Sitting in the opening plenary of the 2012 Jewish Federations of North America’s General Assembly, I was struck by one thing. American Jews are really into college students.
Speaker after speaker emphasized the vision they have for the future of American Judaism, and time and time again they spoke of the importance of our “leaders of tomorrow.” They pointed to the over 300 college students in the room as embodying the optimism we should have for the years to come.
As a college student, this was nice. It’s always good to be appreciated. I agree that our millennial generation has the potential to take Judaism in profoundly new and innovative directions. However, I have trouble with two implications of the types of comments being made about college Jews.
First, there is the issue of using the phrase tomorrow’s leaders. Most leaders of Jewish organizations on my campus take their roles very seriously. The same is true of the many students I have met from other schools that work to build Jewish communities on their campuses. They’re not thinking “In ten years, when I’m in a position of real value, how can I craft something great for my Jewish community?” They’re not wondering, “Once I’m a leader, what will I do to make the world a better place?” They’re leading right now. All over the country, “young people” are serving as today’s Jewish leaders, making decisions that drastically affect the Jewish present in major league ways. Describing us as tomorrow’s leaders implies that the leadership roles we fill now are not as legitimate as those in the “adult” Jewish world, and that the work we do at Hillel or AEPi or Chabad or the Jewish Student Union lacks substance and is somehow less real than what happens in a synagogue board meeting or a Federation office. Some might say this is just an issue of semantics, but I see it as quite problematic.
The second issue I have is perhaps more important. It confronts an issue that deeply frustrates me. By discussing how “young people” will create a vibrant Jewish future, we take the burden off of the not-so-young.
So much effort is put into creating outstanding opportunities for Middle East dialogue on college campuses. I think that effort is contributing positively. But how many post-collegiate communities are gathering together J Streeters and AIPAC-ers to talk through where they differ and where they don’t? How many simply ignore that issue entirely? I might not have done the research, but my suspicion is that there are many more of the latter than the former. Foundations rightfully contribute millions to ensure that young people can be a part of meaningful, thought-provoking Jewish learning. But if the goal is to instill in 20-year-olds a desire to learn that will endure for an entire lifetime, why not also craft programs for middle-aged Jews? Is it fair to say that if someone hasn’t cracked a page of Talmud by the time they have kids, they’re simply a lost cause? I suspect Rabbi Akiva would say no, considering he was one of these lost causes himself until he hit age forty.
Basically, I think the framework for our American Jewish communal world is simply out of balance. We are focusing our energies so squarely on younger generations at the expense of the vast majority in our community who do not fall into that category. Many fight desperately for college students to connect with Jewish holidays and traditions. Then Simchat Torah comes and goes for many older Jews without even a glimmer of recognition. People contribute millions to Birthright Israel. And then Jews turn 26, lose their Birthright eligibility, and their ability to find an affordable trip to Israel greatly diminishes. Certainly, we do not have the resources to serve every last Jewish person, as much as we would like to, so tough decisions need to be made. But when organization after organization makes the same decision to infuse resources towards the young, it creates a system that writes people off way too early.
I meet Jewish professionals and I marvel at just how many of them start off the conversation with “I was never really involved in Jewish life until after college.” These people talk about how they stumble into careers of Jewish leadership basically on accident. But my guess is there are a lot of folks out there not stumbling. A lot of people who could find meaning and purpose in Judaism are blissfully unaware. We need to start focusing on them, even though they might not qualify as a “leader of tomorrow.” Continuously structuring a community based off of these happy accidents when we could create more substantive programs is incredibly risky, and I hope Jewish leaders aren’t willing to take that chance.