Why Jewish Engagement, L’Dor Va’Dor?

Dor L'Dor by Mordechai Rosenstein
Dor L’Dor by Mordechai Rosenstein

by Deborah Fishman

Conversations about Jewish engagement (for better or worse, often centered around engagement of the “next generation”) frequently involve a certain degree of hand-wringing about the state of “the Jewish establishment.” In these pages, David Bryfman recently wrote on the characteristics of the Old Guard which fail to speak to the would-be incumbents of the Jewish People: its hierarchical leadership structure; its failure to grasp the young Jew’s “complex personal identity.”

One basic question about Jewish engagement efforts that comes to mind is: What, actually, does it mean to “engage” in the first place? A dictionary definition will include such phrases as: “occupy the attention or efforts of”; “to attract and hold fast”; or “to bind, as by pledge, promise, contract, or oath.” By definition, engagement requires there to be something around which one is engaged. So, when we talk about Jewish engagement, what exactly are we proposing should occupy, attract, and bind? In other words, why and towards what ends are we engaging in Jewish engagement to begin with?

To me, the answer is clear: We should engage the next generation around our powerful Jewish values and texts which form the very foundation of the Jewish people. We should engage them around our raison d’être of being a unique and extraordinary people with a storied heritage and purpose in the world.

I was therefore puzzled by Bryfman’s characterization of two more ways in which the older generation is losing touch with next: our “foundational basis in Jewish texts and values” and “raison d’être” [taken to be a focus on particularism over universalism].

I believe the Jewish people’s compelling value proposition comes through embodying, teaching, creating community around, and yes, engaging, in the texts and values which are our birthright and heritage. It is vital that we start from this position of strength, of having something concrete and in fact precious to offer the next generation and all generations to come. Otherwise, we run the risk of becoming no more than the crumbling institutions referenced – and it will be no wonder when young Jews walk away.

On the other hand, Bryfman is right that the next generation is different from those before. He poses the interesting question of how a generation that is so “me” can simultaneously be so committed to making the world a better place. I think the answer goes even deeper than “complex personal identity.” Those of this generation take as second nature that what is personal can be global: they share about themselves to wide audiences on social media, and what were once private activities, from playing games to tracking one’s location or exercise, are now conducted via social apps. That individuals can connect with others world-wide at the touch of a screen is an assumption in their lives. Once the line between personal and global is blurred, what is global joins the same frame of reference as the personal as well.

The opportunity here is clear: galvanizing new action around Jewish causes can be a huge asset to the Jewish people’s work across all generations and world-wide. The global power of the nextgen individual is exciting, indeed game-changing. But with so many causes, missions, and activities at iPhone’s reach, how does one choose where to spend one’s free time: on a microvolunteering platform, or Minecraft?

Should those of the next generation decide to unleash their energies toward Jewish causes, their motivation and inspiration needs to stem from an interest in Jewish values, commitments, and peoplehood. Otherwise, if such efforts are not grounded in Jewish values and texts, I ask: What makes them uniquely Jewish? Or, speaking of a raison d’être: Why does the Jewish people need to continue to exist in order to perpetuate them?

Here’s what I envision when I think about what is needed in Jewish engagement of the next generation. It’s about more than the younger generation having an equal seat at the table, or even equal decision-making power. First, there needs to be a sense of why they are sitting there making decisions in the first place. This understanding must be rooted in knowledge, in the form of 1) an appreciation for and familiarity with the Jewish texts and values which are the basis for work in the Jewish community, and 2) the generations’ appreciation for and familiarity with one another.

What if we could create a multi-generational dialogue around what it means to be Jewish today, and why be Jewish in today’s world? This conversation would need to be a give-and-take with both sides learning from one another. On one side: What exactly does a “complex personal identity” entail, and how could it serve to enact the Jewish mission in the world? On the other: How and why were today’s Jewish establishments created, and what Jewish mission do they seek to achieve? What if we could learn about Jewish texts and values together? Through doing so, we would each gain a better understanding both of what we are learning, and also of the others’ perspective on Judaism – and on life.

Such an enriching conversation could open new doors to a common understanding both of the Jewish values and commitments that animate Jewish communal work, and a joint exploration of the pathways that could be pioneered to bring them to an ever wider audience, to achieve action around causes, and to inspire Jewish creativity and passion around the world. Without the substance, and its roots in the core texts of our people, I fear that the form of simply adopting the next generation’s mindset and mechanism will yield an empty vessel.

Deborah Fishman is Director of Communications at The AVI CHAI Foundation.