Shifting Paradigms

Just about everybody agrees that the attitudes and behaviors of younger Jews today are very different from those of the preceding two or three generations. Jews who lived through the Holocaust and saw the birth of the State of Israel viewed those events as defining aspects of Jewish identity. The many who suffered as Jews from legally sanctioned discrimination in housing and employment felt anti-Semitism to be an ever-present threat.

A generation later, baby boomers rebelled against their parents’ assumptions, and some of them moved beyond the Jewish community into antiwar or feminist activities. But many still felt a strong connection to their Jewish identities and set out to change Jewish institutions rather than abandon them.

Now, as we regularly see, a lot of younger Jews in the United States are even more influenced by American values than by a particularist Jewish perspective. They view Israel as a foreign country, and their attitudes towards Israel are refracted through the lens of American sensibilities about war, race, and human rights. Their cultural references come from American pop culture. They understand ethical imperatives as obligations to humanity rather than applying first to their own community. And at least half of them have non-Jewish relatives by marriage.

The words and deeds of the organized Jewish community, however, barely register these changes. Of course the leadership sees the declining interest in Jewish institutional life, especially federations and synagogues, and it recognizes that younger people are different today. But the response has often been superficial, temporizing, or panicked rather than substantive. Institutions tout their Facebook pages and Twitter feeds as tokens of how up-to-date they are. They create groups exclusively for young adults, as if this age cohort simply needs special attention and activities. In some cases these institutions try projects like a music video or an online contest in a bid for youthful relevance, sometimes at enormous expense and generally with little effect.

It’s not that these are inherently bad ideas, imperfect though they may be. The problem is that they hold on to two assumptions that are largely no longer true. One is the belief that if individuals try out an organization and like what they see, they’ll become involved for the long term. The older generation did that: they would buy a subscription to the symphony or to a theater company, attend almost all the performances, and renew the subscription year after year. Likewise, they paid their synagogue dues for 40 years and made a contribution every year to the UJA. Today that’s not going to happen. Younger people now make ad hoc decisions and are disinclined to make long-term commitments.

The other, more serious assumption is an implicit distinction between who’s “in” and who’s “out,” with the object of bringing people “in.” That’s evident in the language we constantly hear about “welcoming,” about creating “points of entry.” The oft-cited model is the patriarch Abraham, whose tent was open on all four sides to see and welcome the stranger. This is a great virtue in the desert, where hospitality can mean the difference between life and death.

But American Jews, by and large, don’t feel that they are travelers in a desert who need sustenance. They feel, and rightly so, that they have a world of choices available to them and they need only choose the ones best for them. They make eclectic choices in the here and now, and move on when they wish to. Well-intentioned efforts to be hospitable to younger Jews as a way to increase affiliation are therefore misdirected, because they expect an outcome that today’s circumstances make unlikely.

The good news is that many young Jews still consider their Jewish heritage to be the source of their ethical outlook and the most important component of their identity. They enjoy being with other Jews (as well as with non-Jews), and they put their beliefs into action through volunteering and by taking part in bike rides, music festivals, Limmud weekends, independent minyanim, and many other activities. Trying to make them behave like their parents won’t work. Offering them a-la-carte options that express and deepen their identities will.

Bob Goldfarb, a regular contributor to eJewish Philanthropy, is the president of the Center for Jewish Culture and Creativity. He lives in Jerusalem and can be reached at bob [at] jewishcreativity [dot] org.