentiments. Rabbi Irving Greenberg wrote that “America is the most open society in human history. Everyone is exposed to varied alternative lifestyles. All people face the challenge of choice in which individuals can define their own values and existence. In such an environment, the more varieties of Jewish living that the community can offer, the greater the number of people who will choose each individual variety. Each group is strengthened by the greater effectiveness of the other.” I recently worked with Dr. Zipora Schorr on a study of Haredi women leading Haredi schools for girls. One of the most astonishing things I learned in working with these women was how much we had in common, how alike we were, how many values we shared. We have lifestyles that are radically different, but our connections were immediate and heartfelt.
This is what we need in the 21st century. It doesn’t matter if we look different, if we think differently, if we live different Jewish lives. We must make every effort to connect to one another, to stop judging, stop belittling, stop comparing, stop disparaging. We must stop being the Jew on the desert island who built two shuls, one he would never set foot it. Instead we must look for our commonalities, our connections – those things that bring us together, that make us what we are as Jews, proud of our heritage and positive about our present and our future.
Instead of bemoaning the fragmentation of the Jewish monolith, we need to recognize its value and celebrate its authenticity and multiplicity. As Jonathan Woocher wrote, “Ultimately, it is about trusting learners to construct ways of being Jewish that work for them and accepting that these ways will be diverse and evolving.”
Jews need one another; we are responsible for one another. In an era of social isolation, political polarization, economic and climatic instability, and heightened anti-Semitism, Judaism can provide the connections that people seek at a time in which people are alienated from one another by screens, distance, anxiety, lifestyle, drugs and politics. All those who believe in the values of Judaism must provide connections, bridges, community and inclusivity. Judaism can connect Jews with a past, a present and a future if we can connect with one another. Now, perhaps, it is more crucial than ever.
Barbara Sheklin Davis is an educator and author who headed the Syracuse Hebrew Day School, served on the board of RAVSAK, and has written several books about Jewish education.
 Amos Oz and Fania Oz-Salzberger, jewsandwords, 7.
 Jonathan Sacks, http://rabbisacks.org/jewish-unity-published-in-jewish-action/ .
 Menachem Mendel Schneerson, https://www.chabad.org/therebbe/article_cdo/aid/60868/jewish/Jewish-Unity.htm .
 Irving Greenberg, “Will there be one Jewish people in the year 2000?,” https://rabbiirvinggreenberg.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/02/Will-There-Be-One_red.pdf .
 Jonathan Woocher, “Jewish Education: From Continuity to Meaning,” Jewish Megatrends. Woodstock, VT: Jewish Lights, 2013, 207.