By Rabbi Hayim Herring, Ph.D.
Why Can’t Jewish Organizational Tables be like the Seder Table (but without the Matzah)?
When I Googled the phrase “Passover Seder history,” over 7.7 million results appeared in 0.52 seconds. (And in case you’re interested in just one article with basic background information, you can find it here). But what I haven’t found so far is an article exploring the benefits of making our Jewish leadership tables all year long like our Seder table. We focus on the role of children at the Seder. Many ancient and contemporary practices have evolved to engage children in the reenactment of the Jewish journey from slavery to freedom, out of Egypt and into Israel. But in focusing on the children, we miss something else that is remarkable today – a Seder is an intergenerational experience, one in which young and old bring their perspectives on this narrative that defines us as a people. And we can overlook how few places inside and outside of the Jewish community exist, where we design experiences for organic, meaningful intergenerational relationships. We welcome the exchange of generational viewpoints because we increase our individual understanding of our connection to our past when we listen to the collective multiple voices of different generations present.
“Multigenerational” is a demographic reality, meaning that there are multiple generations alive at one time. Today, you can often find members of five different generational cohorts at one Seder table: our oldest elderly, those who remember World War II (the Greatest Generation), those who lived through the Korean War (the Silent Generation), Baby Boomers, Gen X’ers, and the youngest generation, Gen Z. As new generations are born and older ones pass on, their generational names will change. But this stunning reality of having at least five generations of people alive at one time is an unprecedented phenomenon in human history that’s here to stay.
As we don’t have much experience with having so many individuals from different generations alive simultaneously, generational cohorts tend to be segregated from one another. That contributes to problems of social isolation that young and old are increasingly experiencing, stereotyping, and a great loss of social capital. While we talk frequently today about racial, ethnic, gender and religious divisions, we don’t spend as much time considering the implications of having individuals from five different generations as the new norm for society. (If you’re interested in learning more about generational segregation, you can visit Generations United, a policy organization whose mission is, “to improve the lives of children, youth, and older people through intergenerational collaboration, public policies, and programs for the enduring benefit of all.”)
Intergenerational is not the same as multigenerational. Intergenerational means the intentional fostering of relationships across the generations through finding issues or work of shared purpose. Typically, Jewish organizations and congregations are atomized into different generational cohort activities. For example, with congregations, you only need look to their budgets to see that there are separate line items for youth programming, adult learning, sisterhood, brotherhood, etc. Yes, there are one-off programs that bring together members of different generations, like a social justice Mitzvah Day in a congregation or a federation Super Sunday “community-building” event. And there are family education programs, but typically they are only for parents who have children in an independent or congregation-sponsored religious school, and not generally advertised to those may be interested in intergenerational learning. Especially congregations, because of their access to multiple generations, have not grasped their potential to become intergenerational spaces of shared learning, work, experience and discussions of innovations from a Jewish values perspective. Are you aware of any Jewish organization that has an intergenerational council that takes a holistic view of its members and regularly considers how to use all of that generational wisdom as an asset that benefits the whole and not just one group?
So one of the questions that we should add, as we prepare for Passover, is, “Why is it only one or two nights of the year that we create generationally inclusive communities, in which all are encouraged to raise questions and share their collective wisdom?” If we can begin addressing this question by involving individuals of all generations in ongoing discussions, and not by using our default mode of one group “solving a problem” for the other, we’ll be a wiser and more empathetic community.
Wishing readers of all ages a joyous Passover and a chag sameach!
Rabbi Hayim Herring, Ph.D., is an author, consultant and nonprofit organizational futurist who holds a doctorate in Organization and Management. A “C-suite” leader, Hayim has worked with over 300 rabbis and congregations of all sizes and denominations throughout North America on issues including assessment, volunteer leadership development, strategic planning, organizational foresight and innovation. His most recent publications are Leading Congregations and Nonprofits in a Connected World: Platforms, People, and Purpose, with Dr. Terri Elton (2016) and, Tomorrow’s Synagogue Today. Creating Vibrant Centers of Jewish Life (2012).