What’s On the Menu?

By Benj Fried

While walking down the street one day, a restaurant owner calls out to you, trying to entice you to come in by saying: “Come eat dinner so we don’t go bankrupt and close!” What an absurd marketing strategy. Of all the things he could offer to tempt you – delicious food, healthy ingredients, a unique ambiance, to name a few – he seems to think panic will sell. Moreover, the desperation behind this marketing might make it a self-fulfilling prophecy. While the metaphor seems absurd, Rabbi Rick Jacobs asserts that many professionals in the Jewish world use precisely this alarmist survivalist tactic to get people in the doors.

Jewish survivalism has been present in the conversation of our community for decades. The voices of Jewish survivalists became amplified in the post-Holocaust era, as the prospect of Jewish extinction nearly became a reality. Backed by Emil Fackenheim’s call to observe a “614th Commandment,” to refuse Hitler a posthumous victory, the survivalists have decried against Jewish assimilation and intermarriage. In the 1990s, this argument took the form of “Jewish Continuity,” a term that proved useful in uniting the Jewish community, but was ultimately devoid of any meaning. While the calls to greater Jewish education, to community building, and youth engagement are noble goals, the survivalist narrative alone cannot survive the contemporary context. In our current culture, a tautological argument – come be Jewish so we can survive together – is devoid of content and doomed to fail. In short, it is the restaurant owners who never tell us what’s on the menu.

Now, the survivalist narrative has produced tremendous success for the American Jewry in years past, and understanding that context can help us understand what has changed since then. The golden age for survivalism success was the 1950s – the postwar era of institution building. Jonathan Sarna writes in American Judaism that the number of synagogues skyrocketed, and the percentage of Jews affiliated with synagogues jumped 20% from the previous decade. Much of this growth was driven by the Jewish community striving to come to terms with the Holocaust. The American Jews, who suddenly and tragically became the largest Jewish community in the world, felt the pressure that the continuation of the Jewish people rested in their hands, whether it meant ensuring their kids would be Jewish or keeping the fledgling Jewish state alive and secure. And if we take the affiliation rates, the dollars donated to synagogues and federations, or the institution building as signs of success, the Jews of this era clearly and decisively responded to the survivalist call.

The Jewish identity formation that came out of the survivalist narrative took the form of what scholar of contemporary Jewish life Stuart Charmé calls “drink your milk Judaism.” He writes in his co-authored article “Jewish Identities in Action: An Exploration of Models, Metaphors and Methods” that this view of Jewish identity sees the process of Jewish education injecting kids with the nutrients, vitamins, and minerals needed to grow up big and strong (Jewishly). Jewish identity then becomes a homogenized product universally administered to grow Jewish bones necessary to stand up to the forces of assimilation and anti-Semitism that would otherwise crush those bones into dust. This would mean that education would be driven by an emotional and tribal impulse, and would also focus on skills and attitudes rather than substantive content. This kind of identity rhetoric was successful in the 1950s and 60s precisely because of the context of American Jewry back then. In essence, the Jews had to “drink their milk” then, because the Holocaust was an immediate reality that spooked them into doing so. Furthermore, Jewish social exclusion and common anti-Semitic attitudes of the average American meant that the Jews did not have a choice about whether they would encounter the forces the “drink your milk Judaism” was fighting against.

The reason survivalism has become so problematic in the modern context is that it has become a victim of its own success. Because they were so successful at building institutions, the people who espoused the survivalist narrative were slow to adapt to the changing landscape, a landscape where “drink your milk” Judaism is not going to work. Several generations removed from the Holocaust, the alarmism over extinction no longer holds the same anxiety and terror. The disappearance of Jewish quotas in universities, bans from country clubs and resorts, and the diminishment of overt anti-Semitism mean the Jewish community no longer needs to retreat instinctively into a place of defensiveness. Furthermore, since the Lebanon War in 1982, the American Jewish community is no longer in lockstep unity over Israel, as the complicated politics in the Jewish state have made it a more loaded issue in America. With this kind of landscape, an emotional, tribal message will simply not work. Forcing Jews to “drink their milk” would be like hitting them over the head for not feeling something – a recipe for failure.

The particular attitudes of the current crop of young adult Jews, the Millennials, further complicate the picture for the survivalist narrative. Though Jonathan Woocher’s 1981 study on survivalism in Jewish professionals, “Survivalism as a Communal Identity – An Assessment,” praises the contributions that survivalism has had on the Jewish community, he acknowledges that it has also had deleterious effects. Woocher asserts that the turn towards survivalism has turned the Jewish community’s attention inward, making the community more “naval-gazing.” This transformation could be self-defeating, as the prospect of a gap between the priorities of Jewish leaders and the lay public has emerged. For a Millennial generation less interested in being “joiners” and more universalistic than ever, a turn inward is exactly the wrong message to be sending. Furthermore, the Millennials represent a population more multi-identidied than those in the past. A tribal message is not what they are looking for.

Acknowledging both survivalism’s important role in our community as well as its limitations, are there ways of redeeming it? Perhaps. One example that has shown remarkable evolution over the years is Holocaust education, an area most at risk for sending a vapid survivalist message. In the decades following WWII, Holocaust education would often traumatize children because it would happen too young or throw learners into psychologically damaging simulations. In contrast to this, the Facing History and Ourselves organization, started in 1976, has effectively brought Holocaust education out of a tribal mind space into a place of broader relevance and innovation. The curriculum produced by FHO relates the lessons of the Holocaust to civil rights struggles, other genocides around the world, and actions the students can take in their own lives. What makes this model of education so effective is that it transforms an educational topic from something that can produce alarmist tribalism into a nuanced topic that leads to self-reflection, civic engagement, and broader awareness of world issues. In this model, Jewish identity work leads to American identity work, and visa-versa. In short, the FHO model is successful because it helps engage Jewish learners in the work of cultural straddling instead of fighting against it. And from this model, we get more engaged Jews, Americans, and world citizens. This is precisely the way that our Jewish professionals can stop yelling at the passersby on the street, and instead present them with a full and diverse menu to the restaurant. A menu rich in meaning that can help them navigate the many identities they have, and much more likely to entice them into the restaurant of Judaism.

Benj Fried is a rabbinical and education student at Hebrew Union College in Los Angeles.