Continuity Beyond Communal Walls

Opinion

By Steven M. Cohen

Published May 25, 2007, issue of May 25, 2007.
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With all the critique leveled at Jewish institutions these days, it’s worth recalling that congregations and Jewish community centers are extraordinarily successful in appealing to a particular segment of American Jews. Of those who are in-married with school-age children, well over 80% are affiliated with a Jewish institution, generally a synagogue or JCC. Once parents give birth to a Jewish child, the chances that they will find Jewish friends and come into the orbit of conventional organized Jewry are indeed very high.

But what of the others — the nonmarried and the nonparents? Not long ago, the gap between living in one’s parents’ home and “starting a family” amounted, on average, to five to seven years. Today, of Jewish adults under the age of 40, nearly half are non-married and many of the others have yet to experience parenthood.

In short, the vast majority of young adult Jews have little reason and little interest in joining institutions filled with Jews who are somewhat older, somewhat more affluent, and decidedly more engaged in issues of marriage and parenthood. It comes as no surprise, then, that outside of Orthodoxy, most American Jews under 40 are institutionally unaffiliated.

But it may come as a surprise that many unaffiliated younger Jews are Jewishly engaged, expressing attachment to being Jewish in a variety of ways, generally outside of institutional settings, often with friends, both Jewish and not. Moreover, among them, some of those with especially strong Jewish backgrounds have been creating and organizing their own Jewish communities, experiments and experiences.

The many new endeavors initiated by Jews in their 20s and 30s are diverse indeed. They embrace spiritual communities, emergent congregations and independent minyanim; newly energized organizations promoting social justice causes; projects advancing cultural expression, and endeavors to link Jewish expression through the Web or by way of hard copy.

Participants in this new and burgeoning subculture can readily identify numerous new entities founded, or vastly expanded, in just the last five years or so. Among them are Ikar, Storahtelling, Guilt and Pleasure magazine, the DC Minyan, Jewschool.com, Hadar, Zeek, JDub Records (which launched Hasidic reggae artist Matisyahu), Heeb and the Progressive Jewish Alliance, to name just a few (with deep apologies to dozens of unnamed others).

Embodied within these endeavors is both a widely held, albeit unevenly shared, critique of conventional Jewish life. The Jewishly engaged but institutionally unaffiliated harbor four objections to the commonly available opportunities for affiliation, objections that may be encapsulated in the mnemonic “ABCD.”

Younger Jews find the older generation’s ways of being Jewish alien — that is, strange and not familiar to them. They see conventional leaders as being bland and boring — too homogeneous, and disturbingly closed to diversity in social class and family status. The younger Jews find established Jewish institutions implicitly coercive — aiming to induce younger Jews to marry each other, to conceive Jewish babies and to support Israeli government policies of which they are ambivalent. And they find conventional Jewish institutions divisive, in that they are seen as dividing Jews from non-Jews, Jews from each other, Jewish turf from non-Jewish turf, and Jewish culture from putatively (and artificially defined) non-Jewish culture.

In response, younger Jews have developed institutions whose prevailing ethos, with variations, embodies four complementary components. In response to feeling alien in conventional Jewish institutions, younger engaged Jews seek to take ownership of their own Jewish lives by constructing their own opportunities for Jewish engagement. In response to the bland and boring landscape they see, they have created nuanced niches (a la Chris Anderson’s book “The Long Tail”), providing differentiated opportunities for expressing Judaism in ways that appeal to very specific and narrowly defined constituencies.

Rather than appearing to coerce everyone to adopt similar positions, they prize the work of individual initiators who stand at the center of the new endeavors. And, responding to the divisive boundaries of the previous generation, their endeavors draw participants who cross several social, cultural and geographic boundaries. They cross boundaries between Jews and non-Jews; between Jews of various persuasions; between Jewish culture and culture from other traditions, religions and ethnicities, and the boundaries dividing space into the explicitly Jewish — synagogues and JCCs — and the non-Jewish: coffee houses, concert halls and other public spaces.

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, a relatively small group of Jewishly motivated young adults launched a series of creative initiatives encompassing havurot, campus-based newspapers and periodicals, a radical Zionist movement and Jewish feminism. They also mounted several confrontations with Jewish federations over funding priorities and governance.

They — well, full disclosure: we — called for more intimate prayer experiences, more collaborative and less hierarchical religious and communal leadership, a more critical stance toward Israeli government policies, the empowerment of women in the communal and spiritual realms, Jewish learning as a condition of Jewish leadership, a more assertive stance in advocating the freedom of Soviet Jews, and more funds for Jewish life on the campus and for Jewish education everywhere.

One can argue whether these young adults, at the time, influenced Jewish life or merely foreshadowed changes already in the air. But one cannot deny that these young people — many of whom would go on to take major positions in the Jewish communal world and are now beginning to contemplate retirement — signaled profound changes in the culture and character of American Jewish life.

It remains to be seen whether today’s efflorescence of spiritual, cultural, communal and civic activity on the part of Jews in their 20s and 30s will exert or presage multiple and widespread changes in American Jewry and Judaism. But certainly their endeavors, as they struggle for stability and sustainability, influence and scalability, bear watching.

And just as certainly, these ventures — which serve as laboratories for change — merit far more than benign attention on the part of a Jewish community that seeks not merely its continuity but its ongoing vitality and creativity for years to come.

Steven M. Cohen, a research professor at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, is the co-author, with Ari Kelman, of the recently released study “The Continuity of Discontinuity: How Young Jews Are Connecting, Creating and Organizing Their Own Jewish Lives” (Andrea and Charles Bronfman Philanthropies).


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