Monday, May 16, 2005

Just talkin' 'bout my generation

As promised, I'm finally writing about the Spring 2005 issue of CAJE's journal Jewish Education News, on "Gen X and the Millennials", now that Chorus of Apes has beaten me to the punch anyway. I'm not going to write about my own article ("Profile of an 'Unaffiliated' Jew", p. 25); I'll let others do that, and then I'm happy to argue.

I agree with much of what CoA says, though I have the whole print version in my hands, and I think (confirming CoA's hopes) that the small number of articles that have been posted online don't represent all of the best stuff in the issue. Also, while I agree substantively with CoA's critiques, I would give a bit (but only a bit) more benefit of the doubt to the discourse and language used in the articles, recognizing that these articles were not intended "to engage 20-somethings", but to explain us to the membership of CAJE in terms that they will understand. When I was writing my article, I kept asking myself "Would this part make sense to the Hebrew school principal in Cedar Rapids, Iowa?". Einstein called his first special relativity paper "On the Electrodynamics of Moving Bodies" (just talking about electric and magnetic fields, nothing to see here) because he knew that no one would take it seriously if it were called "On Time Dilation". So if an author uses lame "Jewish continuity" rhetoric, it's possible that s/he is saying something subversive to the status quo and disguising it so as not to scare off the readers, or it's also possible that s/he really believes in the "Jewish continuity" rhetoric. In this issue I think there is a lot of both.

I second the "A" for effort. I think it's very important that CAJE has chosen to devote an issue to our generation (the age bracket missing from the organized Jewish community), and I hope it will be read carefully by those in the establishment who want to understand us. When I was asked to write my article, I realized that this was the first time that the organized Jewish community had ever asked me what I think.

The magazine doesn't present one answer; to its credit, it includes articles that directly contradict each other. It feels like a dialogue, because the authors seem to be responding directly to each other even though none of us saw each others' pieces in advance; we've just had so many conversations on this topic that we know to include the preemptive rebuttals.

The title ("Gen X and the Millennials") gets a big yawn. Dividing us into two generations based on year of birth is useless; I particularly feel this way because the arbitrary dividing line is 1980 and I was born in late 1979, so there is no significance to which side of the line I fall on. Year of birth is not the most relevant factor for this sort of discussion; a single urban 23-year-old has much more in common with a single urban 30-year-old than with a married 23-year-old with a child and a house. There is a bit of propagation of stereotypes -- Generation X is the stoned slackers from Reality Bites, while Generation Y or the Millennium Generation "represents a new confidence about the future and a new trust in parents and authorities." Yawn.

I also don't appreciate the condescending attitude in some of the articles -- we are discussed as if we are teenagers with 2-minute attention spans, only interested in what is "cool" and hip. As Chorus of Apes points out, we are adults. Sometimes we have substantive critiques of the values of the organized Jewish community, and they should be saying "Nachp'sah d'racheinu v'nachkorah" ("Let us search and examine our ways", Lamentations 3:40), not "How can we dress up the same old message to trick these crazy kids into thinking that it is consonant with their postmodern commie pinko values?". And sometimes when we are turned off to the organized Jewish community, it is the community's fault, not ours.

However, a number of articles stand out as deserving positive recognition. Elie Kaunfer's article "Attracting Young People to Jewish Life: Lessons Learned from Kehilat Hadar" is a valuable nuts-and-bolts resource not only for institutions trying to attract young people, but for people of our generation starting independent minyanim and other communities seeking to replicate Hadar's incredible success. Early on, the article includes a pointed jab at the usual explanations for why our generation is not seen at synagogues: "The backbone of Hadar is our prayer service, which has always attracted the most attendees. Although it is tempting to claim that prayer services don't appeal to young people, it is more accurate to say that existing prayer services don't appeal to young people." He also smacks down singles events:
Although many people at Hadar are single, we don't hold singles events. Most people shun singles events because the only thing in common for attendees is that they are single. Our programming is geared toward prayer, learning, and social action. If single people meet each other in this context (and they sometimes do -- I met my wife at Hadar's 2002 Shavuot retreat), it is through a common shared interest, not as singles. In addition, our programming caters to couples as well, which can take the edge off a sometimes detrimental "singles vibe."

Thumbs up to Jan Katzew and Wendy Rapport's article "A Tradition of Overthrowing Idols". It addresses the element of participation that Chorus of Apes says is missing from the articles online. They write:
One generation for serving this age cohort involves, in fact, not serving them, but enabling them to meet their own needs and provide for their peers. Jewish institutions can provide the supports for this population of adults to take responsibility for their Jewish learning and living. The Jewish educational system needs to find the leaders and nourish their leadership, responding to their initiative. There will never be substitutes for excellence and passion; we need to attract more gifted and compelling new leaders to the Jewish community. Additionally, Judaism has not survived and thrived without a critical mass of God-fearing, Torah-loving people, so we also need to give people the opportunity to experiment and search, while teaching them how Jewish adults find their way on the path of lifelong learning and Jewish involvement. We can do this by providing role models and examples of different paths, by offering the support of our expertise, by actually sharing the physical space of our institutions, and by being open to innovation and change.
Congregations can and should open their doors to the minyanim that are being established across North America. [...]

I think this is right on target. And as an expatriate of the Reform movement, I'm happy to see that people inside the URJ are saying this. They are recognizing the importance of educated laypeople, and suggesting that synagogues should support independent minyanim rather than push them away. (ER has proposed something similar.) They go on to use DC as an example of how institutions can open their doors to new minyanim, citing the Sixth & I Synagogue and the DCJCC.

