Generation Zzzz: Why I Can’t be Bothered About Apathy

By David Brown

I went to my first Limmud Conference during winter break my last year at university eight years ago. Back then I was one of the potentially apathetic young adults many fear may be slipping away from commitment to Judaism and Israel.

At each Limmud event I’ve attended since, there has been many a session on ‘engaging young adults’ or ‘finding the lost generation.’ I’m not sure how it happened, and I may still be in denial that I’m now out of that 18-30 bracket, but this past Limmud Conference I found myself chairing one panel on ‘the missing generation’ and presenting another session asking “Is apathy the biggest threat to the future of UK Jewry?”

So much for being apathetic about apathy.

Each generation – or, more accurately, those like me who enjoy commentary on each ‘NextGen’ – presents changes and challenges to the status quo. Ever since the first teenagers, the phenomenon of having a stage in life between being a child in one family to rearing children in another has been labelled and then lamented as ‘not how it was in my day.’ The Punks were anarchist layabouts; teeny-boppers were superficial but good for Simon Cowell’s bank balance; Generation Xers were hyper-consumers without creativity or a rebel heart; Millennials are lost in an educational training ground failing to prepare them for portfolio careers and the spiralling cost of living. My favourite term for those currently full of extended adolescent angst is the “screenagers” – capturing the frustration of an adult world of digital immigrants grappling with a generation of digital natives.

At Limmud Conference 2014, I and others sought to distil what the most recent generational shifts might mean for the young adults within the UK Jewish community. Working at the Union of Jewish Students [UJS], I’m familiar with JPR’s “2011 National Jewish Student Survey” [NJSS] on what a significant sector of Jewish young adults think and do. For example:

  • 56% strongly agreed/tend to agree that they personally feel being Jewish is about believing in God and 54% that it is about prayer
  • 69% strongly agreed/tend to agree that they personally feel being Jewish is about Jewish culture and 64% that it is about supporting Social Justice causes
  • 72% strongly agreed/tend to agree that they personally feel being Jewish is about supporting Israel; 80% that they personally feel it is about having an ethnic identity; and 95% that they personally feel being Jewish is about having a connection to the Jewish people
  • 41% only eat kosher meat at university, compared to 47% who only eat kosher meat at home
  • 60% attend a Friday Night meal most weeks or every week, compared to 72% who do so when at home
  • 8% had done voluntary work several times a month since the start of the academic year; 32% had done voluntary work once a month or less; and 46% had not done any voluntary work since the start of the academic year

The NJSS cohort was somewhat over representative of engaged and traditional young Jews – 80% had been on Israel Experience programmes at 16 compared with an average of 50% in most cohorts. I would suggest this makes these insights even more poignant. If even the most engaged are 50:50 when it comes to personally viewing belief in God or prayer as what constitutes being Jewish, religion dominated Jewish education at Jewish schools; the majority of youth movements being religious wherever they may sit on the spectrum; and the growth of synagogue denomination programmes aimed at young adults and young professionals may be out of step with what interests or excites younger Jews about their identity.

On the other hand, the reasonably low attrition between Jewish practices at university compared to life at home indicates young Jews find something compelling about the Judaism they have grown up experiencing.

Regarding volunteering, there is some cause for concern that the dissonance between values and actions may deplete the army of volunteers and lines of deep pockets required for the 2000+ charities currently serving the 275,00ish Jews of Britain.

Yet this focuses the measure of our community’s future vibrancy on the extent to which the beliefs and norms of one generation are continued by the next. Here, however, Jay Michaelson, in his clip ‘Special Pinterest Judaism’ offers insight into what being digital natives might mean for how young Jews access Jewish content and build Jewish identity. Jay suggests that for this generation the impact of technology is far more about meaning than medium:

You may remember when you wanted to buy music, you would go to a store and there were these big black plastic disks. On that disc someone would have put the songs in a particular order, and you would play them on – I think it was called a record player, there was a needle and it would scratch a little – anyone remember those things? Today people who are 30 years old have grown up with a very different way of accessing their music – the iPod. Instead of having a pre-programmed order of songs in one genre that someone else has presented, they’re mixing and matching … what makes a good iPod playlist, like a good Pinterest board, is not unity but multiplicity. It’s not one style repeated over and over; one denomination; one way of feeling Jewish; one set of values which we all have in common.

BeyondMe, The Bike Project, and Moishe House London are examples of young adults – many of whom have benefited from the traditional modes of Jewish life such as UJS, Youth movements, synagogues and Jewish schools – drawing on Jewish values in different and diverse ways, possibly disaffiliating from institutions but very much reaffirming their identity.

Whilst the ‘creators not consumers’ effect of ‘user-generated Judaism’ may suggest a diversifying rather than a diluting of Jewish identity, some of the other generational shifts still pose problems.

This is the first generation since the industrial revolution which expects a drop in living standards compared to their parents. The average price of a house in the UK is ten times the average salary, compared to less than three times the average salary in 1971. Where my generation paid £1,000 a year for university tuition, this generation pays £9,000. Perhaps the economic crisis, increased cost of tuition and highly competitive graduate job market explain the seemingly low levels of volunteering time rather than apathy.

Moreover, the timing for starting families or even the assumption that a particular type of family will be started is at odds with the rising average age of marriage and having children, as well as the decline in married households versus the rise in co-habiting households. Whilst in 1971 the percentage of one-person households was 18%, in 2008 it was 29%. In 1971, a third of those living alone were under state pension age; by 2008 half of those living alone were under state pension age. And, of course – thankfully for me personally – in the UK marriage is no longer defined exclusively as between one man and one woman.

Jewish life in the UK comes with a financial cost and a raft of familial expectations that this generation of young Jewish adults may struggle to bear, given the shifts affecting much of ‘Generation Rent.’

There is also the shift in how Israel is experienced. My images of Israel as a younger person are the Rabin-Arafat handshake; Jordan’s King Hussein speaking at my Jewish school; Dana International winning Eurovision; Premier league clubs signing Israelis and fans waving Israeli flags; and Hatikva playing as an Israeli stood on the top Olympic podium for the first time.

Those 10 years younger were born the year the Oslo Peace Accords were signed and were just learning to speak when Rabin was assassinated. Their teenage images of Israel are more likely the Gaza disengagement, Israel’s four wars in eight years with Lebanon and then Hamas, or calls to boycott an “apartheid” state. Even the pro-Israel posters and infographics illustrating thousands of rockets falling on Israeli towns add to the negative surround-sound.

Bottom line: I’m not too worried by those who are opting out – they are fewer than some would have us believe. For others, there are generation specific challenges that are likely delaying or diversifying their affiliation. I’m suggesting there are plenty who can be bothered with Jewish life. But the Jewish life they are passionately shaping for themselves might bother our norms and expectations. It might be apathy for some but for many more it is about finding a different Judaism not getting lost by diluting their Judaism.

Or as Jay Michaelson puts it’: “…real authenticity – Jewish authenticity – is not about some mythical link to an ancient mythical past, but about the integrity of how we make our Jewish choices … it’s about how we choose, not what we choose”.

David Brown is Executive Director of the Union of Jewish Students of the UK and Ireland. Previously David was Campaigns Manager at JHub, Coordinator of the Jewish Social Action Forum, and coordinated Leadership Training and Managed Jewish Social Responsibility at UJIA. David has volunteered with Limmud, the Jewish Youth Fund and Keshet UK. Follow David @davidbrown_83