Peoplehood and Fragmentation

[This essay is from The Peoplehood Papers, volume 8 – Nurturing Jewish Peoplehood in the 21st Century – What Should We Do Differently? – published by the Center for Jewish Peoplehood Education.]

by Erica Brown

Walk into most synagogues in North America today and you will find services for everyone: a tot Shabbat, a junior congregation, senior lunches, and latke and vodka programs for men in mid-life. They may not always be advertised within age brackets, but we all know who the target audience is. Sisterhoods have even been divided in some synagogues to cater to both young professionals/young mothers and older empty-nesters.

This is not only true for synagogues. Federations and JCCs create happy hours for their hip twenty-year-olds and gallery showings for those over 50. It’s true that we’ve always had to market to specific populations to attract participants, but now we hardly have any programming meant to bring the entire community together. And this is not only true for institutional programming. I have found it to be true in the socializing that takes place out of buildings. We often have people around our Shabbat table who are 10-20 years younger or older, but are rarely invited to join families outside of our age range and if we are, it will be to those who are older than we are, not younger.

For a long time, one of the persistent stumbling blocks to peoplehood was denominational affiliation. Now that obstruction is slipping in a more post-denominational milieu. It’s not that our synagogues have dropped their affiliations, but the ideological rigidity among congregants is largely gone. In its place is a much more insidious division: ageism. It’s insidious not only because it divides us but because we don’t even realize how much it divides us and what we lose when we don’t “do Jewish” across the lifespan within the same room.

And here is what we lose when we don’t bring millennials and baby-boomers together to talk, to debate and to socialize:

  • A chance to hear the voice and the concerns of those tackling different life issues and enjoying different life stages
  • The chance to mentor or be mentored
  • The sharing of powerful life experiences that are not our own
  • The guidance of those who have already been there and done that
  • The wonder and curiosity of what Jewish life looks at from someone older or younger than yourself
  • The institutional understanding that we ultimately serve community as a collective, and can never be exclusively singular in our focus
  • Intimate knowledge of the anxieties and challenges of those facing today’s challenges at a different age than our own

We are reading lots of books about millennials in the workplace and how to manage expectations and harness talent. We are not reading enough about how to break down the age barriers within the Jewish community and create genuine understanding that comes through friendship.

And if we are seeking practical ways to nurture peoplehood, there can be few easier solutions than bringing people together regardless of age to identify universal issues that impact us all. Congregations must be places where we pray for those who are not ourselves. Jewish prayer is traditionally always written in the plural to reflect our capacity to go outside the self and encounter the needs of the other. Lately, we have been betraying this legacy in what sounds like an appeal to self-love, and we’ve been doing it with the “hekhsher” or stamp of approval of Jewish institutional life. Rather than instruct and expand our thinking, Jewish professionals often cater to this trend in creating events and programs.

I believe we can begin to reverse this process with a few introductory measures:

  1. All boards should have at least two representatives from every major age bracket: 20s, 30s, 40s, etc. Having single, token board representation is usually not robust enough. If boards exist to represent the community at large then they need to factor in age as well.
  2. Large scale community-wide events need to focus on programming that brings shared voices into the same room. This means that panel discussions, for example, should include not only religious, gender and geographic diversity but age diversity as well.
  3. Even when we segment age as a factor in programming, we need to make sure that we inform our constituents about activities, trends and events taking place for those in other age brackets. Otherwise, we begin to look lopsided in our concerns.
  4. We need to vary ages when it comes to taking leadership and chair roles. There was a time when we only saw men’s portraits hanging in boardrooms. Today, those are thankfully joined by a sprinkling of photos or paintings of women presidents, but most reflect only one age bracket and that is not servicing our community broadly enough.

When making the film “The Prince of Egypt,” Disney chairman Jeffrey Katzenberg decided to call upon clergy from the three major faiths for guidance. One of the questions raised was who would play the voice of God. Would it be a traditional James Earl Jones voice, appealing to a conservative audience, or might it be the voice of a woman, a real radical shift for Disney?

The person responsible for God’s voice in the film wanted to try something new: “The challenge with that voice was to try to evolve it into something that had not been heard before.” In the end, they used the actor Val Kilmer’s voice for both Moses and God, “to suggest the kind of voice we hear inside our own heads in our everyday lives.” In other words, God’s voice was a reflection of a human voice or perhaps even our own voices. The ultimate in narcissism is to make God into a shadow of ourselves.

I preferred an option discussed along the way; God’s voice would be a synthesis of voices: children and seniors, young women, old men and everything in-between. In other words, if God’s voice has to be, by virtue of our limitations, a voice that sounds human, let it reflect the voice of us all. If that is true for God’s voice, should it not be true for the voice of our community?

The bonds of peoplehood are strongest when they represent the voice of us all. In our stretch for membership and recruitment, we forget this at our peril. We can and should segment some programming, but we must be careful that it does not lead to age fracturing and fragmentation. To be a real community and an extended family we need everyone around the table.

Dr. Erica Brown is the scholar-in-residence for the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington. Her forthcoming book is Happier Endings: Overcoming the Fear of Death (Simon and Schuster).

This essay is from The Peoplehood Papers, volume 8 – Nurturing Jewish Peoplehood in the 21st Century – What Should We Do Differently? – published by the Center for Jewish Peoplehood Education.