Jewish communities and organizations the world over have been trying for decades to understand what makes the youth tick, how they think and communicate and what they want. Engaging young Jewish adults in their 20s and 30s is challenging to say the least, but a new collection of personal essays and memoirs from young American Jews hopes to enlighten and possibly bridge the gap.
by Darryl Egnal
When Stefanie Pervos Bregman embarked on her Master’s degree in Jewish Professional Studies in 2010, she had no idea where it would lead. As part of her Master’s thesis, she decided to ask young adults what they were thinking and, what started out as a small idea for her studies has resulted in Living Jewishly: A Snapshot of a Generation, recently published by Academic Studies Press as part of the series, Jewish Identities in Post-Modern Society.
“Living Jewishly started out as my Master’s project,” says Bregman. “A couple of years ago, as I spent my days working on Oy!Chicago and my nights studying for my Masters in Jewish Professional Studies at Spertus, the topic of engaging the next generation came up continually. I thought a lot about how to create a bridge of understanding between traditional Jewish organizations and Jews my age.”
Bregman is the manager of Digital Communications at the Jewish United Fund/Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago, the associate editor of JUF News and the co-founding editor and blogger-in-chief of Oy!Chicago, an online community geared toward Jewish 20- and 30-somethings living in the city. She has a Bachelor of Arts in Journalism from the University of Wisconsin-Madison as well as her recently-completed Master’s degree from the Spertus Institute of Jewish Studies.
“We were already exploring this idea through Oy!Chicago, an interactive blog we started in 2008, as a way of giving 20- and 30-somethings a voice, a connection and an entry point into the Federation conversation. The idea for the book developed from there. I thought if I asked more of my peers to tell their Jewish stories from their own perspectives, we could get some answers to some of these pressing questions,” she says.
In August 2010, she sent out a call for stories, asking the following questions:
“Are you a Jewish 20- or 30-something with a story to tell? Do you want to be part of a collection of voices that together tells the unique story of our generation?”
“The response was overwhelming and I received over 50 submissions. I collected these stories, edited them, pulled them together into the anthology and framed it with some research I had done about this demographic along with some analysis from the essays,” says Bregman. Her research can be found in the book’s prologue and epilogue.
One of the things she mentions in her research is the fact that today, Jews in their 20s and 30s choose Judaism because of “what it has to offer intellectually, spiritually and emotionally”. They want meaningful Jewish experiences where they can find engaging and fulfilling communities and networks, and if existing institutions – i.e. synagogues, Federations, JCCs – can’t keep up, young Jews will simply create their own programs.
This generation of Jews, she states, is different from their parents and grandparents in many ways – and yet, just like their parents and grandparents did, young Jews today are redefining what it means to be Jewish. This age group has never known a world without the State of Israel; is generations removed from the Holocaust; and, while exposed to some anti-Semitism, most have never personally experienced any anti-Semitic sentiment. For the most part, being Jewish does not impact their day-to-day lives and activities, unless, of course, they want it to.
In a section entitled All Eyes on “Me”, she points out that today’s young people – from child-aged through 40 – have been labeled “Generation Me”, a stereotype that implies they place themselves as individuals before anything, or anyone, else. Jews in their 20s and 30s are no exception. Immune to the rigidity of traditional Jewish life, they pick and choose what, when and how to live Jewishly. For some in their 20s and 30s, this means joining the conversation online through blogs and social networks, for others joining an independent minyan, and for others it’s cultural – going to Jewish-themed or sponsored parties or concerts, joining JDate, or simply eating Chinese food on Christmas.
Also in the prologue of the book, Bregman identified nine common threads from the essays she received. These include redefining Jewish relationships, expressing Judaism through culture, measuring up to past generations, resistance to labels, and more.
Something else she picked up in the early days of the project is that young Jews crave a space to share their stories. She remembers hitting send on the email asking for submissions for the book and thinking to herself: “I hope somebody – anybody – responds. Well, they did. I couldn’t believe how many people were interested in what I was doing, but also how many people thanked ME for this opportunity, thanked ME for giving them a voice.
“Traditional organizations should embrace these new ideas. It’s especially important for us in the Jewish professional world to understand this new culture, and adapt to it. The Jewish community at large needs to understand how young Jews express their Judaism to best be able to engage them now and in the future,” says Bregman.
“In the Jewish communal world, engaging 20- and 30-somethings is a hot button issue: How do we get young Jews to feel connected to Israel? To affiliate with traditional Jewish institutions? To care about Jewish continuity, ritual and tradition? I wanted to go straight to the source and asked people to tell their own personal Jewish stories. I thought that together these stories could create a complete picture, or at least a snapshot of this generation,” she says.
Living Jewishly is aimed at anyone who has an interest in Jewish life. Those in their 20s and 30s have a chance to hear stories from their peers, while those outside of the demographic will gain insight into this seemingly elusive generation while simultaneously learning about it.
Both paperbacks and hard covers of the book are available on Amazon and you can learn more about the book at livingjewishlybook.com or at facebook.com/livingjewishlybook. If you have questions or want to learn more, email Stefanie Bregman at [email protected]