More Than ‘Generation Me’

sunOur current leadership structures, foundational basis in Jewish texts and values, raison d’être, and inability to relate to complex personal identity are all indicators of a community rapidly losing touch with its younger population.

by David Bryfman

How can it be that the most narcissistic, self-absorbed, self-indulgent, materialistic generation that the world has ever known is also capable of causing social revolutions in any number of countries and mobilizing the masses in countless political campaigns – perhaps even saving the planet from environmental disaster?

This ambiguity plagues any organization that has young people on its radar. And, at a time when institutions are clambering for relevance if not survival, this complexity should be front and center for discussion in the Jewish community.

To be accurate, I am referencing a hybrid of the Millennial and Generation Z generations.[1] While conflating these two distinct generations does not do justice to their nuanced differences, together, these age cohorts, the youth and young adults of the early 21st century, pack a mighty punch that threatens the very fabric of organized Jewish life. On the flip side, if their energy is cultivated and expanded, these generations – as they are doing in almost every other sector in society – may challenge, invigorate, and create the Jewish world of the next several decades.

As an educator working with this cohort, I see at least four major characteristics of young people today that together suggest that the Jewish world of tomorrow cannot and will not look like the Jewish world of today.

1. Hierarchies and Leadership: In a world where anyone can bring about change, mobilize the masses, and empower literally millions of others, the ascribed title of “leader” does not garner automatic and unchallenged respect from young people today.

2. Core Text: In a postmodern world where the collective wisdom harnessed by Wikipedia has replaced the expertise of the Encyclopedia Britannica, citing canon as supreme proof is a foreign concept.

3. Universalism, not Particularism: In a truly global world, young Jews believe that it is important to be a strong and committed Jew – not necessarily because it will make the Jews a strong people, but because it will help to make the world a better place.

4. Generation Me Is Generation Wii: At first glance, it may appear contradictory that a generation that is so individualistic can also be so committed to making the world a better place. Often, this tension leads people to dismiss the younger generations, finding it easier to believe that narcissism trumps idealism. But for these younger generations, it is not an issue to move between multiple versions of themselves – being self-absorbed and globally concerned – because the world they live in is infinitely complex and, at the very least, they recognize that the imprint they will leave in this world will be both big and small.

I am not suggesting that any one of these characteristics is particularly radical. But when you combine them – and many other traits of these generations – one begins to see that the very fabric of what we understand as Jewish community is being challenged: Our current leadership structures, foundational basis in Jewish texts and values, raison d’être, and inability to relate to complex personal identity are all indicators of a community rapidly losing touch with its younger population.

Many of these characteristics have a connection to technology, but they are not about technology per se. But it would be a mistake not to understand that today’s technology is changing the way people think, behave, and interact with one another at a magnitude the like of which we have never seen before.

These radical changes demand that we all adapt and innovate. Perhaps that prophecy may be more palatable when combined with suggested remedies:

  • Include young people at your board meetings and on your task forces. They should be invited not as informants, consultants, or focus groups, but rather as authentic voices with the same decision-making authority as anyone else around the table.
  • For young people who want to know that their contributions in life will make a meaningful difference, it is essential to ensure that your financial models are transparent and based on value propositions that resonate on both an
    individual and collective level.
  • The value of being Jewish today must be expressed in a way that conflates a better sense of self, a stronger sense of community, and a better world in which all humanity can flourish.

These three suggested strategies treat our youth and young adults as human beings living in the here and now. They are not being held hostage to our past, nor are they being judged as the adults they will grow up to become. Their voices are real and their power is enormous. These generations are exhibiting influence and power in almost every aspect of their lives; for the Jewish community to ignore or even suppress their ingenuity is to do so at our own peril.

Some of my critics point out that today’s young people are rejecting the very establishment that an earlier generation of rebels created. We must accept, as much as it might disturb and even anger older generations, that it is not the fault of our young people that many Jewish institutions are struggling today, nor is it their responsibility to revitalize the organizations of yesteryear. The mistake is to conflate this lack of reverence for traditional institutions and buildings with a lack of caring – nothing could be further from the truth. Generations Y and Z care; they might just not care about the same things that their parents and grandparents did. Other critics cite the book of Kohelet (Ecclesiastes): “That which has been is that which shall be, and that which has been done is that which shall be done; and there is nothing new under the sun.” (1:9) Can one Jewish text of utter defeatism derail us from a commitment to transform the future?

Engrained in every Jewish educator must be the deeply held belief that education is about transforming lives in order to make the world a better place. By unleashing that individual personal spark in each of our learners, we will come closer to fully recognizing the potential of these generations. To underestimate their power is to suppress their creativity. To challenge and inspire them is our key to ensuring a vibrant Jewish world for the next generations to inherit.

[1] Millennials are the generation born in the years ranging from the early 1980s to the early 2000s, and they are also known as Generation Y or Generation Me. Their successors, Generation Z – also known as the iGeneration, Generation Tech, Generation Wii, the Net Generation, Digital Natives, Generation Next, and the Post Generation – are those who were born during the period from the turn of the 21st century to the present.

David Bryfman is the Chief Learning Officer at The Jewish Education Project in New York. He completed his doctorate in education and Jewish studies at New York University, focusing on Jewish adolescent identity development. Bryfman has worked in formal and informal Jewish education settings in Australia, Israel, and North America. An alumnus of the Wexner Graduate Fellowship Program, he has been charged to direct the National Incubator for Community-Based Jewish Teen Educational Initiatives funded by the Jim Joseph Foundation.

Reprinted with permission from “Sh’ma: A Journal of Jewish Ideas” May 2014 issue, as part of a larger conversation about self and community.