Wringing their hands over the imagined plight of “the youth,” the Jewish Federations of North America came together in Denver last week for their annual General Assembly. If there has ever been any truth to “The Protocols of Elders of Zion,” this annual event is it. The GA is where all of the most powerful Jews in America come together with a lot of other less powerful Jews and set the agenda for the future.
Rabbi Elie Kaunfer — a founder of Manhattan’s traditional egalitarian yeshiva, Yeshivat Hadar — was the scholar-in-residence at the GA this year. In his address, Kaunfer drew the connection between our generation’s increased willingness to criticize Israel and our generation’s decreased involvement with the Jewish establishment. We appreciate his point — that increased criticism of Israel isn’t part of an anti-Israel groundswell, but part of a larger trend toward universal values. It’s also indicative of the environment in which we grew up, with easy access to more viewpoints than any generation before us.
But the post-GA discussions that have emerged indicate a broader misdiagnosis of what ails the Jewish community — it’s the very definition of community.
Judaism, like any other social structure, is constantly undergoing a process of divergence and change. In our age, this process is moving more quickly than every before, driven by technology, media and other globalizing forces.
From an individual perspective, this is wonderful; there are many more ways to be Jewish than there used to be. From a communal perspective however, it poses some unique problems. When there was only one way to be Jewish, it was easy to tell who was a Jew and who wasn’t. Today, with competing definitions of Jewishness, we not only have to decide who is Jewish but who gets to decide who is Jewish.
It’s possible to vigorously defend the right of individuals to self-identify with different components of Judaism while we search for common ground at the same time. We should strive to reach this goal, and to do so without subtly pressuring individuals to adopt our own definitions of Jewishness.
At the GA, for example, Kaunfer advocated the use of Jewish texts as a way to build community. Efforts to increase the accessibility of text study and allow participants to form their own individual relationship with foundational ideas and documents would go a long way toward building intentional communities of educated individuals.
Instead of bemoaning young Jews’ “disdain” or “lack of interest,” Jewish institutions should focus their resources on efforts like this one, which would do much more to address the root of the problem than more mindless cheer-leading for Israel, an effort which this generation is just savvy enough to see right through.
New Voices Magazine editorials reflect the opinion of the New Voices editorial board.