What happens when two Jewish imperatives — the tribal instinct to ensure the survival and growth of the Jewish people, and the Torah-based mandate to maintain our highest ethical standards — clash?
I saw those tensions played out last week at The Conversation, the Jewish Week-sponsored, two-day annual conference that brings together a cross-section of 50 American Jews, lay and professional, leaders and emerging leaders representing a wide range of ages, interests, backgrounds and beliefs.
The conclusions were sometimes painful but always instructive to observe.
What’s unique about The Conversation, now in its seventh year, is that there are no keynote speakers, plenaries or panels. In fact, there is no prepared agenda or planned outcome. The simplicity of the facilitation, known as Open Space, is that the invited participants plan the program, in effect, as they go. Whoever wants to convene a discussion posts a topic on the wall, and whoever wants to join him or her, does so.
(One key, and liberating, element is The Law of Two Feet: If you are in a discussion and find yourself neither adding to nor taking from it, leave and join another discussion. No excuses necessary, no hard feelings. And one of the ground rules in striving to create a safe space for frank conversation is that no one is quoted directly.)
The end result, when you bring together a group of thoughtful, talented people who are willing to listen to each other, even in disagreement, for a full 48 hours, without distraction, is an unscientific but enlightening portrait of the currents and crises that run through our diverse community. And it was apparent that the generation gap continues to be an increasingly significant factor in determining how people today perceive Jewish values and priorities.
One theme to emerge among the scores of topics discussed at the retreat, held at the Pearlstone Conference Center north of Baltimore, was how can we sustain Jewish life as we know it when fewer young people are interested in synagogues, sacred texts and financial support for our institutions?
Another was: is God losing out to Peoplehood? And a third was, can we advocate for Israel from different points of view without beating each other up?
In truth, although the retreat began on the eve of the United Nations debate on Palestinian statehood, it looked for awhile like Israel and the Mideast weren’t event going to make it to the list of topics up for discussion.
In the first round of talks, 20 topics were posted that had no mention of the Mideast. They ranged from the future of Jewish philanthropy in a declining economy, to trying to come up with a shared mission statement for Judaism, to how to be a Jew without religion, to what it means to be “a light unto the nations.”
Finally, someone posted “what about Israel?” and from that point on, the Israel debate never stopped.
With a few exceptions, those over 50 viewed Israel, and its battle against delegitimization, as key to their identity, a cause to rally Jews everywhere.
But there was pushback from some of the younger participants who asserted that while they follow Israeli politics and life closely, they view themselves as somewhere between frustrated and angry in assessing Israel’s behavior toward its Arab citizens and Palestinian neighbors.
When the facilitator of the conference suggested that the last series of discussions focus on what he perceived to be three emerging themes — the sustainability of Jewish institutions, finding ways to attract more people to Jewish life, and wrestling with the Israel question — a young academic said those topics were not priorities for him.
He would prefer to discuss the Jewish role in protecting the environment, advocating for justice and fighting poverty, he said.
The encounter led to a revealing discussion among more than half of the participants on “Jewish identity and the generational divide: what do we have to say to each other?”
At that session, one middle-aged Jewish professional described the gap he was witnessing as the division between tribal Jews and covenantal Jews — between those of the older generation who feel connected to fellow Jews through community and identity, and idealistic younger people who aspire to fulfill the biblical mission of caring for others, particularly those in need, as proof that we are all created in the Divine image.
He said the community is undergoing “a painful shift from tribal to covenantal” allegiances, with the older generation believing young Jews are going through a phase of questioning and experimentation, and eventually will “come around” to affiliating with synagogues and long-standing institutions. The younger people in the room said that’s not the case and it’s time the community recognized the new reality.
They asserted that more and more teens believe it is racist for Jews to date only other Jews; that an unwillingness to discuss their confusion over Israeli policies for fear of communal retribution drives many young people inward or away; and that the organized community’s emphasis on boundaries — who’s in and who’s out, based on lineage or ideologies — is a turn-off.
One participant in his 50s responded plaintively that “the fact that we’re all here and care about these issues puts us in the same generation of ideas.”
That may be true, but while virtually every participant in The Conversation expressed gratitude for the chance to engage in deep discussion, they also noted how rare such opportunities are in our community.
The gaps, misunderstandings and resentments between generations are real and cannot be papered over or wished away. Of course generational divides are part of the human condition. Our sages tell us that when the Messiah comes, he will turn the hearts of the fathers to the children and the hearts of the children to the fathers.
In the meantime, though, it’s time to listen far more closely to each other across the years; our future depends on it.