OMG! How Generation Y Can Help Redefine American Judaism

November 1, 2005
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Steven M. Jacobson

“It is the pursuit of happiness that thwarts happiness.”

So wrote Victor Frankel in Man’s Search for Meaning. To paraphrase Frankel, I regretfully predict the following: efforts to ensure Jewish continuity will thwart Jewish continuity.

“OMG! How Generation Y is Redefining Faith in the iPod Era,” Anna Greenberg’s illuminating report on issues of faith among Generation Y, reveals increasingly evident insights about the disillusionment of young American Jews with the dominant institutions of American Jewry. In recent years, an increasingly vocal cadre of communal critics has identified the multiple variables that continue to enlarge the chasm between our postmodern children and the thoroughly modern institutions that seek to serve them. Greenberg’s report adds to this chorus.

Among the contributions of Greenberg’s report is its confirmation that young Jews possess fully integrated identities as Americans and as Jews. Not surprisingly, Greenberg’s report illustrates that young Jews largely reflect the values and influences of mainstream American culture. Like their peers, they are intensely pluralistic. Reared in a radically different milieu than their parents, most young Americans Jews eschew many of the very tenets of modern American Jewry — particularly the centrality and, dare I say, the superiority of Jewishness. They are products of a society in which the combination of consumer culture, unbridled individualism, and technology have enabled multiple identities to coexist fluidly in a single individual. This multiplicity is celebrated and has resulted in an unparalleled embrace of diversity, though most conventional American Jewish institutions do not share in that embrace.

Rather than focus on how Jews and Judaism might define our purposes and our contributions in the 21st century, too many of our institutions remain locked in a battle that has long been decided and thus squander vast resources on lavish efforts to turn inevitable tides. The communal obsession with intermarriage and continuity has prevented the community from engaging in a process of discourse and discovery that could define postmodern Judaism, that could draw upon our resources and our vast collective memory to inform how we might manage our fully integrated identities, and that could empower young people to take their place in the future of American Jewry.

The increasingly common innovations of young Jews in the U.S. have highlighted the degree to which the integration of their Americanness and Jewishness is at the core of their Jewish expression. This integration can be readily identified in the creation of trans-denominational minyanim , the steady progress of Jewish environmentalism, and in recent developments in Jewish culture (particularly American Jewish literature). It is also evident in the involvement of young Jews in non-Jewish endeavors such as Meetup, MoveOn, and The Daily Show . The success of these examples attests to the value that may be manifest in a candid exploration of what it means for Jews to be so fully American and what it can mean for America for Jews to be so fully Jewish.

Greenberg’s report further reveals that in two important respects, young Jews reflect the influences of their forbearers more than those of their peers: in addition to being less overtly religious, they have a significantly higher political consciousness. Of eleven variables used to identify themselves in this report, Jews claimed that their “political beliefs” were second only to “family” in order of significance. Furthermore, Greenberg reports that young Jews were more likely than their non-Jewish peers to participate in a protest, to work on behalf of a political candidate, to buy “environmentally friendly” products, and even to be engaged in volunteer activities related to health or social services. Finally, a full 91 percent of those polled were registered to vote, significantly more than their non-Jewish peers.

With the combination of their embrace of American pluralism, their heightened political consciousness, and their fully integrated identities, young Jews are sowing the seeds of a new agenda for American Jewry, largely independent of our mainstream institutions. Imagine, instead of having spent too many years and too many millions on an agenda dominated by our own future, if the community had committed itself — with the same fervor — to addressing the AIDS crisis, hunger, genocide, or any of a plethora of concerns that need our attention and could be inexorably altered by the searing focus of a committed Jewish community. In addition to restraining our communal narcissism, such efforts, according to Greenberg’s report, would likely have resonated with the broad swath of young Jewish adults that have been the target of our communal fixation. [ed. note: The nine essays that follow reflect such an effort.]

Victor Frankel declared that one does not find happiness by seeking happiness; it is only in finding meaning that one becomes content. Perhaps continuity is not its own end, either. Perhaps only with meaningful expressions of Jewishness that relate not to ourselves, but to others, can our institutions reestablish the increasingly elusive value of American Judaism.

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Steven M. Jacobson, a Sh'ma Advisory Board member, is Director of the Dorot Fellowship in Israel at the Dorot Foundation.

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