Nearly every month, it seems, another establishment Jewish organization launches some new, well-funded initiative to involve young American Jews like me in traditional Jewish institutions. As a 26-year-old American Jew, I appreciate these efforts — particularly those that focus on creating meaningful Jewish experiences that move beyond a simplistic focus on Jewish continuity.
As I watch the leaders of some of the same organizations react to President Barack Obama’s Middle East agenda, however, I wonder if they realize the damage they’re doing to their well-intentioned efforts to reverse the exodus of young Jews from the traditional American Jewish community.
David Harris, executive director of the American Jewish Committee, recently told The New York Jewish Week that he is “hearing a growing number of questions and concerns about the U.S.-Israel relationship.” Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice president of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, told the paper that “judging from phone calls… there is an increasing unease” about the Obama administration’s approach. The Anti-Defamation League’s national director, Abraham Foxman, for his part, complained that “all of a sudden, they’re treating Israel like everyone else. I find that disturbing.”
These men’s personal acquaintances might be feeling unease about President Obama’s push for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But many American Jews, and especially younger ones, are feeling a sense of relief.
Consider, for a moment, the world in which my generation is growing up. Previously well-defined boundaries between ethnicities, religions and countries are blurring. The relevance of large, traditional institutions is waning. We are creating a whole new fabric of Jewish life with each other and with other groups outside traditional frameworks and lines of communication.
The latest United Jewish Communities report on National Jewish Population Survey data shows we are less likely to give to traditional Jewish organizations than were previous generations. This doesn’t mean we are tuning out from Judaism — we are simply finding different ways to express it. We are finding meaning in an emerging new Judaism of independent minyanim, social justice and alternative Jewish culture. As social media expert Allison Fine wrote in the Chronicle of Philanthropy, if young people are “unhappy with their reception by nonprofit organizations, they will simply start their own efforts — overnight, online, at almost no cost.”
Many of these new communities and organizations are more committed to making Judaism personally meaningful than to simply pursuing Jewish continuity, and aren’t necessarily housed inside traditional Jewish institutions (though they may be funded by forward-thinking Jewish philanthropies). Many of us who are active in these new endeavors are connected to and care about Israel. We hope for a lasting peace, and believe that both sides must play a role in resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
For many young Jews, Obama embodies our values. He leads an interconnected world, dealing with myriad and difficult problems pragmatically and honestly. As a symbol of a new era of racial relations, he is uniquely positioned to help peacefully resolve ethnic strife and conflict abroad.
We are hopeful about Obama’s efforts to bring peace to Israel, to secure the state as a Jewish, democratic homeland, and to fulfill the legitimate national aspirations of the Palestinian people. His major speech in Cairo — where he spoke out against Palestinian incitement and violence, against Holocaust denial, defended Israel’s right to exist and its security, and called for a complete freeze on Israeli settlements over the Green Line — represented the views of large majorities of American Jews — and my generation in particular.
Some longtime Jewish communal leaders undoubtedly have legitimate policy disagreements with the president and his team about how best to advance American and Israeli interests in the Middle East. They should feel free to express those disagreements, just as I am free to express my own.
But given the combination of my generation’s attraction to President Obama and our inherent distrust of old-style top-down institutions, Jewish communal leaders should consider that the more aggressively they criticize this president’s sensible pro-Israel policies, the more they will alienate us from their aging institutions.
Isaac Luria is the campaigns director of J Street.