Out and About in the Jewish Community: The Questions Jews are Asking

By Steven Windmueller, Ph.D.

Traveling around the country, certainly one hears an array of concerns. The audiences that I encounter are generally older, usually synagogue, center or federation-based; these are the questions that they are asking:

  1. Why are my grandkids not interested in being Jewish? What can we do to make certain that our kids and grandkids remain committed to Judaism?
  2. With the population changes underway, what will America and our community look like?
  3. What is happening to our Jewish institutions?
  4. Why is the Jewish community so divided, and what can we do about it?
  5. Do I need to worry about anti-Semitism in America and the tenor of American politics?

The five questions above actually reflect five categories of importance to the Jewish community:

  • Demographic/Continuity Challenges (Questions 1)
  • American Destiny (Question 2)
  • Institutional Transformation (Question 3)
  • Political Discourse (Question 4)
  • Security and Safety (Question 5)

The “asking” of these questions is as interesting, and at times, as challenging as the possible answers. Often our seniors place their questions into the context of their own lives, as many must first tell you their family story as a way to introduce their concerns and personalize these issues. It’s as if they alone were undergoing these transitional moments. In many ways these “questions” are a reflection of their fears, hopes, and frustrations, after all it is their generation that is living through such significant social and structural transitions.

If one is speaking before an audience that is reasonably homogeneous, there is a degree of “can you top this” taking place, as participants seek to outbid their contemporaries over “how bad” the situation appears to be or “how important” their question is and therefore, their “ask” ought to take priority over another person’s concerns.

This sentiment is particularly present when talking about their kids and grandkids (question 1). One immediately senses a heightened level of pain and remorse as they often describe the loss they feel, when a youngster opts to marry “out” or when their adult children report that one or more of the grandchildren is not intending on having a bar or bat mitzvah. The questioner is posing his/her own expressions as if they have failed to deliver the next generation to the Jewish people. When learning about the distinctive generational characteristics of the Millennials and Generation Z, our older constituencies feel a total disconnect between their world and that of their grandchildren.

The audiences that tend to show up at these communal events are principally Baby Boomers (individuals born between 1946 and 1964) or Matures (folks born prior to 1946). When the subject of “their” synagogue or Hadassah chapter comes up for discussion, they sadly report on the declining numbers (question 4). Their generational characteristics are very much in play as these were folks expressing their religious engagement and Zionist credentials through their organizational and synagogue labels.

For example, on the question of the “Jewish divide” (question 4), more than one individual has introduced this issue by first sharing a tale of how they can no longer be in the same room or share a meal with a family member or longstanding friend in light of their deep political differences over Israel or President Trump. Others when asking about anti-Semitism (question 5) will introduce their concerns by offering personalized stories or report on information they have heard about recent “incidents” of anti-Semitism.

With these types of questions, there is a sense of loss that becomes profoundly evident. Change, as we all acknowledge, is both difficult and unsettling. For older audiences, there also appears to be a type of personalized connection to “their world”, whether of family or community, that appears to becoming undone to at least some of them. As one Holocaust child survivor explained, “When we came to America in the late 30’s we believed that this was the ‘promised land.’ Today some of us wonder whether we need to again pack our bags?”

In many ways this article is a companion piece to a June story also published on this site. In that selection the focus provided a macro assessment of communal issues, in contrast to the attention being given here to individualized concerns and observations about social change.

Through it all, these questioners, as with our communal leaders, are in search of answers, in some cases solutions or the next great Jewish revelation or experiment. If only we could readily supply these quick fixes to these challenging issues!

Steven Windmueller Ph. D. on behalf of the Wind Group, Consulting for the Jewish Future. Dr. Windmueller’s collection of articles can be found on his website: www.thewindreport.com.