Tobin Belzer's article "Jewish Community and Generation X" is fascinating. And not because it said things I already agreed with (like the Kaunfer and Katzew/Rapport articles); on the contrary, it brought up ideas I hadn't thought about before. The author did a study on "young Jews who choose to make their Jewish identities a primary aspect of their lives by pursuing careers with Jewish focus." Initially, I groused at this selection, until I read further and saw that there was a kal vachomer going on: "I learned that even [emphasis added] Jewish Gen X-ers who are directly involved with Jewish organizations feel like outsiders" [and everyone else al achat kamah v'chamah].

The article goes on to talk about "the Jewish community" as a bogeyman that exists in our heads:
Unvaryingly, participants acknowledged that no singular Jewish community exists, yet, as they collectively described an archetype of "the Jewish community," these young Jews contributed to the creation of such community. Despite their unmistakable organizational affiliations, participants constructed a conceptual Jewish community that precluded their membership. Conflicts in insider-outsider status were revealed in their narratives.

It's a fair cop. Belzer then talks about the underground social networks that have replaced organizational affiliation for us:
Most participants' sense of belonging through informal connections was ultimately rooted in previous, formal affiliations with Jewish institutions. Their social and professional networks were built upon connections made during Hebrew school, camp, youth groups, Israel trip, and Hillel involvement. They take great pride in the social capital that they have acquired through their past affiliations. A woman in Los Angeles said, "Knowing people from all over the place" is how she feels "connected to the Jewish community." A woman in Boston explained, "I think about the fact Jerusalem, Boston, and Berkeley, and New York, and Mt. Airy are contiguous ... (they) are essentially one contiguous city with some different locations with the same funky, young Jewish population making their way between all five of those cities at different points." Inclusion in informal networks, rather than organizational membership, emerged as a significant expression of Jewish identity for Gen X-ers.

This resonates strongly with me. When I moved to New York, my Jewish community was constructed by connections to people I knew from Hillel, camp, etc. And now that I've been here almost 3 years, I define my Jewish community not as a particular organization, but as "the scene", composed of interpersonal connections that hops around to minyanim and rooftops.

This move from top-down institutions to interconnected networks is by no means exclusive to the Jewish community. The Internet itself is structured this way, with no central authority or central router or directory. Look at the proliferation of social network websites (Friendster, Orkut, Thefacebook, Sconex). Look at the Dean campaign and MoveOn. These are all part of the same phenomenon.

The other articles are hit and miss. Some of them say "Generation X wants foo", where foo isn't something that I want, but we're not the Borg, so maybe foo indeed works for some people. Like Chorus of Apes, I was also shocked that people are still talking about intermarriage; I thought intermarriage-bashing had gone out of style with communist-bashing, but I guess I've just been hanging out in rarefied circles where people think about Jewish content. Even if we step (for the rest of this paragraph) into a world where the goal is just "Jewish continuity" without any substance, focusing on who marries whom seems to be the least effective way to achieve that goal. Either someone has Judaism as a strong component of their life (in which case they'll probably marry someone Jewish whether or not you tell them to, since they'll have more deep things in common with that person, and even if they don't, they'll still pass on Judaism) or they don't (in which case they probably resent you telling them whom to marry). Yes, I know children of two Jewish parents are more likely to blah blah blah. And children with new bicycles are healthier than children without new bicycles; ergo, every child should get a new bicycle. Correlation, meet causation.

Anyway, I think the "Gen X and the Millennials" issue is worth reading, whether you're a member of said group, or part of the Jewish institutional world, or both or neither. You can order it for $5 from CAJE, or borrow my copy.

I've been corresponding with a number of people since my article started flying around the Internet. Mitch Chefitz pointed me to Temple Israel of Greater Miami, which says on its website:

Most of all, we are a temple of grown-ups. Yes, there are plenty of kids. But we do not practice "pediatric Judaism." Jewish learning at Temple Israel does not stop at the age of thirteen; it’s for everyone, and indeed adults and children often study together. As our rabbi has stated, "We are building a Judaism for adults, deep in its learning, honest in its wrestling with the Divine, with sincere compassion for the world about us. If we have such a Judaism in our lives, we need not worry whether the next generation will be Jewish or not. The children in our Temple family will grow up to be like us."

Thumbs up to this model. Also, Sherry Israel sent an article that she wrote in 2001 on "American Jewish Public Activity: Identity, Demography, and the Institutional Challenge". I highly recommend this article. Highlight:
The Jewish community's attempts to respond to the decreases in affiliation and Federation philanthropy (and, of course, to the rise in intermarriage) have been almost entirely under the rubric of what is called "Jewish continuity." The emphasis has been on "strengthening Jewish identity." Yet, if our analysis is correct, this response is at best partial and, at worst, misses the boat. It is partial in its lack of full understanding of the new ways in which Jewish identity is being expressed, and it is off the mark in overlooking the interaction of demographic factors with organizational structural realities.

The "continuity response" is characterized by what social psychologists call the "fundamental attribution error." In brief, this explanatory rubric notes the common tendency to attribute others' behavior mainly to their internal states, to the kinds of people they are, even if we would have a different and more charitable view of our own behavior in similar circumstances. For example, if you are late to a meeting with me, it must be because you are inconsiderate, or our meeting does not really matter to you, or some similar explanation whose locus is internal to you. If I am late, however, it is not because there is something wrong with me. It is because the phone rang, or traffic was bad, or something else external to me came along to make me tardy.

In the same way, the organized American Jewish community has been approaching the increasing non-affiliation of the newer cohorts of Jews as if the issue is only internal: if today's Jews are not attaching themselves to Jewish community and Jewish organizations, it is because they are not "Jewish enough."

1 comment:

  1. great post. took me a bit to read, but I really enjoyed it.