Rosh Hashana 2nd day dvar: Jewish Engagement for the Next Generation

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Delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom as one of four Generation X and— Millennial— guest speakers to share from their personal experiences of Jewish engagement and their visions for Jewish— community life: Ben Murane, Rabbi Oren Hayon, Shoshana Wineburg, and Talya Gillman. Hear the presentation again and participate on Sat, Nov 22 at 1:15 pm – 2:15 pm.

Thank you all for joining us. And thank you to Rabbi Borodin and Beth Shalom for opening this conversation.

Every generation is indeed different from the last, but the shift we’re going through is and isn’t just a typical generation gap. I want to set the scene so that Oren, Shoshana, and Talya can share their visions.

First, young American Jews are just like young Americans. The internet and computers have accelerated the ease of connecting with others around common passions and advancing them. I’m sure many of you are familiar with Bowling Alone, but counter to that trend is the number of nonprofits shaping community life has doubled in the past decade. And the Jewish community is the same. In 2008, the first study of new Jewish organizations counted over 300. They estimated these new groups involved half a million Jews.

In 2005 when I moved to Brooklyn, I asked where young people like me prayed. I was sent to a havurah. I cared about Israeli-Palestinian peace, so I joined a Jewish peace group. I cared about sustainable food, so I got a job with a Jewish environmental group. I began to write for the publication of record for young Jews like me, a website called Jewschool.com.

By 2013 when I left Brooklyn, I and others from my minyan’s leadership were directly or indirectly responsible for fifteen new minyanim in every major city, including Seattle. That little peace group had become J Street with a chapter in every city. Hazon, which had hired me as its 7th employee, now had 24 staff. Jewschool.com is now in competition with a million Jewish blogs.

It was estimated in 2009 that half of young Jews were involved in emergent organizations. And disproportionately represented were the cream of the crop: young leaders.

So why is this happening?

Our grandparents moved to this country fleeing persecution and slaved to give their children, our parents, every opportunity. Animating the kind of institutions they built and filled was an overwhelming need to preserve and protect — from the State of Israel to the ADL to museums to day schools to Birthright Israel.

But we, the beneficiaries of Jewish acceptance, consequently no barrier of being Jewish upon our lives. Today, when there isn’t a universal Jewish experience – neither religion, nor family, nor oppression — there’s wont’ be a universal Jewish response. Jewishness is meaning an increasing array of pathways to Israel, to spirituality, to family life, to tzedek, and to community.

The animating emotions of Millennials are meaning, significance, and impact. What does it mean to me to do this thing in a Jewish way when a non-Jewish way is also possible? What is its significance to others around me, among my equally culturally-blended and globalized society? And what is the impact that my Jewishness is helping me make upon the world?

The bad news is that many – not all, by any means, but many – previous institutions are going to phase out. When Rabbi Donniel Hartman recently lectured in Seattle, he went so far as to say that we’ve entered a “fourth stage” of Jewish civilization. But, he said, “You can’t make more fourth stage Jews by dragging them back into the third stage.” The Jewish communities that will persevere are those that will find some synthesis between previous needs and future needs.

But the good news is the sheer possibility of it all. If the previous institutions were the cocoon of American Jewry maturization, then we’re about to see what emerges. Never before have the Jewish people had so much freedom – freedom to debate and choose and shape what we stand for. To me and to most Millennials, our purpose can’t be just to survive or make ourselves successful but something grand, ambitious, beyond significance just to us. Instead of the outside world forcing us to prioritize our own survival, now we can debate and create and try and fail and retry visions for Jewish purpose. Looked at through that lens, whichever of these many options survive the test of time – centuries, millenia — Jewishness will always be deeply meaningful, full of significance, and hugely impactful.

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