My first question upon reading this interesting, well-written, and engaging chapter was: “Why?” Though I agree with a lot of what is laid out in this chapter (and also disagree with some), I feel that we need to take a step back before we can even begin the conversation around how to fix the problem of gen-X and millennial Jews being disengaged from Jewish life. Rabbi Schwarz, it is clear that you are passionate about this issue – after all, you wrote and published an entire book about it! But why do you care? Why should we all care? I’m not saying that I don’t care –clearly I do, or I wouldn’t be coming to the NPSCI Consultation. But gen-X and millennial Jews will want to know why we are trying to bring them back into the fold, and why they should allow themselves to be. And in order to really get at the root of this issue and discuss potential solutions, we need to have some clarity on why it’s important.
That said, I do think there is truth to a lot of what you have laid out in this chapter, and I see my own work in Seattle aligned with your propositions in various ways. Indeed, I see myself, as a millennial Jew, reflected in a lot of this chapter, and much of what you write resonates with me. I myself grew up in the kinds of Jewish institutions that are now crumbling and dying: I became a bat-mitzvah in a synagogue that no longer exists and studied at a Conservative Jewish Day School that later got taken over by an Orthodox group and is now an Orthodox school. I am extremely Jewishly engaged as a 28-year-old, yet I rarely set foot in a traditional synagogue and I never give to my local Jewish Federation (though that is more because my politics don’t align with the Federation’s than for any other reason).
Many of the Jews that I engage with in Seattle, in various capacities, are, as you wrote, seeking wisdom (chochmah), and many of them are finding it in the Jewish spaces that they choose to engage in. In my organizing work with Jewish Voice for Peace, we use Jewish values and traditional Jewish texts to frame our activism work to end Israel’s illegal occupation of Palestine. In your chapter, you write that the EPU Project had such a transformative impact on participants as they were able to “explore faith, politics, ethnic identity, and social responsibility in a religiously pluralistic setting.” I think another reason that this works so well is because young Jews appreciate being taken seriously as smart and independent thinkers. What happens when engaging young Jews in this way results – as it did in my own case – in them deeply questioning some of the things that are taken for granted by the Jews who are in power in the major (dying) institutions? To take my own example of Jewish Voice for Peace: How is mainstream Judaism being pushed by non-Zionist and anti-Zionist Jews? If we adopt this proposition, are we willing to stick with it even if it means that young Jews are coming to their own conclusions about Israel?
Of all the propositions that were laid out in this chapter, I found the second one – Social Justice (Tzedek) to be the most interesting and the most relevant to my own work. In fact, I myself have participated in, worked for, or otherwise been a part of many of the organizations that you list, including the New Israel Fund, the Jewish Fund for Justice and Progressive Jewish alliance, American Jewish World Service, and Avodah. I can confidently say that my participation in these organizations and in the Jewish social justice movement broadly played a huge role in inspiring my interest in Judaism and Jewish life as a young person. In Seattle in the past few years alone, I have organized Human Rights Shabbat with Truah; organized Radical Shabbat with an independent group here; participated in social justice book club discussions with a local Reconstructionist synagogue; I am one of the core organizers of our local chapter of Jewish Voice for Peace; and I have participated in a #BlackLivesMatter action with a group of queers and Jews that resulted in 11 of us getting arrested on MLK Day in 2015.
However, I also see my work as falling outside of this proposition – at least in the way it’s defined in this chapter – in many ways. For example, none of the organizations listed in the chapter are non- or anti-Zionist organizations and I do think that many young progressive or radical Jews feel that it’s important to begin unpacking the marriage of Judaism and Zionism. I fundamentally disagree with the sentiment that anti-Zionism equals anti-Semitism. I think for many young progressive/radical Jews, they cannot engage in Jewish social justice without engaging in Palestine liberation work and anti-Occupation work. I am extremely curious to engage in this discussion with others at the NPSCI Consultation, because regardless of our differing politics or views on Israel/Palestine, I think it is critical that we talk about how Jewish institutions – both new paradigm and old – are making space for young Jews with non- and anti-Zionist politics. I think the Open Hillel movement has done a lot to highlight the damaging policies of Hillel International when it comes to this issue.
I look forward to discussing the other ways in which my work is aligned from and diverts from the propositions outlined in this chapter. I also look forward to engaging in dialogue, brainstorming, and learning with the other creative and dedicated leaders who are convening for the NPSCI Consultation! I am excited to explore the ways in which we can all push each other to think bigger and more creatively about the issues that are outlined in the beginning of the chapter, and to meaningfully engage in the question: Why does it all matter?
Mariel (Michal) Boyarsky has lived in and contributed to vibrant Jewish communities in New York, New Orleans, Tel Aviv, and Seattle. She was one of the co-founders of Selah, Seattle’s indie minyan, and she is a partner and regular Torah reader at the Kavana Cooperative in Seattle. Michal is passionate about Jewish ritual and community, and believes in the power of organized Jewish communities to contribute to local, national, and global struggles for justice.