History Repeats Itself

How different is the “millennial” generation of Jews? Some attitudes and behaviors have certainly changed, as the sociologist Steven M. Cohen discusses in a recent interview with Manfred Gerstenfeld. There is a danger, though, of confusing superficial differences with fundamental change, and of overlooking parallels with the past.

Discussing the rise of independent minyanim in the past decade, Prof. Cohen says “its leaders try to differentiate their community from what they see as the spiritually unengaging and experientially passive suburban synagogues that most of them grew up in.” Aside from the suburban setting, that also was an important rationale in the founding of the Reform movement in the 19th century and the spread of Hasidism beginning in the 17th century.

In the area of culture he points to “a whole series of new magazines” like Heeb and Zeek. The launching of Jewish magazines has a long history, which includes startups in the 1970s and 1980s such as Sh’ma (1970), Present Tense (1973), Moment (1975), and Tikkun (1986). Along similar lines he sees a “vast expansion in Jewish musical production, musical events, and audiences” as exemplified by JDub Records. That echoes a postwar expansion involving now-forgotten labels like Banner, Menorah and Tikva. Then, as now, a new technology – long-playing records – made it possible to disseminate creative work more economically.

Dr. Cohen hails “a marked growth in social activism, embracing a wide variety of issue-focused organizations.” Many Jews also were active in the labor movement in the years between the wars, and in the 1950s and 1960s had leading roles in the fight for civil rights. He reports that “Israel-related communal activities are of low intrinsic value for younger engaged Jews”; a number of Jewish organizations were officially non-Zionist or anti-Zionist until 1948, or even after. In the 1960s the Jewish establishment paid relatively little attention to the ongoing persecution of Soviet Jews; as Cohen proudly recalls, young people took up the challenge long before Federations did. In much the same way today, “in response to their alienation from conventional Jewish institutions, younger Jews seek creative autonomy.” In short, it would be misleading to see the values of the “millennial” generation as new and unprecedented.

It would also be a huge leap to see them as portending a sea-change in the behavior of American Jews generally. Dr. Cohen’s study covers “highly engaged” young American Jews, not that entire generation. In numerical terms, Heeb Magazine claims a circulation of 30,000; participation in independent minyanim likely amounts to a third that number. Younger Jews who are directly involved in new entrepreneurial ventures are probably fewer still. Yet there are around 750,000 Jews in their twenties in the United States.

What’s more, the effect of these phenomena on the broad spectrum of American Jewish life may never be more than modest. The havurah movement, whatever may be claimed for its cultural impact in its day, flourished only briefly. “Since their heyday in the seventies,” acknowledges Cohen, “the havurot have declined in number.”

Rather than view today’s trends as a signifying a watershed in Jewish history, it would be more accurate to see them as cyclical. As Prof. Cohen reflects, “I am struck by how these stances did not originate with this generation, but in a way recapitulate much of Jewish development since the advent of modernity. Each wave of Jewish innovation sees itself as at once alienated from its predecessors, bringing more excitement to Jewish life, setting new norms, and overcoming unnecessary boundaries.” To see this process as something new would indeed be short-sighted.

Bob Goldfarb, a regular contributor to eJewishPhilanthropy, is president of the Center for Jewish Culture and Creativity and lives in Jerusalem. He can be reached at bob [at] jewishcreativity [dot] org.