In recent weeks, the Jewish blogosphere has been in a state of collective shpilkas. Even before the flotilla incident, Jews in America and Israel were hotly debating two essays, Danny Gordis’ “The Storm Ahead” in the Jerusalem Post and Peter Beinart’s “The Failure of the American Jewish Establishment,” in The New York Review of Books. Whereas Gordis blames Jewish organizations for not being supportive enough of Israel — and Beinart blames Jewish organizations for not being critical enough of Israel — both despair that the upshot of those failures is today’s young Jews are increasingly disconnected from the State of Israel.
As president of the organization that supports the more than 400,000 college-age Jews worldwide, I have bad news and good news. The bad news is that Gordis and Beinart are right. For all the ways one might pick at their arguments, it is simply now a fact that the Israel narrative that compelled Jews who came of age circa 1948, 1967, and 1973, is no longer the guiding narrative for “Millennial” Jews, born after 1980. Because of different circumstances in the diaspora and in Israel, greater exposure to Israel-related information and images (distorted or otherwise), and greater access to Israel itself, young Jews today have a different, less idealized understanding of Israel than their parents and grandparents.
But here is the good news. This generation wasn’t going to accept a predetermined narrative anyway. This generation is, in fact, interested in global relationships, small-group identities, virtual texts and compelling narratives. But here’s the thing you need to know about Millennials: they have to interact with the narrative, putting their individual stamp on it, or they can’t get traction.
This is hard for those of us over 35 to understand. We were proud to inherit the narratives of the Jews (the Exodus) and Israel (“Exodus,” the movie). We rarely critiqued, much less tried to insert ourselves into, the sweeping narratives of our people. But this generation is different. When you’ve spent your entire formative years sharing your journey on Facebook, YouTube and Twitter, you are simply not compelled by one-size-fits-all narratives created by others. You want to know how you can shape, reorganize and draw direct personal meaning from the Jewish narrative — or else you’re not that interested in engaging it at all.
And so for all the current handwringing about Who Lost Israel (or who’s about to lose America’s young Jews), we are missing a critical opportunity to help them reconnect to the narratives of the Jews and Israel.
The environment is ripe. First, over 90 percent of Jews in America go to college. The college campus is literally the only place on earth where the great majority of Jews pass through, at the very moment they are interested in learning stories and where they fit into them.
Second, there is more Jewish diversity on campus than ever in the history of the world. Peter Beinart describes a growing Orthodox community that is increasingly foreign to and dismissive of “mainstream” American Jews, but the evidence suggests the opposite. According to Orthodox Union data, since 2005 the majority of Modern Orthodox college students now does its undergraduate or graduate work at secular universities, including Ivy League schools. Add to the mix more frequent interactions with Israeli peers, both secular and religious, and you see the possibility for vibrant, authentic narrative writing that Millennial Jews are craving.
Finally, more young diaspora Jews than ever are experiencing Israel directly. In the last 10 years, Taglit-Birthright Israel has sent more than a quarter-million young adults to climb Masada and swim in the Kinneret. They don’t come home parroting Exodus, either the Bible’s or Leon Uris’. They wrestle with how what they are seeing meshes with their own political, intellectual, cultural, and social growth, and they ask how they fit in to the Jewish story and vice versa.
Can we guarantee how the Millennials will reshape the Jewish narrative? No. But we can guarantee the narrative stops if they don’t have the tools and experiences to engage with it on their own terms. That is why Hillel is no longer just a place for kosher food and seders away from home; we are instead a proactive movement committed to doubling the number of meaningful Jewish experiences on campus. Whether those experiences are Birthright, spring break trips to build houses in New Orleans or El Salvador, or parasha study on the green, the experiences must be meaningful, memorable and connective. And most of all, they must be theirs.
The Jewish narrative has always been organic, reinvigorated by each generation as it stands again at Sinai. The Millennials have more, not less, potential to internalize and advance this Jewish story, including the centrality of Israel. So let’s stop pointing fingers over who’s not doing enough to keep that narrative pure and unchanged. Instead, let’s ensure that today’s students have enough meaningful Jewish experiences, when they’re open to them, to help shape the narrative that will again, sustain us through the generations.
Wayne L. Firestone is the president of Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life.
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