If I were hard-pressed to describe the state of American Jewish life today in 10 words or less, I surely couldn’t top Steven M. Cohen’s assessment: “We are demographically distressed and culturally creative.”
And that’s with three words to spare.
The comment by Cohen, a leading sociologist specializing in trends among Jewish young people, came toward the end of a lively panel discussion Sunday evening on “New Generations, Old Institutions,” at the Kesher Israel Congregation in Washington, D.C., as part of the synagogue’s yearlong centennial celebration. And the pithy comment symbolized the concerns voiced during the evening about a Jewish community poised between success and failure, between a big tent that could reach higher or utterly collapse.
Panelist Jonathan Sarna, professor of American Jewish history at Brandeis University, had a curt comment of his own, when asked for one take-away point from the evening’s conversation: “We talk too much and listen too little,” he said, noting that’s one reason why “smart young people are creating their own institutions” in the Jewish community.
Panelist Erica Brown, scholar in residence for the Jewish federation in Washington, asserted at one point that the Jewish community has created “a generation of managers” rather than leaders. “We’re not risk-takers,” she added, but tend to focus more on financial campaigns via endless board meetings than on meaning and inspiration.
Who wants to be a part of that enterprise?
Not Rabbi Elie Kaunfer, the fourth panelist, whose own spiritual journey led to his co-founding an independent minyan and the egalitarian New York yeshiva Mechon Hadar, where he is executive director. As a leading voice for the growing national community of independent minyanim and the concept of “empowered Judaism,” he explained he was “more interested in mission than in bricks and mortar.”
I had the privilege of moderating the program as the four experts shared insights — personal as well as professional — about the tensions between venerable Jewish institutions seeking stability and younger Jews inclined to seek more personal kinds of fulfillment than affiliation with synagogues, federations and establishment organizations.
Those tensions were evident in the audience itself, an uncharacteristically young crowd for an evening program at a synagogue (especially on Oscar night). Among the attendees, in addition to members of Kesher Israel, were congregants from two flourishing independent minyanim in D.C., underscoring inherent issues of competition for worshippers and the wide gap in financial obligations to no-frills services vs. “real” synagogues.
Rabbi Kaunfer acknowledged the problem resulting from raising a generation of young Jews spoiled by free trips to Israel (Birthright) and other perks from establishment groups eager for young blood.
“We’ve lost the culture of paying,” he said, noting that the daily news is free on the Internet and Mechon Hadar and other educational institutions offer students stipends to attract them.
“How do we get young people to go from contributing $36 to $1,000” to support enterprises like his yeshiva, Rabbi Kaunfer wondered.
During a question-and-answer session, a young woman in the audience said the panel was overly focused on institutions and denominations. “Why not discuss values,” she asked, as a reason young people are opting for the kind of close-knit spiritual communities the independent minyanim offer.
Rabbi Kaunfer responded that the discussion had not mentioned God, either.
“My relationship with God was on life support,” he said, before he began his search for a place to pray that offered intense spirituality as well as equality for all worshippers.
“It’s not about meaning,” he said. “It’s about religion.”
Several panelists emphasized that the generational clash between establishment and younger Jews goes back centuries and that the “continuity of discontinuity,” as Sarna puts it, is a blessing. He credited the day school movement and the women’s movement as being products of dissatisfaction with the status quo that led to a “rejuvenation” of Jewish life.
Cohen’s research has shown that a disproportionately high number of young activists in Jewish start-ups, independent minyanim and educational efforts are day school graduates and/or young men and women who have spent an extended period of time in Israel — proof that the communal investment has paid off, particularly for the Orthodox community.
What the establishment should be learning from the minyanim, Cohen said, is “to help people create an intensive Jewish community rather than make them fit” into existing models.
More often, though, establishment groups say, “come join our party,” according to Brown, and the young people say, “but we didn’t get to help plan it.
“And the establishment folks may respond, ‘you’re not grateful, and you’re not paying dues.’”
So the misunderstanding and resentment works both ways, she said.
In the end, Brown believes that the unanswered question for young Jews today is what “the J in Jewish is all about — when it comes to spirituality or volunteerism or why be Jewish.” And she believes the community hasn’t provided an adequate response.
Sarna said that “why be Jewish is the wrong question, and it leads us to uncomfortable debates.” For him Judaism should be a central part of one’s identity and the question should be “what are you going to do about it? What does it mean to have a great diaspora community?”
That was one of many questions that hung in the air as the evening ended, along with Elie Kaunfer’s suggestion for a future topic to mark the Georgetown synagogue’s centennial: “How did Kesher Israel make it to 100?”
Surely it was a combination of stability and renewal, veteran members and new ones, faith and leadership — the same qualities that have sustained our people for centuries and that, hopefully, will continue long into the future.