The Intersection of Jewish Identity, Jewish Values and Global Sustainability

We need to help people infuse Jewish identity into how they live, love, work and play.

REALITY program participants
REALITY program participants

[This essay is from The Peoplehood Papers, volume 14 – Sustainability and Jewish Peoplehood – published by the Center for Jewish Peoplehood Education.]

By Sandy Cardin

When I was asked to write an essay on sustainability, Jewish and global, I immediately thought of our greatest renewable resource: young people. Indeed, our future depends on our ability to inspire generation after generation of young people to take an active role in making the world a better place.

When it comes to young Jews, in particular, our role is two-fold: to engage and empower them to devote their time and talent to strengthening the Jewish community and to put Jewish values at the forefront of their efforts to serve the common good.

Achieving this vision relies on our ability to help young Jews embrace their Jewish identity and ultimately connect the values they hold as global citizens to Jewish values. Indeed, we have seen how eye-opening it can be for young Jews to learn that Jewish text and teachings implore us to work toward a sustainable future for all humanity by living out the values of tikkun olam (repairing the world), tzedek (justice), derekh eretz (civility and humanity), chesed (mercy and kindness) and others.

Yet, without a strong sense of connection to these values, these teachings remain words on a page.

Methods for forging this connection have evolved significantly over the last three decades. Until recently, the field of Jewish engagement was often focused on programs whose principal goal was to help make “Jewish” someone’s primary identity.

In the mid 1990’s, a study on emerging Jewish identity made clear that this was not the way many people viewed themselves. Instead of choosing just one identity, people held multifaceted and multiple identities, often unaffected by religion. As a result, by the early 2000’s, many began modeling an approach of finding new ways to bring people to Judaism.

Recently, our collective approach shifted again. Perhaps best illustrated by the 2013 Pew study on Jewish Americans, many within the Jewish community have realized that being Jewish was most attractive if it spoke to and connected with another part of someone’s identity.

In particular, the Pew study showed that 22 percent of self-identified Jews do not affiliate with the Jewish religion. This percentage has grown over the years and is highest among Millennials at 32 percent. At the same time, it showed that more and more Jews, especially in the younger generation, identify as “community Jews,” crediting a shared heritage and culture and strong Jewish values that encompass the values they hold as global citizens.

What this means is that rather than leading people to Judaism and Jewish life, we need to bring Judaism to people. We need to help people infuse Jewish identity into how they live, love, work and play.

This approach is proving successful in helping to make Jewish thoughts and traditions applicable to the lives young Jews already lead. It has also helped people translate Jewish values into a broader framework, enabling them to see their interests, passions and causes in a Jewish context and inspiring them to take action.

Through our work, we are seeing young Jews find new and innovative ways to use technology to serve people living with disabilities, to marry local cuisine and sustainable food practices, to employ art and music to breathe new life into old cities. When asked where they draw their inspiration, many talk about the connection to their Jewish roots and values.

In particular, we are seeing young Jews use Amplifier, a newly launched giving circle platform, to rethink philanthropy; form communities of service through Repair the World, an organization working to make service central to Jewish life; and forge meaningful connections to Israel through organizations like TAMID Israel Investment Group.

Additionally, we are seeing participants of the Schusterman REALITY program tap into Jewish values as a way to shape and grow their leadership capacity. By providing them with meaningful Jewish experiences, these young adults who have a passion for social justice are exploring what it means to approach their work through a Jewish lens, all while building a network of like-minded peers eager to support each other as they set their sights on making a difference in their communities.

The efforts of young Jews to create a more just and sustainable world add to a robust Jewish legacy of affecting change. Historically, Jews have played an important role in bending the arc of history toward justice, marching alongside civil rights activists and continuing the fight for an inclusive society.

But despite significant achievements, past and present, our work is cut out for us. As funders and Jewish organizational professionals, it is up to us to build on these trends and capture the imagination of young Jews so that they might continue to be leaders and change makers on a global scale.

It is especially timely to have this discussion during a shmita year for Jews – a year in which farmers refrain from working their land in favor of more bountiful harvests down the road. The concept of shmita speaks to all who are hard at work sowing the seeds of a sustainable future. As professors Avi Sagi and Yedidya Stern wrote, “Shmita is a call to set apart a bubble in time,” a time to foster care, compassion and partnership. Now is our moment in time, our chance to lay the groundwork for supporting generations of young Jews who will ultimately shape the future we imagine.

For inspiration, we need only draw upon the words of Honi the Circlemaker. It was Honi who first offered a Jewish definition of sustainability when he declared that “just as our parents planted for us, so we will plant for our children.” Our founder Lynn Schusterman adopted this mandate 25 years ago, and together with peers, partners and friends we will continue to work toward its fruition.

Sandy Cardin is the President of the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation.