by Rabbi Elie Kaunfer
Professor Jack Wertheimer’s recent report on Jewish leaders in their 20s and 30s is a critical step forward to understanding the fundamental shifts in perspective of a new generation. Yet, as one of those interviewed for the study, I believe two of his conclusions are misplaced, and unnecessarily pit the “older establishment” against the “younger non-establishment.” The reality is much more complex.
First, Wertheimer notes the irony that non-establishment leaders criticize the establishment, but “privately admit they could not function without support from established organizations and foundations.” Second, Wertheimer recommends that “younger Jewish leaders would do well to re-examine their views of the establishment.”
In my 10 years of leadership with grassroots start-up Jewish organizations, neither I nor my entrepreneur peer cohort have ever been “private” about “admitting” where our support comes from. The opposite is true: start-up leaders tout loudly the support they receive from established philanthropic bodies, not least of which is UJA-Federation of New York, perhaps the most established of the establishment organizations. Their support offers a stamp of legitimacy for the work we do, and inspires confidence from other investors.
The second issue speaks to a larger misapplied framing I see in all the hand wringing about the generational divide in Jewish life. It assumes that the “establishment” is a monolithic entity to be accepted or rejected, rather than a composite of a variety of institutions and organizations to be evaluated on their own merits. Wertheimer contends that young leaders should be more gracious to “the establishment.” But, as a leader of a start-up institution, I have no view on “the establishment,” or, for that matter, on the “non-establishment.” I only have (sometimes very strong) views on individual organizations.
To be clear, in this framing, start-ups are not inherently better than mainline institutions. Take worship services, for example. I don’t blindly prefer independent minyan services to synagogue services. I am critical of some minyan services and supportive of some synagogue services. Why? Because I am in favor of meaningful, substantive and engaged prayer. If that happens at a minyan, great. If it happens at a synagogue, great. At Mechon Hadar, we consult to both minyanim and synagogues; we support the substance of improved worship, and are ultimately indifferent about the arena in which it takes place.
This explains a seeming paradox in the report, one that is frustrating to Wertheimer. He cautions that younger leaders should embrace the establishment because: “For all [the establishment’s] weaknesses, it played a major role in educating them.” In other words: isn’t it unfair for you to reject the establishment after all the funds and resources it devoted to your education? But I was not educated by “the establishment.” I was educated at a variety of discrete institutions, some part of the establishment (as defined by the report) and some not. I have unending gratitude toward them (and of course some criticism as well). But my gratitude toward particular institutions does not compel me to have a uniform attitude about all institutions that could claim the label “establishment.”
In fact, even the “establishment” does not have a monolithic view of itself. Take this example from the other side of the coin: 39 percent of “older establishment” leaders – leaders! – believe that synagogues “fail to provide a sense of real meaning and purpose.” How could the establishment reject the establishment? It must be that the establishment is not monolithic, even internally.
At moments in the report, Wertheimer seems to recognize the nuance here. As he himself writes of young Jews: “They don’t care whether a federation or a national organization is sponsoring an event, any more than they care if a start-up is. What matters is the quality of the experience…” But when it comes to the recommendations, this realization seems absent.
We are in a new age. There is no loyalty to a perceived establishment, but there is also no loyalty to a perceived non-establishment. Every organization, every program, is being evaluated by its own merits. To me, this represents a positive step toward forward. Instead of asking, “Are you for the establishment or not?” we are moving to a deeper discussion of “What is the substance of Jewish life and where is it taking place?” That is a conversation I look forward to continuing.
Rabbi Elie Kaunfer is co-founder and executive director of Mechon Hadar and author of “Empowered Judaism: What Independent Minyanim Can Teach Us about Building Vibrant Jewish Communities” (Jewish Lights).