The Jewish Megatrends thesis put forward by Rabbi Sid Schwarz offers a useful basic description of the current moment we are in as an American Jewish community. Here are some thoughts and reflections.
Using Sid’s terms, I am a millennial and a covenantal Jew. Holding these identities, I have a lot of respect for the experiences and survival tools that the tribal Jews or mainstream older community members have developed over time as immigrants to this country. I don’t think the distinction between the two categories is actually as stark as Sid describes – in a lot of ways it feels clear to me that my ability to live in today’s world as a covenantal Jew is only possible because of the trauma and huge resources put into surviving as Jews in America (assimilation, upward mobility, etc.). For the purpose of having shared language, I can understand these labels, but I do not think it is useful to put older and younger Jews into these categories without making the connection that one has directly shaped the other.
Using this framework, it is clear to me personally as a millennial and as an organizer of other Jewish millennials that the separateness and silence that exists between our generations is not something that millennials actually want. Our parents and grandparents have lived through complicated layers of anti-Semitism in this country, so it’s no wonder that at least some of that oppression has become internalized and that it has therefore become increasingly challenging for older generations to be transparent and proud about their Jewishness, family histories, culture, and legacy. The ways that anti-Semitism has affected our Jewish identities in the US hasn’t been named as part of these trends and I believe that looking at what that system of oppression has done to our individual and collective psyche is important to study in order to understand why and how younger generations are seemingly disengaging from Jewish life.
I believe Sid’s statement “Israel bears more than a little responsibility for changing the way younger Jews started to think about their Jewish identity” is both absolutely true, and quite an understatement. To be more specific, I can tell that the way older generations regard Israel, talk and write about Israel, act on Israel’s behalf politically, and praise Israel blindly is not just blurring younger generations of covenantal Jews’ understandings of what Jewish life is about, but is actively turning them off from Jewish life altogether. I appreciated that this general point about Israel being a problem was the first point made, and I think it is actually the most divisive issue in our American Jewish community today and is the reason we are not seeing bigger and more creative innovation coming from the younger generations.
Considering the four propositions of chochmah, tzedek, kehillah, and kedusha I believe that my work as a community organizer addresses each one – in my opinion there is no way to build authentic Jewish life without them all. In my experience organizing progressive young adults at the Moishe Kavod House, through JOIN for Justice, for the Lefty Shabbaton, and with If Not Now, to name a few areas, beginning with a focus on kehillah, on building community, cultivating relationships, and developing a culture of interdependence, mutual support, and resilience is the foundation that leads to further text learning, justice-seeking, and holiness. The America we live in is shaped by the tradition of capitalism, which is based on isolation, independence, and competition. None of these characteristics are the building blocks of Jewish life – in fact, they are the opposite of what Jewish life and Jewish community are about. Too often, mainstream Jewish institutions try to make Jewish life simple and easy to tap into. In my experience as a young Jew and an organizer of young Jews, we can tell that the older generations are acting out their paranoia about Jewish continuity, and it turns us off completely.
The first and unfortunately most profound and basic step towards revitalizing Jewish life would be to build community from the ground up. Based on my experience and success in this area this means getting to know each person and recognizing each person’s unique offerings to the community, developing chesed systems for support and celebration, and remembering that our traditional rituals can be accessible and meaningful. Community comes together around action, around shared goals and work for justice (tzedek), around learning and exploration of our dynamic tradition (chochmah), and around meaning-making (kedushah). In my experience, community contexts that intentionally believe in the innate goodness, power, and intelligence of its members are where relationships get to flourish and deepen. In my opinion, this is where Jewish life has the potential to re-root.
Helen Bennett is currently working with the Ayni Institute, a training organization dedicated to creating and supporting local and national movements and communities with tools like escalation, mass training, decentralized organization, and systems of mutual aid. Helen is an alumna of the Adamah, Hadar, and JOIN Fellowships, has been a planning team member for Jewish Intentional Communities and Hazon Food Conferences, was an organizer for JOIN for Justice, is Rosh Organizer on the community board for the Moishe Kavod Jewish Social Justice House, and is a founder of the Lefty Shabbaton/Jewish Resilience Gathering.