The Revolution Before our Eyes

by David Bryfman

Historically speaking there are many characteristics of a revolution. Archetypal revolutions involve transformation brought about by a major groundswell of people. Most revolutions have a central leader (or leaders), and almost all have a clear and articulated vision. The Jewish world has gone through several revolutions. Exemplars of Jewish revolutions include the establishment of Yavneh as a center of Jewish learning after the destruction of the Second Temple; the Haskalah (Enlightenment) and its various offshoot movements in 18th century Europe; and Zionism.

It is my contention that we are now in the midst of another major revolution in Jewish life. Unlike classic revolutions there is no single leader or even a few leading figures. It is however lead by masses of people, best categorized as Time Magazine’s 2006 person of the year – You! This particular revolution also lacks an articulated vision, because by its very nature it is fragmented. Nevertheless its impact is universal and it is leading to the greatest transformation in Jewish life in more than a century.

Although technological applications may be the instruments by which many of these changes are exemplified, they are not the change itself. As a researcher of Jewish teenagers who I believe represent the changing face of the Jewish people, what we are witnessing today is not merely a natural evolution of the Jewish people, but a revolution in what it means to be Jewish in the world today. In at least 5 fundamental domains, living a Jewish life today is fast becoming a very different proposition than it was even a decade ago. Cumulatively these 5 changes in Jewish life represent nothing less than a major transformation of the Jewish people – the revolution before our eyes.

  1. Authority and Leadership: Traditionally the Jewish community has always had strong leaders. Historically kings, prophets and rabbis have been political, moral and spiritual guides for the Jewish people. More recently presidents of communal organizations, in the tradition of the kehilla, have assumed decision making positions in the Jewish community. No longer do these traditional figures serve leadership roles for growing numbers of Jews. Large numbers of young Jews feel disenfranchised by major communal institutions and very few youth are turning to rabbis, teachers, or counselors for their Jewish questions to be answered or their moral compasses to be adjusted. Today it is far more common for a Jewish question to be answered on Google than by seeking the wisdom of a single authority. And today, without any single notion of Jewish community, the younger generation of Jews is speaking for themselves. If they want a need met, usually with the click of a few buttons, they establish their own community and become their own leaders. It is quite clear that young people today have their own agency, and do not require age-old standard bearers of Jewish power and knowledge to determine or even guide their agendas.
  2. Text and Authorship: For most young Jews today their greatest source of information and inspiration is the internet. Increasingly this generation is also turning to cyberspace for their Jewish knowledge, sometimes a Jewish site, but more often than not, a generic information aggregator. What is evident among large numbers of this generation is that they are also seldom referring to the Torah, of other traditional Jewish texts, for their guiding wisdom. This being the case, then what is the Jewish canon of today? A canon in itself is also somewhat anachronistic for a generation today who understand their role as both consumers and producers of knowledge. In a Jewish context, the youth of today, trained as critical readers, the traditionally accepted textual canon of Jewish life is merely one sliver of that which should be regarded as essential to contributing to Jewish life today and tomorrow. Combined with a general societal milieu that dictates that all voices should be valued and respected, the centrality of the Jewish canon in the life of Jews is at the very least being questioned and possibly even being disregarded. Not only can actions influence the world but the power of blogs, Wikipedia, Twitter, Facebook and the like means that individuals can also contribute to the developing canon of Jewish life, with far more impact than ever previously imagined.
  3. Affiliation, Membership and Belonging: I meet many young Jews today who do not belong to any Jewish organization. In many instances they celebrated their Bar or Bat Mitzvah but for whatever reason today they are not members of a synagogue or JCC, don’t go to a Jewish summer camp, have never been to Israel and have no intention of going to Hillel or Chabad on campus. By most indicators by which the community measures their participation in Jewish life they are classified as “unengaged” or “unaffiliated” Jews. After some probing I discover that they belong to many Jewish groups and support several Jewish causes on Facebook, love Adam Sandler and Sarah Silverman’s Jewish shtick, and love eating chicken soup on Friday night with their bubbes. They also participate in walks for Cancer research because they know that this is something Jews do in order to make the world a better place – and they often learned that message from their days in Hebrew School. It is not that these Jewish youth are not engaged, it is that our ways of measuring and understanding their affiliation are out of touch with today’s reality. More importantly it isn’t that they don’t care – it is that they have not found relevant places in which they can search and try on for themselves what it means to be Jewish. To be relevant today the Jewish community must realize that young people choose to belong to causes and groups that change the world and not to institutions that appear to demand annual membership in order to maintain their existence.
  4. Globalization and Jewish Peoplehood: This year I attended a dance party on Yom Ha’atzmaut. There were kids there from Israel, San Francisco, New York and Turkey. They were eating falafel and there was Hadag Nachash hip-hop music blaring in the background. The thing is that I was also in my living room and the dance party was actually in a virtual world against the backdrop of the Second Temple in Jerusalem, and the actual dancers were avatars created by Jewish students from across the world. The context was a course taught about Jewish Peoplehood by several teachers in classrooms all around the globe, conducted virtually. The party I described saw all of the teachers leave the virtual space and the teens continued to dance and interact with one another. Compare this to the pen pals I had growing up where we used to send each other aerogrammes, followed by fuzzy video conferences with Partnership 2000 communities. Today, the implications of instant messaging and Skype on the ability to develop and sustain meaningful global Jewish relationships, is enormous. If only the Jewish community could keep up with the technology that our youth are exposed to on a daily basis, then we could make meaningful global Jewish interactions possible in the language of today’s youth.
  5. Generation Me is also Generation Wii: It is too simplistic to classify the youth of today as the narcissistic Generation Me. As a polar opposite to this gross generalization, today’s youth also maintain the core element of the age-old adolescent experience – searching for a place to belong in this world. Couple this with today’s generation’s desire to make a difference in the world, and empowered by their access to technology as never before, today’s youth are actively choosing not just where and how they belong in the world, but also contributing to this world like no other generation has ever been capable of doing. It is not surprising then that a generation concerned both with the self and the world, is also able to also mesh a third level of identification – in this case the Jewish world. In an era where movement between multiple identities is symbolized by youth who move seamlessly between their many different social media profiles it is evident that they are able to simultaneously be all about me, Members of the Tribe and Global Citizens.

Technology can no longer be thought of as what people do – in many ways it has become who we are. Cumulatively the changes taking place among our leaders, texts, institutions, combined with the unparalleled capacity for individuals to choose how they want to live their lives signal dramatic changes in the Jewish world today. All of this is not to say that these elements can’t change. If anything it should remind us that all of these features of Jewish life have always adapted and that they must continue to do so more quickly than at any other time in history.

At the heart of these changes must be the Jewish educational world. It is the Jewish educators and institutions of learning who have direct contact with the youth of today, often best understand the emerging trends of the ever-evolving world, and have the capacity to influence the largest number of people. These educators need further Jewish communal support and deserve to be elevated in status to the positions they deserve. Ultimately, the capacity of educators within nimble sites of Jewish learning to transform will largely influence the ability of the Jewish community to remain relevant to Jews today and tomorrow.

David Bryfman, Ph.D is the Director of the New Center for Collaborative Leadership at the Board of Jewish Education New York-SAJES. He is also an educational consultant for the iCenter and graduate of the Wexner Graduate Fellowship Program. David recently completed his doctorate at NYU in Education and Jewish Studies focusing on the identity development of Jewish adolescents.

This post is from the series Growing Jewish Education in Challenging Times.