Culture, Identity, Politics

Aligning Dreams and Visions

This is a guest post by dcc. dcc is a member of Temple Shaaray Tefila on the Upper East Side of Manhattan and the founding editor and current contributor to News and Views of Reform Jews.
A few weeks ago I was in a Barnes and Noble bookstore to get my sister a birthday-good-luck-in-med-school-have-fun-in-Chicago present when I passed the “Judaica” table, piled high with books about the Holocaust, Israel and a few by community-labeled self-haters (and great American authors) like Roth and Chabon. I stopped and said to my wife, “Even Barnes and Nobel has nailed the watered down Jewish community experience pushed by a vast majority of the organized Jewish world.” (Or something to that effect.)
We have Israel. We have the Holocaust. And we have people who disagree with the mainstream and therefore should be shunned. But thankfully we have great leaders who don’t buy into that reality…
A week before my trip to the bookstore, I read an interview of Charles Bronfman, the omnipotent Jewish philanthropist, in Ha’artez outlining that the lack of peace in the Middle East (not the-birthright-of-visiting-Israel-thing he heralded as the panacea for the past 10 years) as the reason young Jews aren’t connected to Israel and Jewish communal life. Respectfully, Mr. Bronfman, that isn’t it.
Since the beginning of time the Jewish community has been dynamic, complicated and multifaceted. We have come a long way within the modern Jewish to arrived at catch phrase Judaism. The unbearable “Love Is Real” campaign perpetrated in early part of this decade and the ubiquitous “you aren’t the leaders of tomorrow, you are the leaders of today” phrase jammed down every NFTYite’s throat in the late 90s jump to mind. Marketing is key to gathering people from the hinterlands but content is king when it is time to get them to stick around after we put away the oneg cookies.
Want to know why none of these catch phrases or free programs worked? They have no follow-through, no meaning and no responsibility. What are you required to do upon return from a Taglit-Birthright Israel trip? Nothing. You are obligated to do nothing. Some people do get involved but where is the widespread Jewish community engagement? What happens to NFTYites (and other youth group kids) when they leave high school? Nothing. They can go to Hillel or take part in Jewish student groups, but they don’t have to “feel Jewish.”
Could this have something to do with the fact that everything in the Jewish world was handed to them with no strings attached?
Like a doting grandparent, the Jewish community has bestowed as many gifts as possible onto the younger generation so that they in turn will bestow gifts onto the next generation; L’dor v’dor Halleluyah, from generation to generation we will continue this pattern of present giving that has created a strong Jewish identity over the past fifty years…
We need a different model but not a new model. We actually need to listen to the dreams of the youth and learn from the visions of older, wiser leaders. We cannot rely on kids to be in charge of the community just like we cannot leave innovation up to the old guard. I am excited to follow a wiser, more experienced community member; now would be the time for that older, wiser leader to actually take the lead and not just talk about changing the institutions. The younger generation is still a group of dreamers and that is a job we must embrace. We also have visions for the future, so we must take part in our community now in order shape it into something more substantial than the buzz word of the week.
The reality is we are the same Jewish community we have always been, so please stop trying to sell us a one-size-fits-all Jewish experience. Real leadership is not about sales, it is about engagement and knowing who you are leading. So let me introduce the next generation to you without the help of Survey Monkey, PhDs who you don’t listen to anyway or the Jewish entrepreneurial class:
We get married and have kids later. We want to see and hear the diversity of our entire community represented in our institutions. We don’t believe the Jews are going to be killed off systematically. (Call it naive or complacent, but there is no real threat to the Jewish people that will not be met without unbelievable force, both diplomatically and militarily.) We do not have an “us versus them” mentality, and we do not all see Israel the same way. We want to be held responsible for aspects of community life, not blamed for not being involved with them.
It is all right to enjoy Roth and be a Zionist. You can be a Reform Jew and vote Republican. You don’t have to love the State of Israel to be a good Jew. You should be able to do these things and think these thoughts as a Jew without fear of being ostracized. There is more to our community than being Jewish “in the age of Eminem.”
Free trips and challenge grants will not keep a majority of us involved in the community; that is short sighted. What will keep us around is a welcoming, relevant and nurturing place that feels like we can impact its future. For we have dreams and you have visions – it is about time to align them for the benefit of the Jewish people.

4 thoughts on “Aligning Dreams and Visions

  1. As a Reform Jew who spent his semester abroad in Jerusalem reading Philip Roth, I agree with much that dcc has to say, but I feel the need to fill in one glaring gap. He alludes to the problem but fails to specifically identify that dismal and wonky programming for College-aged Jews is at the heart of the problem. The University — perceived as both the great bastion of Jewish excellency and the mortal enemy of Jewish identity. The University — home of Hillel, Chabad, Aish outreach (and JAM out here at UCLA). The University — where great Jewish high school programming and summer camp experiences go to die.
    The Jewish community expects that because of their expansive (& expensive) programming from K-12, that we will go to college, become young professionals, somehow marry Jewish and then decide to join synagogues. As if the momentum from our formative years makes them entitled to astronomical membership fees?
    The Reform movement has hung us out to dry here. The so-called Kesher movement (that we used to affiliate with while we rebuilt a progressive movement at UCLA) has provided no support. Only through a 3rd party gift-grant were we given HUC interns for the past few years (that support will not continue this year). While we sport HH Services and near-weekly Friday nights, have we been visited by outreach coordinators or special education opportunities? Nope, everything we’ve done, we’ve done on our own.
    The UJC has pigeon-holed us into the leaders of someday. We were not represented at UJC GA last year, except by those of us already in Israel. We were given scarves that read “What’s Your Story?” as a means for “REAL” leaders to strike up a conversation with us. The Bronfmanarchy is no longer sustainable; that torch has already been dropped and must be picked up before it goes out.

  2. Speaking for myself, what’s missing is spiritual engagement. I’m not interested in synagogues as social networking or political activism platforms – not that there’s anything wrong with community building or taking our ethics out into the world in concrete ways that can do some good – but that is not why I would seek a religious community – I can be a secular humanist at home. I’m interested in building a relationship with God. I’m looking for what makes life meaningful, which for me falls under the heading of “relevant and nurturing.” I also believe in Judaism for Everyone, not just for the “real” Jews, but for anyone who wants to learn – because anyone can learn and benefit from Jewish ideas, and what is the point of being a “light unto the nations” if you never shine your light outside your own neighborhood? What’s relevant to me is how can I learn from the wisdom of the past and apply it to my life? How can I grow as a person? Those are the kinds of issues I don’t see being addressed.

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