Beyond Birthright: How Fortysomethings Can Cultivate Jewish Connections

by Erika Dreifus

My 44-year-old eyes fastened on the title of Elicia Brown’s column for The Jewish Week: “This Is Forty(something),” the headline announced. And there was much that resonated within the text, from the mention of a recent Forbes magazine reference to our peer group as “the smaller and often forgotten Generation X” to the column’s main argument: that “the largest-scale, most innovative Jewish initiatives ignore us, instead concentrating on a much younger generation.”

That latter point is one that has troubled me, too, and it’s not merely a matter of the fact that I missed out on Birthright Israel because I turned 30 the year that its first subsidized trips (for those between 18 and 26) took place. I’ve written elsewhere of my frustration with the youth-centered focus of Israel advocacy programs. You can ask journalist Samuel G. Freedman how many times I’ve inquired regarding the possibility that his Writers’ Seminar on the Jewish People might one day welcome middle-aged applicants. As an avid consumer of and advocate for Jewish literature, I’ve even grumbled about being excluded from the Jewish Book Council’s “Raid the Shelves” events, when the JBC opens its doors to “offer all of its leftover books” to “any and all young Jews in their 20s and 30s” who are nimble enough to grab them. (It seems that the JBC has heard me: the latest “Raid the Shelves” announcement, for an October 2013 event, shows a commendable new openness to us older folks!)

Like Brown, I wish that Jewish organizations and funders as a group recognized the contributions that we middle-aged folks can offer. I wish that they made it easier (not to mention more affordable) for us to cultivate our Jewish knowledge, identities, and commitments. After all, many of us have been educated well beyond college. We’ve held jobs; we’ve had years to hone our work ethics and sharpen essential skills in communication and teamwork. We’ve matured. We Gen Xers are, in fact, primed and ready to benefit from opportunities that may, at times, be wasted on the young.

But, like others whom Brown quotes in her piece, I’m not simply sitting around waiting for a groundswell of activity in this direction. Instead, I work diligently to find the opportunities that are, in fact, open to Gen Xers (and sometimes, even older folks) on my own.

Last summer, for instance, I enrolled in a free “Hebrew Reading Crash Course” to re-familiarize myself with the aleph-bet. My weekly class at the JCC Manhattan was an evening one, convenient for those of us with 9-5 responsibilities and supervisors. Similar classes are held throughout North America, thanks to the National Jewish Outreach Program.

More recently, I discovered the multi-faceted offerings of the Tikvah Fund, including free courses like the one I enrolled in this past winter on Zionist Thought and Statesmanship. Again, I opted for an evening class, but most of the semester-long courses – like Dara Horn’s “When Bad Things Happen to Good People: Divine Justice and Creativity in Jewish Literature” – were held during the day, which might work better for some. Recently, applications were invited for the Tikvah Advanced Institutes, which are described as aiming “to provide accomplished professionals from around the globe the opportunity to study big ideas, great texts, and current issues with some of the world’s leading thinkers and practitioners.” These seminars, slated for the fall, are better than free: they offer stipends.

For the writers and artists among us who find inspiration in Jewish texts and traditions, there are additional opportunities. LABA: House of Study, which describes itself as “a secular beit midrash and culture laboratory at the 14th Street Y in New York City,” annually selects 10 fellows “to partake in a yearlong study of classical Jewish texts centered around a theme”; the program is now taking applications for 2013-14, when the theme will be “Mother”. Earlier this spring, nearly 70 lucky individuals were chosen to participate in the Asylum International Jewish Artist Retreat (applications were permitted from artists and writers up to the ripe age of 45). And the newly-launched Posen Society of Fellows welcomes applications from doctoral students and emerging fiction writers, with no age limits indicated.

Then, of course, there’s what might be called DIY Continuing Jewish Education, with no applications required. For me, this education unfolds online, in author chats co-hosted by the Jewish Book Council and Jewcy. It continues as I peruse the contributions shared by participants in the Association of Jewish Libraries’ monthly Jewish Book Carnival. It is enriched by a stream of free or low-cost events in the Jewish cultural mecca that is New York City. Within the past several weeks, for instance, I’ve attended the Jewish Plays Project festival on the Lower East Side, visited a new exhibition at the Museum of Jewish Heritage, and received invitations to multiple happenings sited at the Center for Jewish History. (Although this cultural calendar can’t be replicated everywhere, I’d encourage anyone interested to investigate the programming associated with Jewish museums and historical societies in other locations.)

It’s encouraging to read Brown’s column and other voices speaking out in support of initiatives for those of us who have aged beyond Birthright. Julie Liberman’s description of her parents’ generous and farsighted initiative, the Rubin Israel Experience, which invests in providing a Birthright Israel-type experience to slightly older travelers in their hometown of St. Louis, is one such example. Elissa Strauss’s recent Sisterhood post for The Forward, echoing Deborah Kolben’s call on Kveller for resources to support the Jewish nurturing of the young families that Birthright alumni are now raising, seeks sustenance of another sort. But while we wait for a widespread response, we can take some responsibility for continuing our own Jewish educations. Some of us already have.

Erika Dreifus is the author of Quiet Americans: Stories, which was named a Jewish Journal “Notable Book” and a Sophie Brody Medal Honor Title (for outstanding achievement in Jewish literature). Visit Erika online at erikadreifus.com and follow her on Twitter, @erikadreifus.