Knowing the Jewish Story
By Dina Rabhan and Dr. Noam Weissman
Natan Sharansky was recently asked in an interview if it bothers him that, not too long ago, he was a famous man meeting with presidents, dignitaries, and celebrities, and now, many young people do not even know who he is. He responded,“It doesn’t bother me that people don’t know who I am. What bothers me is that people don’t know who they are.”
There is nothing quite like a pandemic to start thinking deeply about who we are, individually and as a community. Our job, as Jewish educators and as media creators, is to pay close attention to our target audience of 13-34 year olds and what is on their minds. It’s clear that they are equally struggling to make sense of it all: corona, politics, racial justice, Jewish identity, #JewishPrivilege, antisemitism, religion, peoplehood, and more. And let’s be honest. While we crave their engagement and seek opportunities to include them in conversations and listen to their ideas, we worry that perhaps, as a community, we have not equipped them with the necessary knowledge and tools to effectively navigate this volatile time as Jews and through a Jewish lens. And we ask ourselves, will this crisis engender a stronger attachment to their heritage or will it push our young people away?
The tumultuous global political landscape and the precarious position of the Jewish people and Israel, along with the pandemic, can be unmooring and confusing, especially without an understanding of the long arc of Jewish history and the unique moment in time in which we live.
It was Victor Frankl who made the case for the pursuit of meaning, especially during times of uncertainty. “Those who have a ‘why’ to live, can bear with almost any ‘how’,” Frankl declared. Meaning making is a key coping strategy during a crisis to survive and to forge a path forward. Sharansky questions whether our younger generation knows enough about who we are and our Jewish story to make sense of it all to move forward and make meaning.
Like Sharansky, we wonder whether we can ask our young Jews to weigh in on questions of Jewish identity without knowing about the struggle of Soviet dissidents like Natan and Avital Sharansky? Can we ask our young people to care about antisemitism without learning the history of the expulsions, inquisitions, and pogroms? Can we ask our young people to reimagine Judaism in the age of COVID-19 when they did not know what Judaism represented to them before the pandemic?
Memory and history are being debated rigorously in the United States and across the world, and the Jewish community struggles as well for the Jewish literacy and memory of its younger generation. It’s one of the great paradoxes of our time; the greater the accessibility of information, the less knowledgeable the Jewish community becomes (Pew Study, 2013). Despite all of human history being only a Wikipedia page or Google search away, the younger generation remembers less about who and what came before them.
How can we change this? How can we engage this generation and make the Jewish story relevant to them? How can we facilitate their understanding of the unfolding events around them? And most critically, how can we empower this generation to own their personal Jewish story and help them shape the broader Jewish community narrative as well?
As a media company, we are biased toward storytelling and fortunately, digital platforms and all forms of storytelling are the primary and preferred learning environments and genres for millennials and Gen Z. Creating content on platforms they have come to trust and rely on, to learn about their world, more easily establishes its relevance.
And the Jewish story is not only about facts, figures, and dates. The Jewish story must pique curiosity, raise dilemmas, and challenge assumptions. It must invite the learner on an intellectual, emotional, spiritual and very personal journey that will foster meaning making.
Storytelling via media platforms, are an essential path to Jewish literacy that can inform and entertain, engage and inspire, provide new knowledge and create connection.
Our newest YouTube series, The Jewish Story Explained, is a journey from antiquity to today, going through 3,000 years of the Jewish story, providing an invaluable backdrop to the contemporary world.
If we want young Jews to be part of our conversations, if we want our young people to want to be part of these conversations, seeing themselves as a vital participant in the Jewish story, they need to know what came before them and feel empowered to impact and direct what comes next.
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks says it best, “We are joined vertically to those who came before us, whose story we make our own. To be a Jew is to be a link in the chain of the generations, a character in a drama that began long before we were born and will continue long after our death. Memory is essential to identity – so Judaism insists … To be a Jew is to know that the history of our people lives on in us.”
Dina Rabhan is of CEO OpenDor Media.
Dr. Noam Weissman is the Senior Vice President at OpenDor Media. He is also the Founder and Director of LaHaV, a spiraled curriculum and pedagogically advanced approach to Jewish education that enables teachers to collaborate across different disciplines and empowers students to find meaning in their Jewish learning.