Identity, Religion

Playing well with others

Life Is MusicIn a recent conversation about my Jewschool hoodie, I found myself attempting to explain to a mom-aged co-worker how turntables are not unidirectional vehicles of cultural transmission, but viewed through the lens of hip-hop and electro-acoustic music, tools to re-define, re-contextualize and re-invent music. Technology, in this case as embodied by the turntable, has altered our relationship to music, to the world, and for those of us who choose to engage, to Judaism. It is not only that we now have the tools to re-mix, but that in having these tools, our relationship to music/art/Judaism is fundamentally altered. To paraphrase Douglas Rushkoff, it’s a step in the evolution of our realization of the open-source-ness of reality. Continuing with our turntable metaphor, we’re not, as my co-worker initially thought, passive receivers, but active participants. Ours is the first generation to have come of age with this level of access to these technologies, and our world-view has been drastically altered as a result. Our parents generation, by en large, doesn’t re-mix, and having not encountered these technologies until much later in their identity development, haven’t integrated them into their world-view in the way our generation has. (all sweeping generalities have exceptions, but you get my drift)
Last Sunday, the Young Adult division of CJP (Boston’s federation) held its first ever Community Leadership Institute – a workshop for the volunteer leaders of Boston’s young adult Jewish organizations. Attendance was by invitation only, open to representatives of Boston’s 20s/30s Jewish orgs (the organizations invited all receive some level of funding from CJP, as well). There were 50 or so folks in the room, from indie minyanim, synagogue outreach initiatives and a handful of other young adult organizations as well as representatives of some of American Jewry’s major players (ADL, AIPAC, etc.). There was food, schmoozing, and a variety of small workshops on leadership, advocacy, funding, and other relevant issues. By far, the highlight of the program was Simon Klarfeld‘s keynote. Klarfeld explained that much of what is so remarkable about our generation (and about this gathering in particular) is that for the first time, we have a generation of Jews planning and implementing programming for themselves. We are defining Judaism on our own terms, creating and facilitating the kinds of experiences we want, not that which our parents’ generation thinks that we want. (let’s also remember this is a stage of life which didn’t previously exist – folks used to pru urvu much earlier in life)
As we will read this week – Lech l’cha – we are to go from our parents’ house and create for ourselves a new life. Jonathan Sarna, a leading expert on Jewish American history, points out that every generation of American Jews have re-invented Judaism (and its institutions), much to their parents’ chagrin. But with all the fuss over “continuity” (really, they’re worried about the survival of Judaism), too often the older generation is reluctant to let go of the communal models with which it is familiar and foster the growth of a new paradigm. Even faced with distressing statistics, there is a desire to make small changes to the existing structure, and often a hesitance to allow for a new structure to emerge and flourish. When it comes to the relationship between our grass-roots efforts, and “the man” (big organizational Judaism), there are certainly hiccups and balls dropped (uh… New Voices, a lack of funding for Jew It Yourself, etc.*), but this particular morning was an outstanding example of institutional Judaism not only being with the program, but reaching out to aid Boston’s young adult community in the facilitation of their programs. Here we have a perfect example of an “old-school” Jewish organization allowing for, even encouraging, a new way of doing things. I do not believe that this comes from a desire on the part of CJP to remain relevant, given the fact that the paradigm is shifting, but from an honest desire to aid the new models toward success. While they may not be altering the code, it shows an acceptance and understanding that we are, and a desire to help us do it well.
It is my hope, and from what I’ve gathered the hope of many in attendance, that the workshop will prove to be a beginning – not a one-shot gathering, but the beginning of dialogue both between those involved in these young adult organizations and organizations of their parents’ age, and greater dialogue between the groups serving the young adult population. It will no doubt be fascinating to see what happens next.
*Both of these issues center around our generation’s relationship with Israel – Klarfeld sited Frank Luntz’s Israel in the Age of Eminem, describing our generation’s view as far more grey than black-and-white. This could be fodder for many future posts, but I’m of the opinion that this is the area in which “the man” repeatedly misses the boat by leaps and bounds.

4 thoughts on “Playing well with others

  1. I’m glad to be living in a generation where people are empowered to remix judaism as they see fit. However, we are certainly not the first. We may be more self-conscious about it, but the Havurah Movement beat us to the punch. And for that I am grateful, because we can learn from their successes and failures.
    As for CJP and the Federations ever “getting it” I dont think its just a problem of inertia, its a structure problem stemming from the history of the Federation movement. At their inception these institutions were founded on an enforced unity in order to raise money for Jewish welfare needs and for zionist causes. In the 70s, they began to take on more cultural/educational/policy/programming stuff. All their programs are built on a notion of a single address and a single set of values. They need to be “big tent” because legitimacy comes from being THE jewish address.
    On of the major outcomes of post-modern Judaism, the almost total breakdown of authority beyond the self and the community as defined by the self. This has incredible potential, as it allows us to define communities of values, choosing to include those who support positive change, rather than including people who happen to share a religious or ethnic background. This kind of radically individual communitarianism has led to a radically diverse set of meaning rubrics for us post-modern Jews.
    This diversity runs directly against the unity that federations depend on. Of course the Israel stuff throws it all in relief. Most involved American Jews support the zionist party line. This set of positions is concentrated and amplified in the mainstream orgs. I would not go so far to say the mainstream (AIPAC, the Feds, ADL, Pres Conf) are producing this propaganda. It may come in part from the base, but it is through the mechanisms of monetary disbursement and cultural policing that this “consensus” is enforced. (For a recent example check out the ADL/Tony Judt story, for a historic one read about the cooption of “Jews for Urban Justic,” in Torn at the Roots
    So, the Federations cannot “get it”. Not because they dont want to. They are hemorrhaging from the drain of young donors. They cannot “get it” because they are built on unity (albeit organized as a federation). This is also why until the Israel issue prompted the rightward shift of organized Jewry, Federations had difficulty connecting with Orthodox Jews. Serious dissent (from any quarter) questions why we should be giving to them, rather than to particular causes and organizations we support.

  2. Rebecca – in my case, mom-aged is mid-fifties.
    CoA – I’m not necessarily taking issue with your argument. From what I’ve seen in Boston, CJP’s Young Leadership Division seems to be doing a decent job of recruiting young donors (myself not included). I’d be open to figures which prove otherwise.
    As far as the Havurah movement, I’m all for giving credit where due, but while the movement during the 60s and 70s represented a smaller segment of the Jewish population, the do-it-yourself mentality has become, for our generation, the norm of Jewish living – at least as I see it from Boston – however I also accept the possibility that my understanding, coming from Boston and heavily influenced by Jew York, doesn’t accurately represent other parts of the country/world. To some extent, I think the Jewschool set (and I’m equally guilty) have a warped view of Jewish life – we fail to remember that not everyone has the opportunities/communities in which we are privileged to take part.
    If Federations/CJP are dying out, at least in this case CJP is doing what it can to aid our cause.

  3. Basically the Judaism of our parents, is not the same as our Judaism, as their Judaism was not the same as their parent’s, and so it goes, for each generation will take upon themselves customs, and ideas that are different from those that have gone before them.

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